XI: Dualist Receivers
So far, when talking about the "receivers" who compose the audience of the various "transmitters" of extremist memes into the mainstream, I've mainly focused on the mainstream Republicans who make up the mass of the conservative movement in America.
But as I've explained, these "transmissions" are two-way affairs, sending messages to both the mainstream and the extremists from whose worldview the memes are drawn: namely, that their formerly unacceptable beliefs are gaining acceptance. It essentially invites them to move into the mainstream without having to change their views.
And so for the past decade and more -- and particularly in the past three years -- mainstream conservatism has increasingly become home to a variety of right-wing extremists. Conservatives uniformly reject this reality, arguing that their party is not home to a bunch of wild-eyed lunatics; it's the home of tax-paying, churchgoing, job-holding, productive members of society.
One of the real problems with coming to grips with the right-wing extremists, in fact, is the public image that has grown up around them for the past half-century, but driven home in the militiaman stereotype of the 1990s: A half-educated, beer-swilling, Bible-thumping, child-beating, dentistry-challenged, gun-loving lunatic with both eyes rattling around in his head and a steady stream of hate foaming out of his mouth. Not to mention all those visions of black helicopters dancing in his head.
I have attended a lot of militia and Patriot meetings over the years, and this wasn't what I found at all. In my experience, the average militia member is a person who very much keeps all the appearances of being a mainstream player in society (as contrasted with, say, the skinheads and neo-Nazis, who more closely fit the description). Most of them are reasonably well educated. A large number of them are veterans. Most of the rest are agrarian or blue-collar workers with families. They all pay their taxes (unless they've been drawn in deeply by one of the tax-protest schemes) and vote and attend church.
The false stereotype is built on a sociological approach to these groups, called "centrist/extremist theory," developed in the 1950s that actually is now largely discredited among sociologists. This theory basically held that these "fringe" groups represented a constituency of largely uneducated classes who were grossly disenfranchised due to this fact, thus leading to their radicalism; their status also ensured that they would remain outside the realm of the mainstream. Well, subsequent data collected through the 1970s and 1980s began to demonstrate the weakness of this model; contrary to its prediction, surveys of "Christian Patriots" found that on average they were better educated than the population at large, and many of these groups' members actually prove to be highly educated and some of better-than-average means. Take, for instance, the saga of Carl Story and Vince Bertollini, who made millions in the Silicon Valley, moved to Sandpoint and promptly began underwriting the Aryan Nations and other Identity churches in the area. Of course, right now, Bertollini is on the lam and Story has moved away.
Sociology in the meantime has moved on to a broader consideration of the problem, often summarily described as "post-classical theory" and including such models as the "new social movements theory," all of which recognize that there can be considerable interaction between these groups and the mainstream, and that many of their followers are in fact as mainstream-based as can be. And this is borne out largely by what we've seen in terms of the Patriot movement's spread via mainstream channels.
It is important to note that it is erroneous to conclude that since there are often shared themes on the right that all right-wing groups work together. It is not fair to presume that all conservatives are on a slippery slope toward reaction, nor that all reactionaries are inevitably borne on a transmission belt toward fascism. Migrations do occur, but they occur in both directions, just as on the left.
At the same time, however, it is equally undeniable that these kinds of associations forever alter the nature of the political body in question. The Republicans' Southern Strategy, by aiming to draw white segregationists into the GOP fold, ineluctably transformed the party to the point that calling it the "party of Lincoln" now, particularly in the South, is liable to draw hoots. The associations work both ways, of course; extremists are just as likely to have their anger defused and their extremism tempered by their exposure to mainstream influences. But the overall gravitational pull rightward by the extremist elements has become increasingly disproportionate in recent years.
The problem is that Americans -- and the media particularly -- have a view of these so-called "fringe" elements as being on the outskirts of society, when in reality they have become wholly interwoven with the rest of this. Much of the blame belongs to "centrist/extremist theory," which gained such prominence in the media in the 1960s that it has never been displaced from the popular understanding of political extremism. C/E theory was an offshoot of the chief sociological model of the '40s and '50s, "Collective Behavior Theory," which stressed irrational dimensions of movements and often saw them as potentially dangerous, temporary aberrations in the otherwise smooth-flowing social system.
Let me recommend a resource for more on this point: Public Research Associates' page on "Studying the Right: A Scholarly Approach," which has a large amount of material on C/E Theory. Chip Berlet, the author, sums it up thus:
- Under centrist/extremist theory, dissident movements of the left and right were portrayed as composed of outsiders -- politically marginal people who have no connection to the mainstream electoral system or nodes of government or corporate power. Their anxiety is heightened by fears that their economic or social status is slipping. Under great stress, these psychologically fragile people snap into a mode of irrational political hysteria, and as they embrace an increasingly paranoid style they make militant and unreasonable demands. Because they are unstable they can become dangerous and violent. Their extremism places them far outside the legitimate political process, which is located in the center where "pluralists" conduct democratic debates.
The solution prescribed by centrist/extremist theory is to marginalize the dissidents as radicals and dangerous extremists. Their demands need not be taken seriously. Law enforcement can then be relied upon to break up any criminal conspiracies by subversive radicals that threaten the social order.
You can read through the rest of the above piece to see why and how centrist/extremist theory has become discredited. But the coup de grace may have been delivered by a study that was important to my own work, James Aho's 1991 text, The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism. ("Christian Patriots" is what the movement called itself in the 1980s and then morphed into the more secular and simple "Patriot movement" by the early 1990s.) Aho, who conducted a complete study with a full statistical sample, found that while a number of Patriots indeed fit the profile predicted by centrist/extremist theory, the majority did not. He found that they were often well educated (their average education was above the average American's), held regular jobs (though they did experience a higher degree of occupational isolation), and appeared "normal" by most measures:
- Idaho's patriots in general do not seem more socially alienated from their communities than cross-sections of Americans or Idahoans. ... Out of the seven alienation variables on which information was gathered, statistical support for the theory of mass politics [another term for C/E theory] is found for only one.
The false stereotypes -- beloved among folks on the left for their value in lampooning right-wingers, and equally cherished on the right by conservatives loath to admit the extremists' influence -- have obscured the extent to which right-wing extremists have woven themselves into the fabric of mainstream conservatism. It's an illusion that has especially manifested itself in rural America, where the extremists' actual numbers are hardly overwhelming, but the number of people who sympathize with them is. I would hate to have counted how many times I (and others who work the field) have heard neighbors, friends and relatives of Patriots say: "Well, I don't buy everything they say, but I think some of it might be true, and I certainly can understand why they'd feel that way" (or some variant thereon). In fact, it's rare when you can find a rural dweller out here who doesn't say something like that.
A deeper examination of the individual psychology of the kind of people who are drawn to extremist movements helps explain further how extremist believers intermingle with those in the larger mainstream. There have been many studies along these lines, but the one that seemed to most accurately describe the people I met in the Patriot movement could be found in the essay "Religious Totalism, Violence and Exemplary Dualism: Beyond the Extrinsic Model," by Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins (both sociologists; Anthony is from Berkeley and Robbins from Yale).
In this analysis, the Patriot movement and its millennialist relatives are described as "exemplary dualist movements," a direct product of the current larger social malaise:
- It has been a staple of recent American cultural analysis and criticism that the contemporary United States increasingly lacks a consensual and compelling social ethic and that in consequence, the 'covenant' uniting the American people has become, in Robert Bellah's words, an 'empty and broken shell.' One consequence of the lack of an integrative ethic, we have intimated above, is a diminished capacity of parents -- who are themselves wrestling with the fragmented selves that result from the lack of an integrated ethic -- to serve as persuasive role-models or identification figures for their children, and thereby to transmit a coherent set of values. In this context parents may tend to treat their children as 'self-objects' in the sense of evaluating them in terms of tangible, purely external criteria such as their apparent social-academic-vocational 'success' or competence. This pattern enhances the anxiety over the themes of success, competence and power on the part of children, who are more likely to develop a fragmented or polarized self composed of a grandiose, all-powerful or omnipotent self which is split off from a devalued, pathetic, failed self.
Social movements with distinctly dualistic worldviews provide psycho-ideological contexts which facilitate attempts to heal the split self by projecting negativity and devalued self-elements onto ideologically devalued contrast symbols. But there is another possible linkage between these kinds of movements and individuals with split selves in the throes of identity confusion. People with the whole range of personality disorders, which utilize splitting and projective identification, tend to have difficulties in establishing stable, intimate relationships. Splitting tends to produce volatile and unstable relationships as candidates for intimacy are alternately idealized and degraded. Thus, narcissists tend to have vocational, and more particularly, interpersonal difficulties as they obsessively focus upon status-reinforcing rewards in interpersonal relations. They have difficulty developing social bonds grounded in empathy and mutuality, and their structure of interpersonal relations tends to be unstable. Thus, individuals may be tempted to enter communal and quasi-communal social movements which combine a more structured setting for interpersonal relations with a dualistic interpersonal theme of 'triangulation' which embodies the motif of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' Such movements create a sense of mutuality by focusing attention on specific contrast groups and their values, goals and lifestyles so that this shared repudiation seems to unite the participants and provide a meaningful 'boundary' to operationalize the identity of the group. Solidarity within the group and the convert's sense of dedication and sacrifice on behalf of group goals may enable him or her to repudiate the dissociated negative (bad, weak or failed) self and the related selfish and exploitative self which they may be aware that others might have perceived. These devalued selves can then be projected on to either scapegoats designated by the group or, more generally, non-believers whose values and behavior allegedly do not attain the exemplary purity and authenticity of that of devotees.
In my experience, this quite accurately describes the dynamic of how and why people are attracted to such hateful beliefs as those held by right-wing extremists, as well as their pale reflections -- filtered, as it were, through transmitters -- advocated by such receiver types as the Freepers. It also clearly describes the meeting-ground for extremist and mainstream in the black-and-white, Manichean dualism common to all kinds of worldviews; it has always been pronounced both among right-wing extremists and the theocratic right, but of late it has become a staple of mainstream conservatives as well.
Most of all, the suggestion that the movement’s primary converts will be essentially dysfunctional people is not much cause for optimism, either, for as they note at the end, this kind of susceptibility to authoritarianism obviously increases during such periods of social chaos as we have had since Sept. 11:
- We do not necessarily view the members of exemplary dualist groups as mentally ill or deeply disturbed relative to average levels of developmental maturity in the general population. We do believe that such groups appeal to individuals with certain identity constructions and difficulties. Nevertheless some degree of splitting, projective identification and polarized identity may be 'normal' for most people in mainstream culture.
People with completely holistic selves with an integrated ethical orientation rather than split-off negative external conscience may be relatively unusual, particularly in periods when general meaning orientations in the culture as a whole have declined in coherence and plausibility. ... When mainstream cultural coherence declines, and anomie and identity confusion become more common, active seeking for exemplary dualist involvements is one possible solution to immediate psychic pain.
Indeed, as we will see, this could very well explain why the right is becoming increasingly intolerant of liberalism: It is the one remaining component of society that has so far failed to join up with the dualist worldview being promoted not merely by transmitters like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, but by the Bush administration itself.
More importantly, it makes clear that the chief driving force against liberalism in America is precisely in the chief meeting-ground of right-wing dualism: fundamentalist Christianity.
Next: Divine Transmissions