The Radical Center and the Outer Limits
Usually caricatured by stereotypes of bed-sheeted Klansmen and goose-stepping neo-Nazis, the racist right continually flashes across the political landscape as disconnected scenes illuminated by lighting flashes of intolerance, hatred and violence. The Oklahoma City bombing took the nation by surprise, but the lead up to it had been playing in the media for nearly a year as a circus of marginal eccentrics playing soldier in the woods in cammo underwear. Then suddenly this amusing circus of nut jobs spawned the largest terrorist mass murder in American history. Pat Buchannan's presidential campaign seemed like a minor sideshow of marginal eccentrics and racial nationalists until it collapsed in splinters by nominating a black woman for vice president. The resulting upheaval tossed a sizable chunk of the electorate back into the Republican camp and solidified a Republican majority to elect George W. Bush to the presidency.
These are only two of the political shocks delivered by the racist right in the last fifty years. They seem to be always capable of springing new surprises.
If you want to understand this important sector of the American political landscape, you will get satisfaction from the recent release of Leonard Zeskind's book, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream. Lenny spent 15 years working on a history of the extreme racist right in America. Among political researchers, this book has been eagerly anticipated for a long time. I went down to Seattle a couple of weeks ago to see Leonard Zeskind present his newly published book at a kickoff party for the new Seattle office of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.
IREHR was founded by Zeskind to combat the worst excesses of racial extremism. It works by a combination of research, education, advocacy and organizing. It is one of the premier models for analytic research as the driving engine for effective social change. The research effort does not sit around reading books in libraries. They get much of their knowledge by getting right into the mix at the field level. This includes attending extremist gatherings and conventions to see what is happening at first hand.
The network of pro-democracy researchers who were way out in front of the wave of domestic terrorism in the 1990s depended heavily on Zeskind's earlier work in establishing several research organizations throughout the country. Zeskind's pioneering work in this area was recognized by the award of a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called "genius grants."
The research network in the 1990s was very small, growing from about a dozen in early 1994 and numbering less than two hundred people at the peak. I was lucky to be able to play a small role in that network and got to know and respect Lenny and many of the other key players. The research meetings were sometimes knock down, drag out affairs, because we knew we were playing for high stakes. Three meetings in Bellingham, Issaquah and Portland in 1994-5 brought together the best minds to confront that problem.
The Issaquah meeting in January 1995, anticipated the Oklahoma City bombing and made efforts to head off the rising violence during that period. The majority of the information about the militia movement made public in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing came through that small research network and its efforts over the preceding 18 months. It was during the late 1990s that we began hearing about Lenny working on a comprehensive history based on his original and extensive research.
Zeskind's analytic framework in Blood and Politics contrasts the parts played by Willis Carto, founder of the Liberty Lobby and publisher of The Spotlight, with William Pierce, founder of the National Vanguard and author of The Turner Diaries and Hunter. The Diaries were played out in real life by Robert Mathews and The Order, while Hunter inspired Timothy McVeigh and other "lone wolf" terrorists.
In a nutshell, Carto was a "mainstreamer" who wanted to influence the political establishment and Pierce was a revolutionary who wanted to violently destroy American civil society. Both were unreconstructed fascists, holocaust deniers and disciples of Adolf Hitler. This mainstream/revolutionary framework is very useful in understanding some of what has been going on over the last fifty years.
Because of his sharp focus on these two aspects in particular, Zeskind doesn't deal with the entire American racist right, much less the American right as a whole. The extremist convergence in the 1990s that produced the militias and anti-abortion terrorism involved other movements that neither Carto nor Pierce were directly involved with, so this is a weak spot in the book. It may be partly due to Lenny's deference to his good friend and long-time colleague, Daniel Levitas. Danny wrote the definitive history on the evolution of the Christian Patriots (aka Posse Comitatus and "militia movement"): The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right.
But the mainstream/revolutionary axis of white nationalism has never before been explained in such detail. The level of inside information and the precision of the chronology makes Blood and Politics both a gripping read and an immensely valuable tool for understanding a lot of the events on the extreme right in the last half century. It is comprehensive and minutely detailed. If you've ever wondered what was up with The Spotlight newspaper, skinhead rock, Jack Metcalf's participation in extremist politics, the presence of neo-nazis in Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign or a host of other puzzling details, Blood and Politics lays it down and spells it out.
If, like most people, you heard about this in a vague and second-hand way, this book will shake you up.
I'm currently re-reading Donald Warren's The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation. It's a sociological study done in the mid-1970s and deals with the ideology of reactionary individualism. I'll be having more to say about this in the future. About fifteen years ago, I read The Radical Center on the recommendation of Devin Burghart, one of Lenny's colleagues who lived in Bellingham for a few years. The Radical Center was used by Sam Francis and others associated with American Renaissance to map out a strategy of white nationalism in the 1990s.
The central thesis of The Radical Center is there is a sizable chunk of white middle America that is intensely alienated from most institutions and political parties. These are the people who backed George Wallace, formed the core of the Goldwater movement, provided a lot of the troops for Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul when those demagogues tried to carve off the right wing of the Republican Party. They also formed the core of the "property rights" movement in the 1990s and continue to play a large role in Second Amendment politics, anti-immigrant agitation and extremist tax protests. Most recently, they have adopted a new political guise as the Tea Party.
Warren's book perceptively argues that much of the framework for evaluating middle-class reaction is mistaken and that one has to comprehend the ideology and culture in order to understand the rejection of institutions in favor of individualism by that portion of America. All too often, what passes for political research is just name-calling. It's a practice that doesn't enlighten anybody, nor lead to effective means of confronting social and political conflicts. Warren is perceptive, sympathetic and critical of the group he call Middle American Radicals. The studies that form the basis of the book were done in the middle 1970's, but found a deep vein of social unrest that continues to be very influential in contemporary American politics.
Lenny's book traces many of the memes again floating to the surface with the Tea Party to an effort by the Carto faction to "mainstream" racial nationalism. Very few of the people who embrace these views today understand how the underlying ideas were produced and transmitted. In the the section of Blood and Politics dealing with the Middle American Radical thesis, Zeskind details how Donald Warren's work was adapted by the Carto faction to generate a new strategy of mainstreaming white nationalism by rejecting the traditional emphasis on crude race-baiting and anti-Semitism.
This strategy of specifically targeting the radical center has successfully percolated through the American political scene. It is the initial impetus for the emerging debate on what it means to be an American. At the core, it is an attempt to fracture America along racial/cultural lines. The current furor among the "birthers," immigration reactionaries, and people who seek the repeal of the 14th Amendment is the slightly cleaned up work product of hard core racialists.
I'm reasonably certain a lot of people orbiting around the Tea Party would reject many of these notions if they were presented in their original form and context. But as the rough edges get smoothed off of the ideology, what was originally the propaganda of racial extremists can look like a critique of political society that explains some of the tensions and dissatisfactions that beset the right wing of American politics.
Blood and Politics follows the political careers of two right-wing racial radicals through the entire arc of their lives. Both Carto and Pierce are now dead. The portion of the political margins these two men shaped during their lifetimes will now take on a different aspect as new leadership emerges in the future to fill the vacuum left by their presence. Knowing where they are going depends very much on understanding where they have been.
For anyone interested in the deep currents that shaped this uncivil sector of American politics, I can't recommend Lenny's book too highly. It's an attention grabbing, keep-you-up-at-night political thriller.