Op-Ed, 646 words

They Say They Want a Revolution

Right-wing extremists are on the rise.

Mark Potok

Egged on by cheers and interrupted by standing ovations, one-time GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin told the first National Tea Party Convention in Nashville that President Obama’s spending was “immoral” and amounted to “theft.” She said America needed politicians “to proclaim their alliance to our Creator.” She opined that the Democrats were “running out of time.”

And then she got to the punch-line: “America is ready for another revolution.”

Presumably, Palin was speaking in metaphors, as she apparently did when she accused the president of trying to set up “death panels” to decide which Americans will live and which will die. But it’s hard to say. More than a few tea partiers and attendees of town halls on health care have paraphrased Thomas Jefferson, saying the “tree of liberty” again needs “watering” with “the blood of tyrants.”

Palin’s provocative comments came as a new Rasmussen Reports poll showed that 75 percent of likely American voters were “angry” or “very angry” at the policies of the federal government, up from 66 percent in September. The poll also found that 88 percent of “mainstream voters” were angry, but 84 percent of the “political class” was not–another indication at how leaders are widely seen as completely out of touch. Joe Stack’s deadly airborne attack on an IRS building in Austin serves as a clear example of how deadly that fury can be.

The numbers are harrowing, and hearken back to the period around the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, when the antigovernment “Patriot” movement was at its hottest. A few days after that attack left 168 men, women, and children dead, a USA Today poll found that fully 39 percent of Americans agreed with the proposition that the federal government was “so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.”

A new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll asked precisely the same question and found that 56 percent of Americans now agree with that statement–a simply astonishing measure of how angry and suspicious we have become.

The Oklahoma City attack was the culmination of political anger against the government that had been building for years over issues such as gun control, environmental regulation, the outsourcing of jobs, and the purported crushing of dissent. Today, the fury is building again, this time over bailouts of banks and the auto industry, health insurance, the economy, government spending, and the country’s changing demographics.

And that anger has fueled a pervasive rage on the right–a rage reflected, as the Southern Poverty Law Center just reported, in the dramatic growth of radical groups. Hate groups last year remained at record levels, despite the collapse of a major neo-Nazi group. Anti-immigrant vigilante groups soared by nearly 80 percent. And, most dramatically, militias and the larger “Patriot” movement came roaring back, with 363 new militias and related groups appearing in 2009 for a dizzying 244 percent increase.

These three strands of the radical right–hatemongers, nativist extremist groups, and so-called “Patriot” organizations–are the most volatile elements on the American political landscape. Taken together, their numbers increased by more than 40 percent, rising from 1,248 groups in 2008 to 1,753 last year.

It’s perfectly obvious that many Americans are unhappy with the way the government is operating these days. And it’s equally obvious that our country faces a daunting array of serious problems and challenges. But the way forward isn’t to deal with the kinds of vicious attacks, conspiracy theorizing and downright racism–not to mention talk of “revolution”–that we see coming from the radical right. That kind of talk merely ensures that none of these problems will be seriously addressed.

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Mark Potok is director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which monitors extremist activity across the United States. Rage on the Right, the organization’s new report on the growth of extremist groups can be read at www.splcenter.org.