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Challenging Centrist/Extremist Theory

Populist Conspiracism


Conspiracist Scapegoating and Right-Wing Populism

An effective mechanism for inflaming conspiracist scapegoating throughout US history has been apocalyptic forms of right-wing populism, especially when coupled with millennial expectation.134 This dynamic has been obscured because right-wing populism was branded by early academic studies as an "extremist" phenomena among a "lunatic fringe" of the "radical right" embracing a "paranoid style." This idea is a legacy from the first foray into establishing a broad social science outline for studying right wing populism--the pluralist school of analysis which saw right-wing social movements as outbursts of irrational collective behavior fueled by status anxiety. This view is called by critics "centrist/extremist theory."135

Challenging Centrist/Extremist Theory

Centrist/extremist theory arrived with the 1955 publication of a collection of essays titled The New American Right edited by Daniel Bell. Eight years later the collection was expanded and republished under the title, The Radical Right. Contributors to the expanded volume included Bell, Alan F. Westin, Richard Hofstadter, Seymour Martin Lipset, Earl Raab, Peter Viereck, Herbert H. Hyman, Talcott Parsons, David Riesman, and Nathan Glazer. Not all of the authors shared all of the analytical views outlined in the volume, but since 1955 a number of books appeared that either elaborated on or paralleled the general themes of centrist/extremist theory first sketched in The New American Right.136

Centrist/extremist theory, especially as outlined by Lipset, Raab, Viereck, and Bell, sees dissident movements of the left and right as composed of outsiders--politically marginal people who have no connection to the mainstream electoral system or nodes of government or corporate power. Social and economic stress snaps these psychologically-fragile people into a mode of irrational political hysteria, and as they embrace an increasingly paranoid style they make militant and unreasonable demands to defend their social and economic status. 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 civil democratic debates. The solution prescribed by centrist/extremist theory is to marginalize the dissidents as radicals and dangerous religious political extremists. Their grievances and demands need not be taken seriously. Furthermore, law enforcement can then be relied upon to break up any criminal conspiracies by subversive radicals who threaten the social order.

Centrist/extremist theory ignores real power struggles in the society. It is a status-quo oriented frame of reference that too often dismisses dissidents of all stripes. It stifles a healthy public debate over how to unravel systems of oppression, allows individuals to ignore their own complicity in oppressive behavior, and obscures the supremacist forces woven into our society's central institutions.

An increasing number of progressive social scientists and analysts reject centrist/extremist theory and use a different set of theories to explain how social movements work. 137 As Christian Smith observes:

"The 1970s saw a major break in the social-movement literature with earlier theories--e.g., mass society, collective behavior, status discontent, and relative-deprivation theories--that emphasized the irrational and emotional nature of social movements.....There was at the time a decisive pendulum-swing away from these "classical" theories toward the view of social movements as rational, strategically calculating, politically instrumental phenomena."138

Using these new theories, a different paradigm emerges. According to this new paradigm, most people who join right-wing populist movements are not acting out of some personal pathology, but out of anger and desperation They are demonstrating a willingness to grasp at straws in an attempt to defend hearth and home against the furious winds of economic and social change threatening their way of life. They may feel abandoned, or claim that no one in power seems to be listening. They come to believe that no one cares except others in the same predicament. Their anger and fear are frequently based on objective conditions and conflicts--power struggles involving race, gender, ethnicity, or religion; economic hardship; changes in social status; conflicts over cultural issues; and other societal transformations that cause anger, confusion, and anxiety. Whether or not their grievances are legitimate (or even rational) they join with others to confront what they believe is the cause of their problems. Often, instead of challenging structures and institutions of power, they attack demonized scapegoats, often in the form of conspiracist allegations. Sometimes they resort to violence.

If this characterization of right-wing populism is accurate, then activists developing strategies and tactics to challenge these movements need to rethink the ideas and rhetoric based on the centrist/extremist model that favors labels such as "radical right," "wing nuts," "lunatic fringe," or "religious political extremists."139 Racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism--along with other forms of supremacist ideology--are not the exclusive domain of marginal and militant groups, but are domiciled in mainstream US culture and politics.

Populist Conspiracism

When conspiracism is blended with populism, the result is frequently a worldview called "producerism." Producerist movements consider the "real" patriotic Americans to be hard-working people in the middle- and working-class who create goods and wealth while fighting against "parasites" at the top and bottom of society who pick their pockets. 140

Gary Allen provides an example of producerism in his 1971 None Dare Call it Conspiracy, which included a graphic chart showing the middle-class being squeezed between the ruling elite "insiders" above, pressured by the Rothschilds, Rockefellers, and Council on Foreign Relations, and the rabble below, pressured by "naive radicals" of the left, such as SDS, the Black Panthers, the Yippies, the Young Socialist Alliance, and Common Cause.141 In 1974 Allen updated the scenario in Rockefeller: Campaigning for the New World Order, articulating the anti-globalist theme of much current conspiracism in the Patriot and armed militia movements.142 Allen's work is championed by the John Birch Society.

Producerism not only promotes scapegoating, but also has a history of assuming that a proper citizen is a White male. Historically, groups scapegoated by right-wing populist movements in the US have been immigrants and people of color, especially Blacks. Attention is diverted from inherent white supremacism by using coded language to reframe racism as a concern about specific issues, such as welfare, immigration, tax, or education policies.143 Non-Christian religions, women, gay men and lesbians, youth, students, reproductive rights activists, and environmentalists also are scapegoated.144 Sometimes producerism targets those persons who organize on behalf of impoverished and marginalized communities, especially progressive social change activists.145

The nativist and Americanist movements emerged as a way to promote a broad Christian nationalism, and a way to enforce implicitly white supremacist northern European cultural standards among increasingly diverse immigrant groups.146 Producerism played a key role in a shift from the main early mode of right-wing populist conspiracism which defended the status quo against a mob of "outsiders," originally framed as a conspiracy of Freemasons or Jews or aliens. Today, right-wing populist conspiracism targets the government and other "insiders." According to Michael Billig:

"With the replacement of the old aristocratic orders in Europe and the increasing participation of the middle classes in political life, there came a change in the themes of the conspiracy mythology. In the United States the change accompanied the threats to the hegemony of the old white Anglo-Saxon Protestant group, posed by waves of new immigrants in the middle of the nineteenth century. The conspiracy theory ceased to defend government against conspirators, but located the conspiracy within government, or more often behind government."147

Two organizations representing the nativist tradition--the John Birch Society and the Liberty Lobby--played a significant role in promoting producerism and helping it transform into populist anti-government conspiracist themes during the 1960s and 1970s.148

The John Birch Society (JBS) maintains that internationalist "insiders" with a collectivist agenda, (claimed to be behind both communism and Wall Street capitalism), are engaged in a coordinated drive to destroy national sovereignty and individualism. JBS members are primarily elitist, ultraconservative, and reformist. Its conspiracist theories do not center on scapegoating Jews and Jewish institutions, nor do they center on biological racism. In a more subtle form of racism and anti-Semitism, JBS promotes a culturally-defined WASP ethnocentrism as the true expression of America. Echoing historic producerist themes, implicit racism and anti-Semitism are intrinsic to the group's ideology, but they are not articulated as principles of unity. JBS conspiracist narrative traces back to Robison's book alleging a Illuminati Freemason conspiracy. The Society's roots are in business nationalism, economic libertarianism, anti-communism, Eurocentrism, and Christian fundamentalism.149

The Liberty Lobby's conspiracist narrative is that the secret elites are Jews (descended from non-European bloodlines) who manipulate Blacks and other people of color to destroy national unity and popular will, which derives its strength from a racially-separate organic tribalism. The Lobby is primarily populist, fascist, and insurgent. It promotes conspiracist theories that center on scapegoating Jews and Jewish institutions, and on biological racism as the basis for white supremacist xenophobia. However, through the use of coded rhetoric, and appeals to racial separatism that extol Black nationalist groups, the group attempts, with some success, to mask its core racism and anti-Semitism. The Liberty Lobby relies on historic anti-Semitic conspiracist sources that trace back to the Protocols and its many progeny. Its roots are in isolationism, small business resentment of large corporate interests, and eugenicist White racial nationalism.

The JBS and Liberty Lobby both use populist rhetoric, but JBS members distrust the idea of the sovereignty of the people, and stress that the United States is a republic not a democracy, which they dismiss as a "mobocracy." This explains how the JBS can criticize the alleged secret elites, yet retain an elitist point of view; they want to replace the "bad" elites with the "good" elites--presumably their allies. Both groups use conspiracist scapegoating, a common feature of right-wing populism. Starting in the 1970s, other branches of right-wing populist conspiracism began to grow, in the Christian Right, the Christian Identity religion, the Lyndon LaRouche network, and in both secular and religious forms of survivalism.

Populism can come from the bottom up, but it also can be deployed from the top down--used to attack the status quo by outsider business factions seeking to displace entrenched power structures. These outsider factions use populist rhetoric and conspiracist, anti-elite scapegoating to attract constituencies in the middle class and working class. As right-wing populist movements grow, they can lure mainstream politicians to adopt scapegoating, in order to attract voters. Their theories can legitimize acts of discrimination, or even violence. And reformist populist movements can open the door for insurgent right-wing movements such as fascism to recruit from their own movements by arguing that more drastic action is needed.150 Fascism itself is a distinctive form of conspiracist right-wing populism. Fascist groups are not likely to seize state power in the US (or in most countries), but can seriously damage attempts to extend democracy and equality as they encourage scapegoating and conspiracism in adaptive and creative ways while engaging in recruitment and ideological training.15

Because right-wing conspiracism so often rests on an anti-elite critique, it has been known to fool gullible leftists.152 Various Green Party activists have had to struggle against conspiracism, including the anti-Semitic variant, among members and even a handful of leaders.153 Populist conspiracism also has found a home in certain Black nationalist and Arab anti-imperialist groups.154 Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi has actually tried to unite left and right groups that oppose the US government at meetings in Tripoli, Libya.15

We must be careful to draw a distinction between critiques that extend economic and social justice, and those that claim economic privilege for middle-class consumers at the expense of social justice. Anti-regime criticism is rampant in the conspiracist right.156 There is a need to educate and thus inoculate large sectors of the white middle class and working class against the dead end of right-wing populism with its penchant for scapegoating. If we tolerate the paradigm of conspiracist scapegoating by right-wing economic populists simply because it appears to advance a short-term anti-corporate or anti-government agenda, we are creating a dangerous alliance with people whose long-term vision--wittingly or unwittingly--promotes racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic outcomes.157 We will be throwing our long-term allies overboard and helping sink the ship of state, when we should be plotting a new course on a sturdy vessel we all help to rebuild.

This is especially true given the current period of apocalyptic anxiety and millennial energy, which infuses the Christian right, populist right, and far right.

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