Repression and Ideology:
The Legacy of Discredited Centrist/Extremist Theory
How a Discredited Social Science Model Fuels Efforts to Expand Government Surveillance, Infiltration, & Disruption
How Police Justify Labelling Dissenters, Demonstrators, and Ordinary Americans as "Terrorists"
by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons
Two social science models used by the U.S. government--"countersubversion theory" and "centrist/extremist theory"--wrongly assume there is criminal intent and activity behind all mass movements that are critical of the government.1
Centrist/extremist theory (sometimes called Classical Theory" or the "Pluralist School), lumps together dissidents, populists of the left and right, supremacists and terrorists as an irrational lunatic fringe.
The image of a democratic elite guarding the vital center against irrational populists has appealed strongly to many defenders of the status quo, but as a reading of US political traditions it is strikingly twisted and inconsistent.
Centrist/extremist theory denies the structural oppression at the core of US society; it obscures this country's long history of brutality and genocide; it lumps popular movements that fight oppression and supremacy with those that reinforce it.
[This article originally appeared in Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Law Report
Vol. 5, Nos. 13-14, Jan-Feb., and March-April 1998. Copyright 1998, the West Group.]
Litigators representing defendants accused of politically-motivated crimes need to be aware of a growing body of social science literature that challenges the two main analytical models used by the government to routinely argue that militant dissidents are marginal and maladjusted persons with a natural proclivity for criminal behavior.
This goes beyond mere intellectual curiosity since government attempts to introduce broad evidence regarding intent and motive can be challenged with greater authority when a defendant's litigator is aware of the flawed nature of these analytical models. Both of the models used by the government, which we are calling "countersubversion theory" and "centrist/extremist theory," wrongly assume there is criminal intent and activity behind all mass movements that are critical of the government. 1
That government officials still rely on the flawed analytical models is evidenced by the attempt by federal prosecutors to claim that anti-government views expressed by Terry Nichols showed his intent to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City.
In the first part of this article, we will look at the history and themes of Countersubversion theory and Centrist/extremist theory, and then review criticisms of these theories. In part two of this article, we review how the flawed analytical models used by the government help justify abuses of civil rights and civil liberties.