Challenging Centrist Extremist Theory
By Chip Berlet
The first foray into establishing a broad social science outline for
studying the political right was centrist/extremist theory which 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 pluralist/extremist theory first sketched
in The New American Right.
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 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 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.
Centrist/extremist theory ignores real power struggles in the society.
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. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and antisemitism-along with
other forms of supremacist ideology-are not the exclusive domain of marginal
and militant organized hate groups, but are domiciled in mainstream culture
and politics. Matthew N. Lyons puts it this way:
"While right wing populist movements in the US have
attracted great attention in recent years, they have been widely misunderstood.
Many liberal and centrist critics portray these movements as an irrational
fringe phenomenon at odds with the democratic mainstream of U. S. politics,
and look to the government to crack down on them. This viewpoint hides
the oppression and inequality at the core of U. S. society, the links
between many right-wing movements and economic/political elites, the
complex mix of legitimate and illegitimate grievances underlying right-wing "paranoia," and
the danger of increasing state repression."
"Liberal and conservative writers have used labels such as "extremist," "paranoid," "lunatic," and "radical
right" to highlight this division, and often suggest an underlying
affinity between the right and a radical (or "paranoid") left.
This centrist/extremist doctrine, as we will call it, hides the
fact that the "democratic" status quo in the US is built on
systems of inequality and oppression, and that right wing bigotry and
scapegoating are an integral part of this order."
Sara Diamond is critical of centrist/extremist theory for erroneously
labeling the intra-elite power struggle during the McCarthy period as
populist, and then labeling as "extremist" the electoral right-wing
social movements that emerged after the McCarthy period:
"Popular right-wing groups like the John Birch Society
emerged only in the late 1950s, well after political elites had turned
the pursuit of "communist subversion" into a national religion.
By then, polite society was keen to depict wild-eyed Birchers as "extremists," even
as they played by democratic rules and helped win the  Republican
[presidential] nomination for Barry Goldwater."
Demographic and attitudinal studies of Birch Society members and Goldwater
supporters showed they were not marginal misfits but had above average
education and income and were over-represented with professionals such
as doctors and lawyers. Himmelstein argued that right wing organizing
drives "were not episodic eruptions of mindless anger and pain.
They were part of the sustained growth of a continuous social movement
with a clear, systematic ideology that led ultimately to the New Right
and the New Religious Right."
James A. Aho points out how easy it is "to dismiss racism and
religious bigotry as products of craziness or stupidity," but that
such a view is not accurate. According to Aho," Evidence from field
research on Pacific Northwest racists and bigots shows that in the main
they are indistinguishable from their more conventional peers, intellectually
and educationally." Aho also observes that with the exception of
those who engaged in politically-motivated murders, the racists and bigots
he studied "appear within the bounds of normal, psychologically."
The centrist/extremist approach to the racist Right has not "abolished
the movement, nor diminished racism in general, and may, in fact, unwittingly
support racist beliefs," suggests Abby L. Ferber." While the
focus is on the fringe, mainstream, everyday racism remains unexamined." Ferber
argues that a discussion is needed on the "points of similarity
between white supremacist discourse and mainstream discourse," especially
since "White supremacist discourse gains power precisely because
it rearticulates mainstream racial narratives." Raphael S. Ezekiel
agrees, noting that organized White racism exploits feelings of "lonely
resentment." It does this by weaving together ideologies already
present in mainstream culture: "white specialness, the biological
significance of 'race,' the primacy of power in human relations" along
with "the feeling of being cheated."
The continued uncritical reliance on centrist/extremist theory has
hampered the development of new and more effective ways of understanding
and challenging prejudice, discrimination, and oppression; especially
given the development of new and more sophisticated strategies and tactics
by groups promoting ethnocentrism, xenophobia, supremacy and fascism.