These days, commentators focus on “right-wing extremism” as the most dire threat to the nation. Politicians talk about the rise of racism in a country that just elected its first President with African heritage. Neither offer compelling definitions of the danger, and Jesse Walker of Reason explains that they have no compelling definition — only paranoia. The paranoia of the center, Walker argues, is much more dangerous, because it has the power to infringe on rights that the extreme right and left never have:
We’ve heard ample warnings about extremist paranoia in the months since Barack Obama became president, and we’re sure to hear many more throughout his term. But we’ve heard almost nothing about the paranoia of the political center. When mainstream commentators treat a small group of unconnected crimes as a grand, malevolent movement, they unwittingly echo the very conspiracy theories they denounce. Both brands of connect-the-dots fantasy reflect the tellers’ anxieties much more than any order actually emerging in the world.
When such a story is directed at those who oppose the politicians in power, it has an additional effect. The list of dangerous forces that need to be marginalized inevitably expands to include peaceful, legitimate critics. …
It’s comforting to imagine that violence and paranoia belong only to the far left and right, and that we can protect ourselves from their effects by quarantining the extremists and vigilantly expelling anyone who seems to be bringing their ideas into the mainstream. But the center has its own varieties of violence and paranoia. And it’s far more dangerous than anyone on the fringe, even the armed fringe, will ever be.
Walker takes us on a journey of centrist paranoia, but he mainly focuses on the distortions of the Right, whether deliberate or merely hysterical. That paranoia served a purpose; it was inevitably used to demonize and minimize legitimate policy differences. Walker also revisits the DHS report on “right-wing extremism,” noting that the document served that impulse, whether deliberate or not, and at the very least encouraged a waste of resources:
Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on the threat of “rightwing extremism.” Depending on whose interpretation you prefer, the paper either defined extremism far too broadly or failed to define it at all. “Rightwing extremism in the United States,” the department said, “can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.”
The charitable reading of this passage is that it’s a sloppily phrased attempt to list the ideas that drive different right-wing extremists, not a declaration that anyone opposed to abortion or prone to “rejecting federal authority” is a threat. But even under that interpretation, the report is inexcusably vague. It focuses on extremism itself, not on violence, and there’s no reason to believe its definition of extremist is limited to people with violent inclinations. (The department’s report on left-wing extremism cites such nonviolent groups as Crimethinc and the Ruckus Society.) As Michael German, a policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote after the document surfaced, the bulletin focuses “on ideas rather than crime.” One practical effect, German noted, is that the paper “cites an increase in ‘rhetoric’ yet doesn’t even mention reports that there was a dirty bomb found in an alleged white supremacist’s house in Maine last December. Learning what to look for in that situation might actually be useful to a cop. Threat reports that focus on ideology instead of criminal activity are threatening to civil liberties and a wholly ineffective use of federal security resources.”
Be sure to read all of Walker’s excellent essay. Very few people in the US believe violence belongs in the political discourse of a free nation, and those who do are legitimate threats, whether right, left, or just plain nuts. However, the impulse of the so-called center to toss out accusations of extremism and racism at criticism of politicians and policy does not serve to make a more civil society but to suppress political dissent through demonization. That has a history in the US, and it’s not pretty.