Image © Austin Cline
Click for full-sized Image
There are many signs that suggest a resurgence of America's militia movement is underway. These self-styled patriots mask a racist, nativist, authoritarian movement under the guise of liberty, republicanism, and small-government conservatism. They proved useful to "mainstream" conservatives in the past because they could be relied upon to vote their fears and hatred, which meant voting consistently against Democrats and even moderate Republicans.
How likely is it that we'll see something similar in the coming years: conservative Republicans rebuilding their electoral base and political power through extremists whose passionate hatred of everything liberal — and of Barack Obama in particular — makes them excellent foot soldiers in the culture wars? The obvious problem here is the fact that when such people sign on as "foot soldiers," they frequently treat that label as a literal description of their job, not a metaphorical description of their place in the political food chain.
The earliest signs of this were probably the countrywide increase in gun sales. Many people feared that Barack Obama would start imposing strict gun regulations even though he has never expressed much interest in doing so. Apparently, it takes nothing more than being a liberal Democrat to set off fear in some, which should tell us something about the mindset of the people in question. It's not a coincidence that the heyday of these extremists was when Bill Clinton was president, though he did actually support a couple of gun-control measures.
To be absolutely fair, I wouldn't be critical of people responding to a reasonable concern if one existed here. Not only would I be sympathetic in such a situation, but I would seriously consider taking similar action. However, the fear just isn't reasonable — it's reminiscent of the whining we hear about Obama reviving the Fairness Doctrine, even though few if any Democrats have actively promoted such a measure.
Given this sort of reaction to a baseless fear, we should be worried about how they will react in the future to other made-up fears. Frankly, I doubt that there is any made-up fear that would sound so extreme or so ridiculous that couldn't gain some traction with right-wing radio, right-wing blogs, and of course extremist groups. Given how wild some of the claims in those venues can be, there's no end to the conspiracy theories that extremists could get worked up over.
If all this isn't enough to get you a little worried, you need to be aware of the fact that the growth of militias and extremist groups isn't simply a matter of old members reviving old ties. Instead, the growth is being fueled primarily through the recruitment of younger people, new to organized right-wing extremism. In addition to being younger, they also appear to be more militant and more paranoid. We could end up looking back fondly on the early militia movement whose paranoia seemed reasonable.
The internet is to be playing a key role in all of this, and in more ways than one. First, the internet is an important tool for recruitment. No longer is the organization of militias dependent on personally knowing the right people, being in the right sort of area, or simply having access to the right direct mailing lists left over from the old Klan days. Extremist organizers can make contact with young people all over the country with little effort and less money. Of course, traditional recruiting methods haven't been abandoned, and even the Klan itself is experiencing new growth.
Second, the internet is well-known for creating echo chambers where extreme views are not just regularly repeated, but are in fact heightened as they bounce back and forth without anyone to fact-check or point out how unreasonable everyone is getting. This happens on both the left and the right, but it's scarier when it happens among armed extremists who believe that the "wrong sorts" of people need to be kicked out of the country or even killed outright. I'm sure similar behavior could be found when it was just a bunch of friends mouthing off to each other on a Friday night, but now it's occurring 24/7 among people across the nation.
Of course, perhaps I'm just engaging in my own form of fear mongering, right? It's possible, but the crucial difference here — I hope — is that I'm recommending caution, concern, and watchfulness. I'm not telling liberals to go out and buy guns to protect themselves from right-wingers with more guns. I'm not arguing that we should all be afraid of our neighbors because their politics are different from ours. The signs of future problems are strong enough to justify some concern and perhaps some thought about how to deal with them if they develop. Now is the time to start being watchful and start cataloging evidence.