Right-Wing Militias and the Perils of Polarization
Just when you thought America couldn’t slip any farther down the slope from which no civilization ever returns, it seems we’ve just slipped a little deeper. If you hoped, as I did, that the new year would see us rebound from the atrocities of 2015 (mass shootings, police brutality, two-way racial animosities, totalitarian PC warriors on campus, Donald Trump), forget it. The ugliness abides and increases.
In the cold, arid wilds of southeastern Oregon, the belligerent Bundy Gang has occupied a federal compound in the appropriately named Malheur (French for “trouble”) National Wildlife Refuge. Their ostensible reason: to protest the imprisonment of a father-and-son ranching duo who set fire to federal land bordering their property, and to assert their belief that federal land rightfully belongs to “the people.” (Yes, it does — all the people, as opposed to a select group of cowboys and landowners.)
What struck me about the occupying militia was that it seemed like a picture-perfect caricature of today’s far-right wingnut fringe. White? Check. Male? Check. Angry? Check. Rural? Check. Gun-crazy? Emphatic check. Obamaphobic? No doubt. “Patriotic”? So they tell us. Defiantly anti-government? But of course! The more polarized we become, the more extreme the extremists look — a cartoonist’s parody of what used to be reasonably sensible conservative or liberal viewpoints.
Right-wing extremists like the Bundy militiamen are easy targets for the mockery that emanates from our sniffish left-of-center elite, and of course their pundits wasted no time painting the occupiers as “Y’all Qaeda”: inbred redneck jihadists who reeked of fried squirrel and white privilege. (Never mind that poor rural whites are among the least privileged members of society: they don’t benefit from affirmative action, and everyone is free to insult them without consequence.)
If the occupiers had been people of color, the progressive pundits tell us, they would have been tagged as thugs and terrorists… and they would have been set upon by the National Guard faster than you can say “Ferguson.” I can understand the outcry over double standards, but in fact the Bundy militiamen have yet to harm people or property. They’re not disrupting traffic or otherwise creating a public nuisance in a densely populated setting. What they’ve done is to hunker down in a potentially lethal game of chicken with the federal government.
The Bundy Bunch is dangerous, and their occupation of a federal building — no matter how remote or unimportant — is not only illegal but an outrage against the very patriotism they claim to embrace. I’d stop short of calling them terrorists at this point, because they haven’t terrorized anyone. But it’s not a stretch to label them as insurrectionists, comparable to the rural Pennsylvanians who launched the Whiskey Rebellion during George Washington’s presidency. If they take up arms against the government, they need to be put down — simple as that. (Federal agents could start by cutting off their access to food and supplies… the bold militiamen reportedly whined that they forgot to bring snacks.)
The feds don’t want another Waco on their hands, so they’re exercising caution in Oregon. An armed confrontation would be more deadly than Waco, because it would ripple across the republic. We’re not talking about evicting a flaky religious cult with minimal ties to the real world. The polarized climate of the country has raised the stakes, and any bloodshed could easily trigger a wider rebellion among the anti-government faction of the far right — the same people who flip out whenever Obama talks about expanding background checks for potential gun owners.
Back in 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimated that the United States was home to over 1,300 right-wing militias and radical anti-government groups, an eightfold increase in just the three years since Obama took office. Call it Obama Derangement Syndrome, or Second Amendment fetishism, or cultural solidarity among embattled rural whites — it amounts to collective paranoia, and it poses a very real threat to a nation already under siege by all manner of irate extremists.
Extremists to the right of us, extremists to the left of us — and their numbers just keep growing. It used to be that the bulk of Americans occupied the center of the political spectrum — a bulging bell curve that tapered off to the right and left. Today the curve looks more like a slanted line: conservatives constitute the biggest group, followed by moderates and liberals in that order. But — and it’s an ominous “but” — the ranks of both liberals and conservatives have been growing while the moderate population is shrinking. Eventually the center could look like a valley between two contentious hills.
How did it happen? Why are the extremes exerting such a powerful magnetic pull while the center languishes? I’ll venture a few educated guesses. Because Americans are angrier than they used to be, and angry people lack the patience for dealing with nuanced ideas. They need to express their anger or rely on like-minded souls to articulate that anger. They need to form factions in the time-honored tradition of our species — to bond with kindred spirits who feel angry about the same issues. They want to live in their own sequestered corner of the Internet, shouting “Amen!” every time a fellow extremist ratchets up the rhetoric.
Ideological purity is paramount in such a world. The extremists keep raising the bar for what constitutes purity — whether it takes shape as militant right-wing militias or leftist PC police who exile renegade thinkers for “microaggressions” against selected minorities. And of course, moderate politicians no longer stand a chance of winning their party’s primaries.
How does the sensible center survive in such an inflammatory environment? How does it become a mountain instead of a valley? I wish I knew. But I do know that the center is more indispensable than ever. We’re the last link between the warring factions, the best hope for civility and fairness in American politics.
Our mission, if we choose to accept it (and I think we must), is to convince the extremists that there are at least two legitimate sides to almost every issue: abortion, race relations, the size of government, the distribution of wealth, and — yes — the meaning of the Second Amendment. Once the extremists can see the world through their enemies’ eyes, their enemies won’t seem like enemies. They’d simply be honorable opponents, and neither side would feel the need to man the barricades in defense of their ideologies. If they decide to become moderates themselves, so much the better.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.