How Should We Respond to the Patriot and Militia Movements?

Adapted from Berlet & Lyons, “Militia Nation,” The Progressive Magazine

In the 1990s when the contemporary Patriot and militia movements developed as a significant force, they were riding the crest of a historically significant rightwing populist revolt in America.

This revolt has arisen from two major stresses:

1) actual economic hardship, caused by global restructuring; and

2) anger over gains by oppressed groups within U.S. society.

Among militia members, there is a great sense of anger over unresolved grievances, over the sense that no one is listening, and this anger has shifted to bitter frustration. The government is perceived to be the enemy because it is the agency by which the economy is governed, and by which equal rights for previously disenfranchised groups are being protected.

But militia members have a point about economic deterioration, and about the systematic expansion of the state’s repressive apparatus. These are tenets of populism, which can be participatory and progressive, or scapegoating and regressive.

The last twenty years have seen a decline in real wages for millions of Americans. The farm belt has been particularly hard-hit, and the government shares part of this responsibility, since it urged farmers to borrow heavily and plant fence-to-fence for the Soviet grain deal, then collapsed the farm economy by canceling the deal, which nearly destroyed the family farm.

And the government has abused its power in pursuing and killing rightwing militants without benefit of due process in a series of incidents since 1983, of which Waco was merely the latest and most murderous example.

These wrongs reflect real structures of political and economic inequality central to U.S. policy. Anti-elitism, properly directed, would be a healthy response. But the Patriot movement diverts attention away from actual systems of power by the use of scapegoating and by reducing complex reasons for social and economic conditions to simple formulaic conspiracies.

There is an undercurrent of resentment within the Patriot movement against what are seen as the unfair advantages the government gives to people of color and women through such programs as affirmative action. Thus, the militias are now only the most violent reflection of the backlash against the social-liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The Patriot movement represents an expression of profound anger, virtually a temper tantrum, by a subculture made up primarily, but not exclusively, of white, Christian males.

This temper tantrum is fueled by an old tenet of conspiracy theories: that the country is composed of two types of persons-parasites and producers. The parasites are at the top and the bottom; the producers are the hard-working average citizens in the middle. This analysis lies at the ideological heart of rightwing populism. The parasites at the top are seen as lazy and corrupt government officials in league with wealthy elites who control the currency and the banking sector. The parasites at the bottom are the lazy and shiftless who do not deserve the assistance they receive from society. In the current political scene, this dichotomy between parasites and producers takes on elements of racism because the people at the bottom who are seen as parasites are usually viewed as people of color, primarily black and Hispanic, even though most persons who receive government assistance are white.

Yet it is not only the angry defense of white male heterosexual privilege that fuels rightwing populism, but also the real economic grievances of working-class and middle-class people. Unless society adapts to address these legitimate grievances, the scapegoating will spread, and rightwing populism can turn to violent authoritarian revolt or move towards fascism.

But even if the society never becomes fascist, the period of turmoil can be dangerous, since it is almost inevitable that someone will conclude that the most efficient solution is to kill the scapegoats.

How, then, shall we respond to the armed militias? The answer is definitely not to curtail civil liberties. This would serve to further antagonize militia members and reinforce their paranoia about the government. And it would give the government a huge new club to beat up on leftwing dissidents-the typical victims of government repression.

Why should we fear the government? Ask a Japanese American interned during World War II. Ask a member of the American Indian Movement or the Black Panther Party. Ask a Puerto Rican Independence activist. Ask a young African-American male driving through a wealthy suburb. Ask a civil-rights activist. Ask a Vietnam war protester. Ask an antiinterventionist who was monitored by the FBI during its probe of CISPES in the 1980s.

When government informants cannot find their suspected terrorists, they have been known to encourage violence where none was planned before their infiltration. This has happened time and again.

Our law-enforcement agencies now manipulate the real presence of fear to demand aws that would undermine freedom of speech. They are once again pursuing the false notion that widespread infiltration can stop the tiny terror cells or violent rebellions that sometimes spin out of dissident social movements when grievances are ignored. Government officials to this day refuse to admit that negligent bureaucratic brutality at Waco could cause any citizen to be distrustful or cynical about government.

Suppressing speech will not solve the problem. But we need to change the tone and content of that speech, which is filled with shrill invective, undocumented assertions, and scapegoating.

The way to disarm the militia movement is to address its real economic grievances, rationally refute its scapegoating, and expose the lies and prejudices that its most anatical members spew.

Such a strategy was used, with partial success, to confront the Posse Comitatus fifteen years ago. The Posse blamed the collapsing farm economy of the late 1970s and early 1980s on a conspiracy of Jewish bankers manipulating subhuman minorities. In response, a coalition led by the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta organized against scapegoating, offered assistance to groups voicing legitimate economic grievances, and assisted people in reintegrating into the economy.

Teams went county-by-county through Posse strongholds. Black Baptist ministers talked about anti-Semitism; Jews talked about racism; Lutherans talked about healing; farm organizers gave economic advice. The American Jewish Committee hosted a conference in Chicago to call national attention to both anti-Semitism in the farm belt and social and economic injustice in rural America.

This coalition had more to do with beating back the Posse than armed law enforcement attacks, criminal trials, or civil litigation. What the coalition’s education work did not do, however, was uproot the underlying social and economic problems that made the Posse, and now make the Patriot movement, attractive.

The widespread rejection of the federal government, and of Democratic and Republican parties alike, points to the need for genuine radical alternatives, which get at the real structures of power and inequality, rather than offering conspiracies and pointing at scapegoats….

The problem is not anger or militancy; the problem is phony answers, the problem is dehumanization, the problem is violence. This year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi Holocaust, it seems troubling to still be debating whether scapegoating can lead to violence and death.