Fearmongering at the SPLC


The Southern Poverty Law Center, which would paint a box of Wheaties as an extremist threat if it thought that would help it raise funds, has issued a new "intelligence report" announcing that "an astonishing 363 new Patriot groups appeared in 2009, with the totals going from 149 groups (including 42 militias) to 512 (127 of them militias)—a 244% jump." To illustrate how dangerous these groups are, the Center cites some recent arrests of right-wing figures for planning or carrying out violent attacks. But it doesn't demonstrate that any of the arrestees were a part of the Patriot milieu, and indeed it includes some cases involving racist skinheads, who are another movement entirely.

As far as the SPLC is concerned, though, skinheads and Birchers and Glenn Beck fans are all tied together in one big ball of scary. The group delights in finding tenuous ties between the tendencies it tracks, then describing its discoveries in as ominous a tone as possible. For example:

Last year also experienced levels of cross-pollination between different sectors of the radical right not seen in years. Nativist activists increasingly adopted the ideas of the Patriots; racist rants against Obama and others coursed through the Patriot movement; and conspiracy theories involving the government appeared in all kinds of right-wing venues. A good example is the upcoming Second Amendment March in Washington, D.C. The website promoting the march is topped by a picture of a colonial militiaman, and key supporters include Larry Pratt, a long-time militia enthusiast with connections to white supremacists, and Richard Mack, a conspiracy-mongering former sheriff associated with the Patriot group Oath Keepers.

Yes, this is their "good example." I trust I do not need to explain why it is not alarming for a Second Amendment march to deploy some Revolutionary War iconography. Larry Pratt is the head of Gun Owners of America, so his involvement in a gun rights protest shouldn't be surprising. Richard Mack is a longtime gun activist as well (he was one of the plaintiffs in Printz v. United States, in which the Supreme Court struck down some interim provisions of the Brady Act), and he was as prone to spouting conspiracy theories in the '90s as he is today. Whatever links Pratt and Mack may have to other groups—and for the record, I have yet to be convinced by the efforts to portray Pratt as a white supremacist—their presence at the demonstration is hardly a sign that this "cross-pollination" is on the rise. Those two have been players in the gun movement for years, and groups like the SPLC were saying the exact same things about them a decade and a half ago.

But what really interests me is that alleged 244 percent jump. The American Spectator notes that many of the groups in the SPLC's count are basically innocuous, and that's certainly a point worth making. But there's another important question: To what extent does this increase in groups represent an actual increase in activists? Given the past year's surge in right-wing protest, I would expect the Patriot milieu to grow along with everything else. But I'd also expect a lot of those new bodies to get involved in more than one organization simultaneously. The SPLC's list includes militias, third parties, local chapters of the Oath Keepers and the John Birch Society—there's plenty of room for overlap here. Note also that if a group splinters into two or more pieces, that probably indicates that it's getting weaker, but the faction fight will show up as growth if all you're counting is the number of organizations on the ground. So when the SPLC finds 15 chapters of six different militias in Indiana, does that mean more people want to join paramilitary organizations? Or does it mean the militiamen can't get along?

A group seriously interested in tracking the size and shape of these movements would take all those issues into account. But then, that would require you to have a goal more lofty than compiling your next scaremongering direct-mail campaign.

Elsewhere in Reason: Time for me to flog "The Paranoid Center" again.