Southern Poverty Law Center

Patriot Games

Counting domestic "extremists"


In March the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released its annual report on "The Year in Hate and Extremism." Because its count of active hate groups has shrunk since last year, dropping from 1,018 to 1,007, the center instead hyped a 7 percent increase in another category: what it calls "conspiracy-minded antigovernment 'Patriot' groups."

SPLC Senior Fellow Mark Potok, writing in the center's Intelligence Report, cites that 7 percent increase as a reason why the Department of Homeland Security should "rebuild its important intelligence capabilities" to confront a domestic terrorist threat. Yet the SPLC's list is filled with nonviolent groups, from the John Birch Society to the webzine WorldNetDaily, and Potok offers no evidence that the number of "Patriots" inclined toward violence is on the rise.

Although Potok invokes the militia movement in the opening and conclusion of his article, his group's count shows the number of militia chapters in decline, dropping from 334 last year to 321 now. Furthermore, the SPLC makes no attempt to distinguish the elements of the militia movement that might support terrorist tactics from the elements opposed to them.

Potok's strangest statistical sleight of hand comes when he cites the 2012 West Point study "Challengers From the Sidelines" to argue that "right-wing violence is up dramatically from the 1990s." The report's data do show more violent right-wing incidents now than in the '90s, although it cautions that it isn't clear to what extent this apparent growth is due to more accurate measurement. But when it comes to that narrower slice of the right whose beliefs would put them on the SPLC's "Patriot" list, the West Point paper shows something else.

During the last few years, as the SPLC touted an increase in "Patriot" groups each spring, the West Point data showed a steady level of one to four violent incidents per year, with a brief spike to 13 in 2010, followed by a return to the previous pattern in 2011. "Thus," the paper concludes, "while there may be a rise in the number of active militia groups, except for 2010 we still do not see this systematically manifested in the level of violence." Given how low these numbers are, it's not even clear whether the 2010 figure was anything more than a random outlier.