Every year the Southern Poverty Law Center lists all the organizations it can assign to one "extremist" category or another. I'm not a fan of the resulting report. (You can see some of my past criticisms of its methodology and conclusions here, here, here, and in my book The United States of Paranoia.) But I'm always interested to see the spin that the group puts on its findings—particularly this year, when the center's census shows substantial declines in both of its major categories. According to the SPLC's new figures, the number of hate groups dropped in 2013 for the second straight year, sliding from 1,007 to 939. And anti-government "Patriot" groups plunged from 1,360 to 1,096, a shrinkage that not only reversed 2012's heavily hyped growth in the category but fell below the number for 2011. How do you cry crisis about that?
The SPLC's Mark Potok adopts a two-punch strategy. One reason extremist groups are less popular, he claims, is that "many issues championed by the radical right have been adopted by purportedly mainstream politicians." (His first example: Some elected officials believe conspiracy theories about Agenda 21. Of course, that was true when the list was longer, too.) Meanwhile, as erstwhile extremists exit the movement, the reduction in the hard core's numbers "often has the effect of fostering, rather than retarding, followers' decisions to finally act out violently." The result, he says, is "a leaner, meaner radical right."
I especially enjoyed the second half of that argument. When the Patriot count was going up last year, Potok predicted that "the movement and its violence will spurt ahead yet again." Now the count is going down, but it turns out that also means violence is liable to rise. Apparently, Potok is going to see a swelling threat no matter which way the numbers that he's touting are moving. For years I've been saying that the size of the SPLC's list is not a very good guide to the size of the domestic terror threat. Who knew that Mark Potok agreed?