For years, the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked "hate groups" of all ideological persuasions in the United States. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of far right and militia-type "patriot" groups in the United States exploded after the 2008 election of President Barack Obama -- peaking at an all time high of 2,367 right-wing "hate groups" in 2012. But, in a report released Tuesday, the non-partisan group said that the number of these "Patriot" groups -- defined as anti-government groups, militias and "sovereign citizen" groups -- fell in 2013, the first drop off in the number of these groups recorded during the Obama presidency.
The patriot movement first gained national attention in 1995 when Timothy McVeigh, a militia member, killed 168 people when he detonated a truck bomb outside the Oklahoma City federal building. The number of these groups dropped off significantly during the Bush presidency, but soared to unprecedented levels once Obama was elected. To be clear, these are not the sort of groups active in the everyday political debate in this country. These are groups who, largely, operate outside of that context and generally disdain the two party system altogether.
While the SPLC identified 1,360 politically-active patriot groups in 2012, that number drop to 1,096 in 2013. (For context, only 149 anti-federal government "patriot" groups were in operation prior to the Obama presidency).
So is politics becoming less radical? Have the most radical elements of the anti-government crowd lost their momentum? The SPLC says "nope." The report cites a number of factors in explaining the significant decline in 2013 of patriot groups, including renewed efforts by law enforcement agencies to crack down on militia groups as well as an improving economy. They also note two distinct political factors for the decline:
1) President Obama's 2012 re-election
While members of both political parties put on blinders during election years, the shock felt by many Republican voters after Mitt Romney's defeat has been well documented -- and even prompted a dramatic rethinking of GOP strategy as it relates to minority and women voters. But among the most radical enclaves of the right -- members of groups who truly believe that the federal government is plotting to institute a New World Order -- Obama's re-election was demoralizing.
"The year started out with a national discussion of gun control... and a promise that action would come soon on comprehensive immigration reform, two issues that energized the right," wrote Mark Potok, the SPLC's senior fellow, in the report. "But those issues faded away with little real action, leaving a deflated radical right to wallow unhappily in “losses” including the advance of same-sex marriage and national health care reform, the failure of various nightmarish predictions to materialize, and Obama’s re-election."
The report found that several major far-right groups completely collapsed during 2013 as their memberships became demoralized. "The same groups that were galvanized by Obama’s first election and swelled dramatically as a result, were demoralized by his re-election, which seemed to signal that their battle was lost despite enormous effort," Potok wrote.
2) The adoption of far right ideas by mainstream GOP
The report also attributes the decline in radical right-wing groups to the fact that some of the political stances of these groups were, for the first time, championed by mainstream politicians in 2013 -- stealing the fire of local groups that once rallied around those issues.
As examples of this trend, the SPLC report notes that:
* Seven states have passed bans on the application or implementation of sharia, or Islamic law, in courts -- provisions that the SPLC says are pushed primarily by anti-Muslim "hate groups" and are "totally unnecessary measures, given that the Constitution does not allow for such an eventuality."
* Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Mn.) has plugged the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the U.S. federal government
* U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert's (R-Texas) suggestion last year that President Obama was using the Affordable Care Act as cover to set up a “secret security force.”
* The Arizona bill passed last week by the state legislature which would allow businesses to chose not to serve gay people based on religious grounds
The report notes that while the number of radical groups on the right has decreased, that may -- in fact -- make them more potentially dangerous. "We're not trying to paint a rosy picture of what's going on out there," Potok told reporters during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, later adding that there's "a leaner and meaner and arguably more frightening movement out there."