UPDATE: Glenn Beck discussed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report on radical “patriot” groups on his show on TheBlaze TV Wednesday. Watch below:

Today’s report by the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) claiming that anti-government, radical “patriot” groups are on the rise has sparked an avalanche of “I Told You So” comments from the left. There’s also been a great deal of consternation among conservatives, especially as regards to the SPLC’s assertion that concern over gun rights is a mark of “patriot” groups, and the persistent terminological position of the SPLC that the groups in question count as “far right.”

To be sure, the group’s report is worded in a bizarre fashion, and includes several passages that could be easily denounced as partisan. This one in particular sticks out:

Even before the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, gun and ammunition sales shot up in the wake of the re-election of the country’s first black president, the result of shrill conspiracy theories about Obama’s secret plans to confiscate Americans’ guns. When the killings actually did spark gun control efforts that clearly had not been in the Obama administration’s plans, the reaction on the political right was so harsh that it seemed to border on hysteria.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) proposed a law that would nullify any executive gun control actions by Obama, accusing the president of having a “king complex.” U.S. Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) said the president could be impeached for those actions. State lawmakers in Arizona, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee proposed laws that sought to prevent federal gun control from applying to their states.

Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who sued the Clinton administration over the Brady Bill’s imposition of background checks on gun buyers, claimed that of 200 sheriffs he’d met with, most “have said they would lay down their lives first rather than allow any more federal control.” Matt Barber of the anti-gay Liberty Counsel said he feared that the nation, which he described as already on the brink of civil unrest, was headed for “a second civil war.” “Freedom ends. Tyranny begins,” tweeted Fox News Radio host Todd Starnes. “Get ready,” TeaParty.org said. “Right now government gun grabbing plans are being covertly organized.”

Those reading this passage could easily be led to think that any Republican who agrees with Rand Paul or Fox News about the prospect of “tyranny” overtaking gun rights is, by the SPLC’s definition, an extremist “Patriot.” Certainly it is plausible that the SPLC means to impugn figures such as Senator Paul or Fox News’ Todd Starnes by showing them expressing sentiments associated with such a group, but as to whether either of these men (or the legislators/officials mentioned above) are actually meant to be seen as members of the “patriot” movement? That is far less clear.

To try to understand what the SPLC report actually means, we took a look at their other literature so as to understand what they mean by extremist “patriot” groups, who counts, and why. The answers we found may surprise you.

What is the “patriot” movement?

Contrary to what you might think the “patriot” movement as defined by the SPLC does not refer to every person who self-identifies as a patriot, or as patriotic. Rather, it applies to a very specific sect of people who might be more accurately characterized as militant conspiracy theorists with a survivalist streak. From the SPLC’s definition:

 Generally, Patriot groups define themselves as opposed to the “New World Order,” engage in groundless conspiracy theorizing, or advocate or adhere to extreme antigovernment doctrines. Antigovernment groups do not necessarily advocate or engage in violence or other criminal activities, though some have. Many warn of impending government violence or the need to prepare for a coming revolution. Many antigovernment groups are not racist.

Some public figures who SPLC associates with the “patriot” movement include former Constitution Party Presidential candidate Chuck Baldwin, radio host Alex Jones and Joseph Farah, publisher of WorldNetDaily. Other, more mainstream Tea Party figures like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, etc don’t even have profiles on SPLC’s website, and their names are not mentioned in the article on the Patriot movement (though some are mentioned in separate articles as mainstream sources of inspiration for extremists, if not extremists themselves). Indeed, the closest SPLC gets to impugning any of the above figures directly through the “patriot” movement is in this passage on that movement’s beliefs about Agenda 21:

A particularly prominent conspiracy in the antigovernment movement is that the United Nations, which is usually seen as spearheading the “New World Order,” is imposing a global plan, called Agenda 21, to take away citizens’ property rights. There is a UN program with that name to develop sustainable communities across the globe. Agenda 21 was agreed to by political leaders from dozens of countries, including the first President Bush. But in typical fashion, these antigovernment activists have twisted it into a global conspiracy.

Still, the definition of a member of the “patriot” movement invokes more than simple patriotism or conservative beliefs. According to SPLC, it requires a belief in a conspiracy theory concerning the “New World Order.” This may describe some conservatives, but it is not an inherently conservative belief. Peter Joseph, author of the Zeitgeist conspiracy theory, pretty clearly identifies as being on the left, and yet he believes the New World Order exists, albeit he refuses to use the term, and conceptualizes it differently from other figures:

As to the definition of “patriots” as right-wing, or part of the hard-right, SPLC’s definition of who is on the “right” is rather unconventional. For instance, they describe the New Black Panther Party as part of the “Radical Right” in spite of the fact that conservatives revile the group. What this suggests is that when the SPLC uses these loaded terms, they are either unintentionally using terminology in a different way from most people, or intentionally using terms that will spur controversy, without actually meaning what their critics assume.

Who counts as a “patriot?”

To get a greater sense of the SPLC’s idea of who the “patriot” movement is, we took a look at their list of organizations that count as “patriot” organizations, issued with their report saying the list had grown. While many of the groups we found did not surprise us – most of them are state or local entities, with citizen militias being vastly overrepresented – one or two inclusions and omissions were surprising.

Firstly, despite the SPLC’s thinly veiled guilt by association in their report, which ties mainstream Tea Party figures like Rand Paul to “patriot” ideology, the list of organizations who count as “patriot” groups includes no national Tea Party organizations. In fact, only two local “Tea Parties” make the list, those being the Berks County Tea Party in Pennsylvania, and the Southeast Valley Tea Party Patriots in Arizona. Both of these groups are listed on the Tea Party Patriots website, but the popular group Tea Party Patriots itself is not listed, suggesting that something specific is involved with these two particular local entities, rather than with Tea Partiers as a whole. To find out what, we took a look at the two groups’ websites.

The Berks County Tea Party Patriots’ website is a fairly nondescript affair, but one thing sticks out that might have set the SPLC’s teeth on edge – specifically, the existence of something called the “Sheriff Brigade.” What this refers to exactly is unclear, though given that another section of the site links to nullification documents submitted on behalf of this entity, it seems fairly clear what caused the “patriots” label to be applied in this case: specifically, unconventional theories about Federal power, and a semi-paramilitary orientation implied by the “Sheriff Brigade.”

As to the Southeast Valley Tea Party Patriots, their website offers precious few clues at first glance. Indeed, the only trace of conspiratorial thinking we could find was a series of workshops on “ONE WORLD GOVERNMENT” that were apparently held earlier this year. From the group’s “Education” page:

The Schedule of Educational Presentations:

Jan. 4 – The Federalist & Anti-Federalists – Part 3 (final)

Jan. 11 – Gun Control, Safety & the 2nd. Amendment

Jan. 18 – Speaker: Ann Tracy, PHD. Drug Awareness – How the gov’t. is classifying certain medications and then reduces your liberty.

Jan. 25 – ONE WORLD GOVERNMENT – It’s Origins – Part 1

Feb. 1 – Speaker : Mr. Tom Jenney, AZ Director for Americans for Prosperity – AZ Budget and Taxes

Feb. 8 – Crisis in Egypt

Feb. 15 – ONE WORLD GOVERNMENT – Part 2 -

In this case, the conspiracy theory is probably what got the tag of being a “patriot” group.

As to the other groups represented as “patriot” organizations, they almost all appear to count either because they have paramilitary elements (as in the case of the Oath Keepers) or because they traffic in libertarian theories supporting nullification and/or more extensive forms of states’ rights law than are previously permitted. Probably the most mainstream group represented in this latter category is the Tenth Amendment Center, which focuses almost entirely on issues of state sovereignty, though their site appears to not include any mention of conspiracy theories, which raises the question of why they were included.

Still, most of the groups involved have either trafficked in some form of discredited conspiracy theory (the John Birch Society, Infowars), encourage paramilitary resistance to the government (the Oath Keepers, militias), or invoke constitutional theories not presently recognized by the court system. In other words, the definition is fairly consistent with who is on the list.

Who cares?

However, this in itself raises an important issue: Why is the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group dedicated (in its own words) to “fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society,” doing researching groups like this? The obvious answer would be that these groups tend to correlate with hate group membership, or that their members are violent enough that it makes no difference, or that the groups are criminal. However, the SPLC’s own definition of “Patriot” groups undercuts precisely that argument. Consider these passages (emphasis added):

Antigovernment groups do not necessarily advocate or engage in violence or other criminal activities, though some have. Many warn of impending government violence or the need to prepare for a coming revolution. Many antigovernment groups are not racist.[...]

The sovereign citizens movement is rooted in racism and anti-Semitism, though most sovereigns, many of whom are African American, are unaware of their beliefs’ origins. In the early 1980s, the sovereign citizens movement attracted primarily white supremacists and anti-Semites, mainly because sovereign theories originated in groups that saw Jews as working behind the scenes to manipulate financial institutions and control the government. Most early sovereigns, and some of those who are still on the scene, believed that being white was a prerequisite to becoming a sovereign citizen. They argued that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed citizenship to African Americans and everyone else born on U.S. soil, also made black Americans permanently subject to federal and state governments, unlike themselves.

The problem should be obvious – if these groups aren’t necessarily racist, criminal, or even violent, why is the SPLC treating them as equivalent to hate groups? Indeed, what is it, apart from arguably believing in controversial ideas, that makes such groups objectionable at all? There is no obvious answer, but it appears that the SPLC regards antigovernment thinking as itself a flaw on par with (though perhaps not quite equal to) racism, sexism or homophobia. Calls to the SPLC about this apparent belief have gone unanswered. This passage from today’s report, however, strongly implies it:

Polling after the election showed how broad antipathy toward President Obama remained in a deeply polarized America. A Public Policy Poll survey found that 49% of all Republicans believed that ACORN — a community organizing group that went belly up in 2010 after attacks from the far right — had stolen the election from Mitt Romney. A quarter of GOP members in the same poll favored secession. A January 2013 poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind project found that 36% of all Americans still don’t believe Obama is a citizen, despite the 2011 release of the president’s “long-form” birth certificate.

As they did in 2008 and 2009, groups on the radical right clearly benefited from that antipathy. “Since Obama’s first term, our numbers have doubled and now we’re headed to a second term, it’s going to triple,” one Virginia Klansman told WTVR-TV in Richmond. Daniel Miller, president of the secessionist Texas National Movement, said that his membership shot up 400% after Obama’s re-election. White News Now, a website run by white supremacist Jamie Kelso, said that it had had “an incredible year” in the run-up to the vote, reaching more people than ever.

However, there is an upside, which is that while the SPLC’s report does target conspiracy theorists and militants explicitly, it is not meant as an attack on all conservatives, libertarians, or indeed on the vast majority of those who identify as being on the political right. It is, rather, simply a list of admittedly fringe groups with fringe beliefs who may be eccentric, but as of yet are not demonstrably dangerous, and whose beliefs do not represent a majority of Americans, whatever the SPLC’s report might imply.

The most dangerous thing about the SPLC’s report, therefore, is not their findings, but rather the fact that, in associating this fringe group with mainstream figures and a particular political ideology, it seeks to tar them with the same brush.

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