America’s militias in comparative perspective

This Mother Jones article provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of American right-wing militias. As someone who studies militias, paramilitaries, and other armed groups, it’s worth asking how we can think about these types of actors. Another useful resource is the Southern Poverty Law Center.

First, America’s militias fall into what I refer to in published work (borrowing from Auyero) as a “gray zone” ideological space. They generally seem to be seen as undesirables in the eyes of Washington, DC – a potential problem to be monitored and whose activities need to be contained below a certain level (i.e. not doing Oklahoma City bombings), but not an existential threat to the state or nation. On the ground, it seems like some of these groups are seen by street-level Border Patrol members as more akin to business partners or even allies. They are protected from the kind of full-scale violence monopolization that a mortal enemy would face, instead living in a liminal space between enemy (the stereotypical insurgent/rebel) and friend (pro-state paramilitaries, the armed wings of ruling parties, etc) of the government.

Second, this ideological position is a mixed blessing. The ambiguities of what it means to be a patriotic militia protect it from annihilation – the militias can appeal to the symbols and language of the Constitution, claiming that seek to preserve and uphold the system rather than overthrow it. This is a key reason why large numbers of politicized men with guns are able to operate without attracting the kind of massive crackdowns that a similarly-sized/-armed group of Islamists or Communists would immediately face. Perhaps to their horror, they occupy a similar position as certain Islamist armed groups in Pakistan – unsavory, problematic, but tolerable.

Yet, like with loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, this leads them to attract lower-quality recruits – the formal state security forces are the natural place for highly motivated, educated, and skilled potential recruits seeking to preserve the republic (however, it’s worth noting that a good number of the militia members seem to be former enlisted military).

Though there is surely a lot of variation, one doesn’t get the sense that many of these recruits have articulated a clear political agenda or are able to draw on substantial political, intellectual, or economic resources. Trotskys and Kagames seem scarce. The Mother Jones article clearly identifies the potential dangers of recruiting from this kind of pool: too many unstable, poorly disciplined, and/or unsuccessful individuals who get an adrenaline kick out of playing war, too few of the committed leaders that Reno and Weinstein have identified as crucial for forging enduring rebellion in African civil wars.

Third, this is a hugely fractured movement, rife with rivalries and divisions. Such fragmentation helps militias avoid being perceived as major threats, but limits the movement’s organizational potential. There is no obvious unifying force that can turn localized pockets of discontent into a coherent armed force – depending which militia we’re talking about, these look like what I refer to in my book as fragmented or vanguard groups, with maybe a few parochial groups that draw on specific localities favorable to militia politics.

Without links to parties, social movements, or political entrepreneurs, and in the face of a coherent central security apparatus, this challenge will be enormously difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, potential remains for the various factions and micro-groups to carry out operations that could involve violence or escalation into broader conflict.

Fourth, and finally, this is a reminder that the United States has a long history of political violence: riots, lynching, militias, violent leftist radicals, the KKK, the police, ethnic cleansing, the FBI, etc are all part of American politics. Violence isn’t just something that just happens in the “developing world,” but instead has been central to the formation of our state and society. The American political “mainstream” has been defined by these struggles, and it (and the formal institutions and processes that receive so much study) are garrisoned and made possible by huge, if highly decentralized, security forces. All of this is worth far more attention than it gets.

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