The CQ Press Guide to Radical Politics in the United States


Susan Burgess & Kate Leeman

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    For Cassie Tiogoly and Sally Poland

    About the Authors

    Susan Burgess is a professor of political science at Ohio University, with areas of interest in U.S. politics, constitutional law, radical politics, gender and sexuality, and popular culture. She is the author of The New York Times on Gay and Lesbian Issues (CQ/SAGE); The Founding Fathers, Pop Culture, and Constitutional Law: Who’s Your Daddy? (Ashgate), and Contest for Constitutional Authority: The Abortion and War Powers Debates (Kansas). She is currently completing LGBTQ Politics: A Critical Reader (with Marla Brettschneider and Cricket Keating, forthcoming, NYU Press). Her work has also appeared in a wide variety of journals including differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies; Law and Society Review; Law, Culture, and the Humanities; Political Research Quarterly; Polity; New Political Science; Review of Politics; PS: Politics and Political Science; and Studies in Law, Politics, and Society. Burgess has held several leadership positions in the American Political Science Association: on the Executive Committee of the Law and Courts section, as coordinator of the Constitutional Law Division, as chair of the LGBT Caucus, on the Committee on the Status of Women, and on the Committee on the Status of LGBTs. As part of the Perestroika Movement in political science, her candidacy for a seat on the governing council triggered an association-wide competitive election, challenging the long-standing system of top-down nominations. During her tenure on the council, she was selected to sit on its Administrative (Executive) Committee and co-organized a new section in Politics and Sexuality with Angelia Wilson of Manchester University. Burgess has also been active in the Western Political Science Association, sitting on its Executive Council and coordinating its Politics and Sexuality Section. She has been an officer in the Midwest Political Science Association’s Women’s Caucus and has served as program organizer for its LGBT Caucus.

    Kate Leeman writes, edits, and conducts research for the George Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, a center for academic and applied research at Ohio University focused on government and nonprofit leadership, economic development, and the environment. She has co-authored a book chapter with Voinovich School dean Mark Weinberg on current trends in strategic public management, published in Museums and Public Value (Ashgate). Leeman also conducts research on poverty prevention and amelioration policy, most recently co-authoring a study commissioned by the Ohio Housing Finance Agency on the impact of the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) industry on rural access to affordable housing. Leeman has a background in nonprofit management and is co-founder of the Athens Foundation Women’s Fund.


    This book could not have been written without the support and assistance of friends and colleagues in several scholarly communities. We are grateful to Ohio University’s Department of Political Science and Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs for providing a work environment in which research on radical politics is valued. Special thanks to Jodi Dean, Judith Grant, Cricket Keating, Anna Law, and Helena Silverstein for taking time from their own work to read earlier drafts of this book. Thanks also to Tony Affigne, Lawrie Balfour, Scott Beekman, Cristina Beltrán, Laura Black, Marla Brettschneider, Rose Corrigan, Renee Cramer, Kathy Ferguson, Robert Gordon, Mary Hawkesworth, Lesli Johnson, Don Haider-Markel, John Mead, Stephanie Philbrick, Anna Sampaio, Holloway Sparks, Deb Thompson, and Mark Weinberg for their input and support. Thanks also to the many friends and colleagues who have long written about radical politics in the following sections of the American Political Science Association, the Midwest Political Science Association, and the Western Political Science Association: Law and Courts; New Political Science; Race, Ethnicity and Politics; Sexuality and Politics; and Women and Politics.


    Rather than a rich and complex history of radical thinking and acting, we inherit an emaciated account in which a few stalwart people, either lionized or demonized, fought the establishment.

    —Kathy E. Ferguson1

    Labeling people or groups as radical will often—if not always—trigger the question “radical in relation to what?”

    —Peter R. Neumann2

    Americans have been both fascinated and alarmed by the recent emergence of high-profile groups advocating views and tactics well outside the political mainstream, including the Tea Party movement in 2009 (see Box I.1), the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 (see Box I.2), and Black Lives Matter in 2013 (see Chapter 5). However, radical political activity has played a persistent and influential role in American politics since the founding of the nation. Indeed, political movements on the far right and left—from suffragists and animal rights activists to White supremacists and the militia movement—have repeatedly sought to legitimize their actions by referencing the radical actions and ideas implicit in the founding of the United States.

    Between 1763 and 1776, American colonists protested being taxed without representation by engaging in a series of illegal and sometimes violent actions, including the Boston Tea Party, eventually culminating in the Revolutionary War. The colonists justified their revolt against British rule by offering a long list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence, by renouncing their allegiance to England, and by calling into question the fundamental principles underlying monarchical rule, which was prevalent throughout Europe at that time. Known as the divine right of kings, this understanding of government held that the rule of King George III (and other European monarchs) originated with God’s grant of dominion over the earth to Adam. In direct contrast, the colonists established a political system grounded in the consent of the governed and equal rights under the law, including those of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They believed that any government that did not recognize such rights was unjust and therefore subject to revolt. Although now considered mainstream, these ideas were then understood to be a shockingly radical challenge, not only to the power of the king but also to God’s law.

    Defining Radical Politics

    This book provides an overview of radical politics in the United States from both the left and right extremes of the political continuum. The definition of radical varies over time, typically in relation to what is understood to be “mainstream” politics. For example, radical activists once risked arrest and imprisonment for distributing condoms and other forms of birth control that are now widely available in most drugstores. Movements covered in this book meet one or both of the following criteria. First, organizations are considered radical if they promote ideas or practices that challenge the fundamental tenets or roots of the existing political or economic system. Indeed, the word radical derives from the Latin word radix, meaning root. For example, communists challenge capitalism, fascists question democratic decision-making, and anarchists oppose centralized government. Second, organizations are considered radical if they employ tactics outside the political mainstream. Some radical activists have committed criminal acts, including property destruction, theft, computer hacking, tax evasion, assault, assassination, and lynching, at times resulting in violent confrontations with law enforcement as well as arrest and lengthy prison sentences. Radical activists may also engage in political tactics that endanger their own health and safety, such as nonviolent civil disobedience, hunger strikes, tree sits, draft resistance, and self-immolation. In addition, a tactic may be considered radical if it violates fundamental social and political norms, such as when nineteenth-century women spoke out publically against slavery or when AIDS activists disrupted Catholic mass and desecrated a communion wafer. Many of the groups described in this book fit both these criteria: They promote political goals that undermine core aspects of the U.S. political or economic system, and they seek to advance their goals by breaking the law, violating cultural norms, or endangering the health and safety of themselves or others.

    The ongoing tradition of radical politics in the United States is obscured in many accounts, which typically focus on moderate groups and limit the discussion of radical politics to spectacular failures (like Shays’ Rebellion) or individual activists (such as Harriet Tubman). In many cases, such an approach results in an incomplete and misleading understanding of the political forces that motivated key shifts in American public opinion and policy, often leading to the erroneous belief that radical political movements are generally ineffectual and counterproductive and result only in needless violence, public backlash, and harsh repressive measures.

    Many radical activists have indeed paid a high price for holding beliefs outside mainstream politics, including loss of reputation, savings, and employment, police harassment, FBI surveillance, lawsuits, assault, and murder. They have frequently been sentenced to serve long prison terms and in some cases have been executed or otherwise killed by law enforcement and other representatives of the state. (See Box I.3.) However, many radical political movements have successfully achieved their specific goals or altered the shape of mainstream politics. For example, the violent resistance of the Ku Klux Klan contributed to the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War, and radical pacifists were influential in developing widespread public resistance that ultimately altered the course of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Women and people of color have gained rights of citizenship such as voting, same-sex marriage has become legal, and laws have been passed that limit immigration, logging, animal testing, and the disposal of hazardous chemicals. Ironically, many of these movements were so successful that the causes they promoted have come to be viewed as mainstream, a tendency that may well contribute to the ongoing belief that radical political movements are doomed to failure.

    By including radical organizations on both the political left and right, this book seeks to highlight similarities among radicals on both ends of the political spectrum. For example, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street share common concerns about the role of corporate money in political decision-making, even though the causes they identify and the solutions they seek vary greatly. Opposition to expanding the power of the federal government has been mounted by anarchists on the left, but also by libertarians and White supremacists on the right. Stricter immigration laws have been championed by environmentalists on the left and volunteer border patrols on the right. Excessive police force is denounced by both Black Lives Matter activists as well as many militia members.

    Contents of the Chapters
    Chapter 1.

    Chapter 1 considers employees and farmers who picketed, organized strikes, rioted, and in some cases resorted to intimidation and violence in their fight for improved working conditions and better compensation for their labor. Unions were seen as a radical and illegal infringement on free market capitalism until the mid-1930s in the United States, and employers often called upon law enforcement to suppress labor unrest, at times resulting in arrest, imprisonment, serious injury, and death. Events discussed include the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the early 1900s, and the Minneapolis Truckers’ Strike and other workplace struggles of the Great Depression. The chapter also focuses on radical American agricultural movements including the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s, the Farmers’ Alliance of the 1880s, and the Farmers’ Holiday Association and Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union in the 1930s.

    Chapter 2.

    At various points in U.S. history, a significant minority of Americans have rejected capitalism and turned to socialism, communism, and other alternatives, seeking a more just political economic system for allocating society’s resources. Chapter 2 examines the most popular of these movements, providing an overview of their motivations, ideology, and actions, as well as the tensions, both internal and external, that impeded their success. Organizations discussed include the early socialist movements of the 1800s, the Socialist Party of America in the early 1900s, the Communist Party of the United States during the 1930s, Third World Marxist movements in the early 1970s, and protests against global capitalism in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Groups briefly discussed in this chapter that sought to fight the spread of anticapitalist sentiment in the United States include the American Protective League in the World War I era and the John Birch Society following World War II.

    Chapter 3.

    Chapter 3 discusses groups on the political left and right that have challenged the basic authority of the U.S. government to regulate individual and group behavior. On the left, German immigrants first organized anarchist groups in the late 1800s, combining a suspicion of government control with support for labor organizing and a more equitable economic system. This chapter explores the establishment of these early organizations, the emergence of violence as a political tactic within anarchism, the Haymarket bombing, Emma Goldman, government efforts to suppress this movement in the early 1900s, and an overview of the divergent strains of left-leaning anarchism that have arisen since the 1960s, highlighting the use of black bloc tactics in antiglobalization protests. An individualist anarchist tradition unique to the United States also developed on the political right that rejects government control in favor of the free market. Examples covered include Josiah Warren’s experimental communities in the mid-1800s as well as the rise of anarcho-capitalism and the tax resistance movement in the 1970s. In addition to anarchist groups, Chapter 3 also discusses right-wing militia movements, which resist the U.S. government because they believe it has become tyrannical, infringing on individual liberty or states’ rights. Incidents examined include Shays’ Rebellion in the late 1780s, the Sons of Liberty conspiracy during the Civil War, and the modern militia movement, which rose to prominence in the mid-1990s.

    Chapter 4.

    Chapter 4 focuses on Native American and Mexican American groups that have resisted the authority of the U.S. government, engaging in armed resistance, occupations, and a wide variety of other radical political actions in an effort to retain their land, sovereignty, and cultural practices. Topics discussed include Native Americans’ fight to maintain their land, as exemplified by the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 and the rise of the Red Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the siege at Wounded Knee in 1973. The second half of the chapter focuses on challenges to Anglo landownership in northern New Mexico and to Anglo political dominance in south Texas. It also discusses the United Farmworkers’ campaign against California’s agricultural workers, as well as various radical actions of the Chicano movement of the mid-1960s to 1970s, including school walk-outs, antiwar protests, and the formation of La Raza Unida, a third political party that sought to challenge the two-party system that has long dominated U.S. politics.

    Chapter 5.

    Radical resistance to racial inequality has a long and persistent history, starting with slave revolts prior to the founding of the United States and continuing in a nearly unbroken line to current protests against the killing of unarmed Black men, women, and children by the police. Chapter 5 begins with a discussion of the various tactics used to resist slavery, including slave uprisings and escapes as well as the organization of vigilance committees to protect the freedom of African Americans living in the North. The chapter continues with examining the increasingly militant activities of both Black and White abolitionists, resulting in the violence of Bleeding Kansas and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. The second half of the chapter provides an overview of the early civil rights activism of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the armed self-defense advocated by Robert F. Williams, with a focus on Black nationalism, including profiles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and the emergence of the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the emerging Black Lives Matter movement.

    Children taking part in a march sponsored by the Stop Mass Incarcerations Network to demand accountability on the one-year anniversary of Tamir Rice’s death at the hands of the Cleveland police. The march was held in New York City on November 22, 2015.

    SOURCE: Photo by Andy Katz; Pacific Press/Sipa USA/Newscom.

    Chapter 6.

    Chapter 6 focuses on White supremacy and fascism. Although their beliefs vary widely, these groups all radically challenge the basic notions of political equality and consent of the governed that underlie liberal democracy. White Supremacist activists have engaged in political tactics involving intimidation, violence, and property crime, including arson, armed robbery, assault, bombings, and murder. The first portion of this chapter focuses on the Ku Klux Klan, including its founding in the wake of the Civil War, its widespread popularity in the 1920s, and its violent reemergence during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Also included is a discussion of fascism, anti-Semitism, and examples of such movements in 1930s America, such as Father Coughlin’s radio ministry and the Silver Shirts, as well as a brief overview of the small neofascist organizations visible in the 1960s and 1970s. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the most significant modern White supremacist groups, including White Aryan Resistance (WAR), skinheads, and the Christian Identity organizations Aryan Nations and The Order.

    Chapter 7.

    Movements aiming to restrict immigration in the United States have generally been formed in reaction to a specific group of new arrivals, such as Irish Catholics, Chinese, or Eastern Europeans, who have been viewed as inherently inferior, unable to assimilate, or otherwise threatening the well-being of the country. Chapter 7 profiles the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s, the anti-Chinese agitation of the 1870s and 1880s, and the role of eugenics and the Immigration Restriction League in the establishment of strict national immigration quotas in the 1920s. This chapter also considers more recent radical immigration activism, including the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, which illegally provided aid and shelter to refugees fleeing political unrest in Central America, and the volunteer border patrol movement of the early 2000s.

    Chapter 8.

    Chapter 8 focuses on gender and sexuality, examining a variety of organizations that have fought to expand, or in some cases restrict, gender equality, sexual freedom, and reproductive rights in the United States. Radical movements discussed in this chapter include the free love movement of the second half of the nineteenth century; the early birth control movement and the last drive for women’s suffrage during the 1910s; the emergence of gay rights, the women’s liberation movement, and illegal abortion services in the late 1960s and early 1970s; ACT-UP’s militant fight for AIDS drugs in the 1980s; and, most recently, the struggle for same-sex marriage equality. Also discussed are radical efforts to resist social change, including Anthony Comstock’s fight against free love and contraception in the late 1800s as well as Project Rescue’s radical antiabortion activism in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the antihomosexuality activism of the Westboro Baptist Church in the 1990s and 2000s.

    Chapter 9.

    One of the defining characteristics of governmental power is the ability to declare war and to require citizens to contribute to this effort, risking their lives and potentially taking the lives of others on the battlefield. Chapter 9 focuses on organizations and movements that have refused to recognize the legitimacy of this power, either because they consider all war immoral, question the motivation or wisdom of specific conflicts, or fear escalation that threatens the survival of humanity. Antiwar movements discussed in this chapter include the ongoing practice of conscientious objection within certain religious traditions, including the Quakers and other religious pacifist groups of the nineteenth century such as the New England Non-Resistance Society and the Universal Peace Union; World War I resistance organized by the Women’s Peace Party, the Industrial Workers of the World labor union, and Emma Goldman’s No-Conscription League; and World War II resistance mounted by the War Resisters League and the Catholic Worker Movement. Radical antiwar activism peaked in the United States during the Vietnam era, and a review of the wide range of protest activity is provided, with specific emphasis on the activity of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Weather Underground, and soldiers’ resistance such as the GI coffeehouse movement and Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Chapter 9 also looks at groups that protested the proliferation of nuclear weapons, including the Committee for Nonviolent Action that was active in the 1950s and 1960s and the Plowshares Movement that arose in the 1980s, as well as more recent groups formed to oppose the Iraq War, such as Direct Action to Stop the War and Code Pink for Peace.

    Chapter 10.

    Some environmental and animal rights groups have radically questioned elements of democracy, capitalism, and property rights; argued for the extension of human rights to other species; and engaged in a range of illegal tactics, including trespassing, illegal occupation of private property, property destruction, theft, and computer hacking. Chapter 10 includes two types of environmental groups—those focused on wilderness protection, such as Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front; and those primarily concerned with nuclear power, toxic waste, and environmental justice, such as the Clamshell Alliance, Love Canal Homeowners Association, Warren County Citizens Concerned about PCBs, and, most recently, efforts to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, such as the Tar Sands Blockade. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the radical animal rights movement, including Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Animal Liberation Front, and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty. Chapter 10 also includes a description of the “Green Scare,” the nickname given to efforts to discourage radical environmental and animal rights activism through the passage of new legislation, some of which carries the potential for lengthy prison sentences by linking such activity to terrorism.

    Because this book is specifically focused on radical political organizing, little discussion is provided of lone wolf activists like the Unabomber or extremist groups that do not engage in explicitly political activity, such as religious cults. In areas with extensive histories of radical political action, such as African Americans’ fight for full citizenship rights, we have focused our discussion on the groups that were most radical, had the greatest influence, and are least likely to receive coverage in standard accounts of the movement. For each group, our primary concern has been to clearly and accurately describe their motivations, beliefs, actions, and impact, rather than to evaluate their merit or morality.

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    1. Kathy E. Ferguson, Emma Goldman: Political Thinking in the Streets (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011), 25.

    2. Peter R. Neumann, “The Trouble with Radicalization,” International Affairs 89 (2013): 4.

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