As we look toward the year 2000, the signs are troubling. Terror from the radical right is up, and every indication is that this trend will continue. Many religiously driven extremists are in a 1,000-day countdown to the millennium in the belief that an end-times race war is coming. Others believe that they must do battle with the leviathan of American government, which they see as an oppressive enemy of liberty.
After 30 years of organizing by the antidemocratic right, the bitter seeds planted by hatemongers and their allies are bearing a poisonous fruit.
It is tempting to think of hate groups and those of the so-called "Patriot" movement as anomalies, the paranoid fringe that frets about black helicopters, secretly implanted microchips and concentration camps hidden in deserts and under cities.
But that would be too easy.
These groups are taking advantage of far larger things than the gullibility of the weak-minded or the tendency to scapegoat by those bearing personal grudges. With a great deal of savvy, they have latched onto mainstream American concerns.
Wages of the bottom three-fifths of Americans have dropped since 1991, as a two-tier economy is created that consigns most of those without college degrees to menial service jobs. Racial polarization is increasing, with schools and neighborhoods more segregated than they have been for decades. Attacks on the poor, on immigrants and on those of different ethnicities are on the upswing.
The very concept of civil society — typified in President Kennedy's injunction to "ask what you can do for your country" — is fraying around the edges, as good people withdraw from political life and Americans bicker about the sexual and other peccadilloes of those politicians who remain.
Identity Politics and the Common Good
The concept of a common good is being replaced by the notion of competing special interests. And these interests are not so much the traditional ones of business, professional, advocacy and other groups. They are racial and ethnic populations.
The rise of "identity politics" is visible on many fronts. In Milwaukee and Fort Worth, there have been recent movements to create all-black school districts — proponents argue that the "white system" has failed them, that integration has not worked.
English-only movements have picked up speed in California, where whites react with fear to Mexican immigration, and in places like Alabama, where those who can't speak English are denied driver's licenses. Hispanics, Native Americans and other population groups are increasingly isolated, living and working in their own schools, neighborhoods and regions.
The melting pot is not melting.
Into this constellation of competing mini-worlds come the organizers of the radical right. Suddenly, it doesn't sound so far out, so racist, for white men to speak of being oppressed, for Klansmen to describe their purpose as being merely the promotion of white people and culture.
It rings true to many blacks when Black Muslims describe Jews, falsely, as having been the leaders in the slave trade.
People nod their heads in vigorous agreement as political leaders speak angrily of being "swamped" by immigrants — even those whose parents and grandparents were immigrants themselves. Congregants in churches nationwide applaud as their pastors denigrate homosexuals as sinful.
'A State of Emergency'
"These are awesome days," Robert McCurry, a Georgia pastor, told an April gathering of leaders of Christian Identity, an anti-Semitic religion. "We've never walked this way before, we've never been in a state of emergency and the state of crisis as we are at this particular moment."
McCurry is right — but not for the reasons he imagines.
Americans today face a great challenge. Are we to continue down the path toward balkanization, the road to an America of racial mini-states long dreamed of by white supremacist organizers? Or can we recapture the ancient Greek notion of the polis, the gathering of people into a community organized for the common good?
In the answer to this question lies the answer to America's future — indeed, to the future of American democracy. If we are to make this system work, it is incumbent on each of us to try to see beyond our own circumscribed world.
The alternative is to hand those who would wreck democracy the victory they have sought for so long.