Extremism Has Spread Into the Mainstream

It is a public-health problem, not a security issue.

Law enforcement investigating a mass-shooting scene on August 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio
Law enforcement investigating a 2019 mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio (Matthew Hatcher / Getty)

About the author: Cynthia Miller-Idriss directs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University. Her most recent book is Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right.

In the two decades since September 11, the U.S. has fought terrorism and extremism by concentrating on law-enforcement and intelligence readiness, with experts focused on disrupting fringe groups before they carry out violence. This Band-Aid approach is ill-suited to combatting modern far-right extremism, which has spread well beyond fringe groups and into the mainstream.

The extremism we’re now seeing in the U.S. is “post-organizational,” characterized by fluid online boundaries and a breakdown of formal groups and movements. Violence is mostly perpetrated by lone actors who are influenced by ideas online rather than by plots hatched by group leaders in secret gatherings. Most successfully executed far-right terrorist attacks in the U.S. in the past 20 years—including in Charleston, South Carolina; Pittsburgh; and El Paso, Texas—were carried out by men who were not official members of any groups. Even though the January 6 insurrection was a mass gathering, it included thousands of individuals mobilized through online disinformation campaigns and propaganda. Just 14 percent of those arrested to date are members of extremist groups.

To fight this amorphous kind of radicalization, the federal government needs to see the problem as a whole-of-society, public-health issue. It needs to, for example, beef up security at the U.S. Capitol, but also put the same kind of effort and money into preventing radicalization years before anyone would ever think to mobilize in Washington, D.C.

The federal government, so far, has not been capable of such a paradigm shift. Part of the problem is partisan gridlock and Republican resistance to anything related to far-right extremism, as they’ve demonstrated with the vote against the January 6 commission. The other problem is that the federal government focuses too much on security, and not enough on preventing radicalization in the first place.

A new mindset is not impossible, though. After a white supremacist murdered 77 people in Norway 10 years ago, the Norwegian government launched a national action plan to counter radicalization and extremism that engages nine different ministries, including those charged with education, social inclusion, labor, social services, and health. Targeted projects include interfaith teams engaging in dialogue to promote mutual understanding and parent networking groups supporting caregivers concerned about extremist beliefs in their children.

In response to the 2019 Christchurch terror attacks that killed 51 Muslim worshippers, the New Zealand government instituted a sweeping set of investments in education and research that links preventing extremism with improving equity. They have a new national research center devoted to social cohesion and the prevention of violent extremism. Millions of dollars are earmarked for early-childhood initiatives, along with provisions for improving ethnic diversity in government leadership.

The German government introduced new legislation last year devoting more than 1 billion euros to address both racism and right-wing extremism. Initiatives are coordinated across seven different federal agencies. This adds to an already robust set of prevention programs running in local soccer clubs, theater and arts programs, and religious groups. Every city or region has a mobile advisory center, independent from law enforcement, that provides assessments and advice to any group or individual concerned about radicalization.

These plans all emphasize resilience as much as risk. They integrate the fight against systemic racism with efforts to combat extremist ideas. Communities in the U.S. are hungry for this kind of support. They are hurting and are seeing their residents fall for conspiratorial thinking and express white-supremacist ideas. Since January 6, my research lab, the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, has fielded dozens of requests for help from school principals, evangelical pastors, employers, teachers, university leaders, parents, retiree groups, mayors’ offices, and military bases. They are all looking for tools to combat extremism. Across the country, coalitions of citizens are taking it upon themselves to learn how to prevent radicalization in locally grounded ways, often integrating with efforts to combat broader forms of hate.

To be fair, the American government hasn’t entirely ignored prevention. In March, the U.S. government doubled its funding to support local prevention efforts, from $10 million to $20 million. The funding, though, is orders of magnitude smaller than investments made by other, less populous countries. Those resources are also housed exclusively within the federal agency devoted to security—in contrast to the multi-agency approaches overseas. The Department of Homeland Security also recently renamed its Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships and pledged to take a community-based approach to prevention. This is a promising development, but much depends on its implementation.

In the end, the best hope for combatting extremism in the U.S. will be for the federal government to empower local communities to take the reins. By pairing local initiatives with clear, national evidence about what works, fighting extremism isn’t as unwieldy as it may seem. For example, we learned from a study of 750 parents and caregivers that they needed only seven minutes of reading to improve their understanding of how radical ideas spread online.

Parents, mental-health counselors, teachers, and coaches can learn to recognize warning signs of radicalization. Public libraries and schools can build media-literacy programs to help people be less susceptible to online manipulation. City governments can invest in community-well-being programs that strengthen social cohesion. Researchers can provide guidance about lessons learned.

For this approach to work, though, local communities need funding, innovative ideas, and evidence-based models for programming. Federal support is key to all of that. But until the federal government recognizes that extremism is a public-health issue that needs to be fought locally, in a holistic way, our country will struggle to fight today’s battle against extremism with the tools from yesterday’s crisis.