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Obama shouldn't lump the right-wing as one

He isn't yet. But others risk conflating Neo-Nazis and Newt Gingrich, lynchers and Rush Limbaugh.

By Nicole Hemmer / June 12, 2009

Evansville, Indiana

Wednesday's shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington fed an evolving story about right-wing extremism in America. Even as both sides play hot potato in trying to label the shooter far right or far left, suddenly Janet Napolitano's April memo about an upswing in right-wing violence seemed prescient. The murder of abortion doctor George Tiller in May was no longer a single incident, but part of a trend: right-wing domestic terrorism.

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As this narrative of a resurgent, violent right has emerged, so has considerable confusion about what it means to be a right-wing extremist.

Are we talking about neo-Nazis or Newt Gingrich? Lynchers or Rush Limbaugh?

Both liberals and conservatives gain from confusing conservatism and the fringe right. Liberals use it to dismiss all conservatives; conservatives use it, as they are doing in the case of Secretary Napolitano's memo, to paint themselves as victims of a liberal establishment.

But whatever political points can be scored from such confusion, it stands in the way of honest political engagement.

We no longer talk about the responsible right and the irresponsible right, a taxonomy dating back to the 1960s, when conservatism began garnering national attention.

In 1961, stories about the "radical right" and "ultraconservatives" began appearing in major periodicals. Most journalists took little care to separate out the crackpots – a New York Times article, for instance, noted no difference between the National Review magazineand the American Nazi Party. The troubling tendency to lump all right-wing groups together was not confined to newspapers. The Kennedy administration did it, too.

Consider a 1961 report written for the administration by Walter and Victor Reuther, brothers and powerful union organizers. The 24-page document, known as the Reuther memo, discussed the dangers posed by the radical right.

The memo defined the radical right as "bounded on the left by Senator Goldwater and on the right by Robert Welch," head of the Birch Society. (Today's equivalent might be "bounded on the left by Mitt Romney and on the right by talk show host Glenn Beck.")

The memo's most disturbing element, however, was the recommendation that the administration use the tools of government to deal with the radical right. The Reuthers advocated use of the attorney general's subversive list (typically reserved for communist groups), the Internal Revenue Service, and the Federal Communications Commission to break up right-wing organizations and media efforts.