White supremacist hate groups face a number of obstacles to the political power they want but do not have. Declining membership, unsuccessful alliances between groups with common goals, and rejection by voters are some of the reasons experts cite for the failure of the white supremacist movement to gain anything other than notoriety. While they say this failure has driven extremist members of the groups to violence, the experts disagree as to whether the violence is over or not.
Estimated membership in white supremacists and anti-Semitic organizations appears to be on a decline, dropping from about 12,000 in 1981 to near 7,000 this year (a majority of whom are members of the Ku Klux Klan). These figures come from Bill Stanton, reasearch director for Klan Watch, a Montgomery, Ala.-based organization, supported by grants from churches and foundations, which monitors the activities of the Klan.
The only group in the country Mr. Stanton's organization sees gaining any membership is the White Patriots Party in North Carolina, led by Glenn Miller. Klan watchers say Mr. Miller's party is growing in North Carolina, but attempts to recruit new members from out of state have been unsuccessful.
While Stanton sees evidence of increased cooperation between Klan and Nazi groups, competition for members and their dollars makes for shaky ties that may not last. ``To hold the views that they hold, I think it's fair to say that you've got to be pretty paranoid,'' Stanton says. ``They can't even form a coalition or an alliance with any hope of it succeeding, because there's always backbiting and suspicion and intrigue and all that going on.''
In the farm belt, less blatantly white supremacist groups appear to be using a soft-sell approach to gain support and power in that troubled region. That is the view of Leonard Zeskind, research director for the Center for Democratic Renewal in Kansas City, Mo., an umbrella organization of which Klan Watch is a member.
``As the farm crisis has developed for five years . . . we've seen a growth both in terms of numbers and political sophistication.'' The groups have learned to talk in 15-second bites for the broadcast media and have toned down their militaristic image, according to Mr. Zeskind.
The Populist Party, which is widely viewed as the political arm of the white supremacist movement in the Midwest, has filed a lawsuit against the Federal Reserve Bank of Des Moines, Iowa, convincing some farmers to file amicus briefs in support of it. The suit, filed in Sioux City, is an attempt to prevent foreclosures on farms. Federal Reserve officials say the bank is not involved in farm loans. Zeskind notes that this politically safe legal action masks the underlying anti-Semitism of the party.
Zeskind also observes that unlike the Aryan Nation and its radical offshoot, The Order, the Populist Party, and other groups now operating in the Midwest have not rejected the goal of a broad-based following. That is ``exactly their goal,'' and they have tempered their approach to tried to win more general support, he says. ``They don't march around in uniform and scream and holler. It's not the Klan and [small] Aryan Nations crowds we're dealing with, these are people who are otherwise upstanding membe rs of their communities.''
Though white supremacist groups in the Midwest do not have much power yet, there are counties where pockets of these people have a strong voting voice. Washington and Guthrey counties in Iowa and Richardson county in Nebraska are good examples. ``I think it will be awhile before they actually gain any power,'' says Zeskind. ``They still haven't won any electoral races.''
Established farm groups will probably prevent white supremacist groups from seizing power in the farm states, he says. ``One thing that's got to be kept in mind is there are significant democratic and pluralistic farmer groups, in place and those are really the best guarantee that these guys won't go anyplace,'' says Zeskind. These groups include associations such as Prarie Fire -- a group that staffs the Iowa Farm Coalition -- and The American Agricultural Movement.
Unlike some Klan and Nazi watchers, Zeskind is still concerned about the potential for violence from frustrated extremist members of white supremacist groups -- violence aimed at the U.S. government, which many white supremacists claim is controlled by an international Jewish conspiracy.
Zeskind disagrees with those who think the Order and other potentially violent groups have been broken by the Justice Department's trial of Order members in Seattle this fall, because too many of the leaders are still free.
Stanton agrees. He says there has been a radicalization of the hard core in these groups. Though membership is decreasing, the potential for violence remains because the hard core left in these groups has become desperate.
But David Lowe, the assistant director of the fact-finding department of the Jewish Anti Defamation League of B'Nai B'Rith, says the threat of violence from these groups is waning. ``These groups are very much on the run, they are not as visible as they were'' even a year ago. As evidence, he cites cancellation of two of the summer's bigger gatherings for white supremacist groups.
Here in Idaho -- the adopted homeland of the Aryan Nations group -- their leader Richard Butler was only able to attract about five members of his church to a recent debate with main line ministers.
``Their message is overwhelmingly rejected by the American people. Glen Miller runs for governor of North Carolina and he gets absolutely nowhere with his campaign,.'' says Mr. Lowe. And, most Americans consider the groups and their beliefs an anomaly, he adds.