Why Do Extremists Bring Conspiracies to Public Meetings? Sacramento State Professor Gives Context

For more than a month, Sacramento City Council has grappled with how to respond to anti-semitic comments, including conspiracy theories, in its public meetings. 

Christopher Towler, a Sacramento State associate professor of political science, researches the dynamic between progressive and far-right movements. He has studied far-right reactions to progressive social change both historically and in the present day on the national level. 

Towler spoke with CapRadio about why extremists bring conspiracy theories to public meetings, providing historical context on how the American government has struggled with where to draw the line on hate speech. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

In your research, do you look at how far-right movements bring their rhetoric to public meetings, especially in local government? 

This is something that is consistent throughout the historical moments I’ve looked at, including the 1950s and ’60s, early 1900s, the period following Reconstruction and even in the 1850s. Any time social or political change takes a momentous shift in ways that make a large segment of conservative America uncomfortable, they start to bring far-right and extreme rhetoric into the public space far more often. 

You start to see conspiracy theories and political paranoia that normally would be seen as outlandish becoming more commonplace in town hall meetings, public debates and political campaigns. Since Obama’s first presidency, there’s still a significant portion of America that’s really worried about which way the country is going in the future and how progressive politics is advancing. 

When far-right movements bring this kind of rhetoric to the public sphere, is part of the strategy to normalize it and spread theories? 

The use of paranoia and conspiracy in far-right politics is one to normalize crazy ideas, but also it becomes a justification for understanding politics in a way that doesn’t really match up with reality. Reality is saying these groups that are gaining political power are doing so in a way that historically is deserving. That doesn’t really match up with far-right groups’ ideas of politics and how the world should work. 

So, they use conspiracy and paranoia to justify disagreeing with these political changes that are normal in the scope of history.They see their political power slipping away, so they’ll turn to these crazy ideas. The normalization of that rhetoric is just one way to make sure that their denial of political progress is justified and that they’re not seen as political crazies who shouldn’t be put in office. 

In your research of people expressing extremist views in public meetings, did local governments ever do anything to balance free speech rights versus responding to or limiting hate speech?

In the 1960s context, it’s different because of the way that segregation was normalized. There was far less resistance to what might be considered uncultured hate speech at things such as school board meetings or city council meetings.  

Today, I think our city councils and local governments are in new territory. They’re trying to figure out where these bounds are and where they need to draw the line, so certain groups still feel safe participating in these political spaces in ways that, at the same time, don’t completely eliminate First Amendment rights for other groups. 

This is something that our country has struggled with throughout history. This idea of, where does the KKK fall when it comes to expressing their hatred as a First Amendment right? The Supreme Court has taken this up a number of times trying to decipher where hate speech differs from just regular free speech.

The standard today is on whether or not it creates sort of this intent for clear and present danger, or whether there can be a legal consequence from the hate speech. But it’s still ambiguous in ways that make it very difficult, especially for institutions that are not well versed in the legal history, to figure out, where do we stop it? Where do we draw the line? 

Unfortunately, history suggests that the line has been drawn more clearly for groups that are trying to push for change than for those groups that are expressing attitudes that are more or less attitudes that are foundational to American politics. 

When you say where to draw the line, are you saying that governments have historically more often enforced meeting decorum rules against progressive social groups than extremists?

Absolutely. I think there’s a clear history of the American government censoring and stopping speech when it comes to groups that are challenging social norms and challenging institutional limitations [versus] when it comes to groups that are rehearsing historical racism in ways that the country has accepted for most of its history. 

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