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Jeffrey Feldman Headshot

Return of 1990s-Style Right-Wing Violence?

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1990s Political Disruptions Began As Hate Mail, But Led to Murder
In the heat of last week's Republican attack on John Edwards, Frameshop proposed the establishment of a new DNC task force to be charged specifically with protecting Democratic candidates--and by extension the U.S. electoral system--from the cancer of organized Republican smear.

On the heels of that prescription, the Republican smear of Edwards metastasized in two directions: a Christian nationalist group (Fidelis) that had long been in political remission, suddenly sprang back to life and sent blackmail letters to the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and---most alarmingly--the threat of home-grown authoritarian violence against American citizens that had been at bay since the abortion clinic murders of the 1990s, suddenly re-emerged in the form of hate mail calling for the sodomy, rape and murder of two young women formerly employed by the John Edwards' campaign.

Many will argue that this right-wing hate mail should not be cause for alarm, but statistics from abortion clinic murders in the 1990s may suggest otherwise:  that the latest smear jobs against Democrats may signify a retrenched effort by right-wing American authoritarian groups to use media-driven campaigns of political disruption as a strategy for inciting street-level political violence.

Right Wing Campaigns Against Abortion Clinics Presage Potential for  Violence Against Bloggers
Statistics gathered by the National Abortion Federation suggest that 1994 was the big year for murders and attempted murders of abortion providers in the U.S. and Canada.  Disturbingly, between 1989 and 1994, while the number of arrests of right-wing activists decreased, instances of right-wing hate mail increased.

This table of the NAF data was created by and should serve as an loud alarm to anyone in the Democratic party or big media who concludes that the email threats calling for the sodomy, rape and murder of Edward's staffers can be ignored:


The two instances of violence in 1993 were accompanied by a spike in hate mail and  death threats, eventually reaching a massive rise in hate mail activity in 1992. By the onset of the murderous seasons of 1993 and 1994, hate mail threats was playing a central role as a form of political disruption and incitement.

These statistical trends combined with other forms of analysis led the NAF and to conclude [emphasis mine]:

  • Many pro-choice individuals and groups blame these criminal acts on the most violent extremists in the pro-life movement. Some believe that the violent rhetoric heard from pro-lifers motivates the more radical pro-life fringe to resort to violence.
  • Many pro-life individuals and groups blame the violence on groups which are quite separate from the pro-life movement -- people who have little regard for human life.

The conclusion, here, should be disturbing to anyone who read those death threats--threats of violence written by individual Republicans acting on their own, but who made their choice to do so just as the media coverage became dominated by the Catholic League's confrontational rhetoric towards John Edwards and his staffers.

Unfortunately, with the exception of bloggers mobilizing against the threat of violence against their ranks, there has been been no discernible response from state or national Democratic Party organizations to treat the recent death threats against campaign workers as warning of violence up the road.

Spike in Violence Followed Democratic Return to White House
Why should we take these incidents seriously now?

In addition to the obvious fact that Democratic staffers were threatened with calls for horrific sexual abuse and murder, recent history suggests that current electoral trends may put into place a similar set of conditions that gave rise to the spike in past right-wing campaigns of violence.

Looking at the above chart, we will note that biggest spike in hate mail coincided with the 1992 presidential campaign that delivered Bill Clinton to the White House on top of a Democratic majority in Congress.

A year later brought 2 actual and attempted murders.  The following year brought 12. This suggests that the spike in violent rhetoric from the right preceded the actual spike in violence.

Fast forward 15 years and we may be headed for a very similar situation.  If the recent smear job by Bill Donohue against John Edwards is any indication, the specifics of the right-wing campaigns to crush abortion providers have changed, but the tactic and the objectives remain the same.

The argument that "liberals" are violating the sensibilities of believers is being used as a pretext for inciting hatred and then the threat of violence against Americans.  The targets of these attacks are no longer medical care providers, but the reason they are targets is still connected to the right-wing attempt to control women.

And so Democrats find themselves in a quandary.  Do we wait for these hate mail threats of violence to increase again to the point where they are allowed to spread a cloud of  imminent violence over our electoral system?  Or do we intervene right now to nip these groups in the bud, learning from the mistakes of the 1990s that allowed the tragic murder of women's health care providers to happen?

Protect Now,  Fret Later
The simple answer is that the Democratic Party must act now and fret later.  Every death threat against a campaign staffer is a serious matter, and one is more than enough to convene a task force to guarantee that these right-wing threats of violence are not allowed to incite even one incident of actual violence.

The first step can be for the Democratic National Committee to reach out to those who are already involved in the disparate efforts to push back against the right-wing media campaigns and to convene a centralized organization charged with the job of keeping track of the Republican groups that have been--and have the potential to--use rhetoric that promotes violence.

We know now that list will include the Catholic League, but we have work to do to build a data base of groups that may otherwise fuel this effort.

This job is not only urgent, it has the potential to save lives.

(cross posted from Frameshop)