URBANA, Ill. – The United States has experienced a dramatic increase in anti-democratic extremist groups in recent decades, culminating with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Adverse economic conditions and high unemployment rates fueled the proliferation of extremism, according to a study from University of Illinois.
“These are right-wing populist movements with very strong anti-federal-government positions. They are anti-democratic in the sense that they won't accept governments they don't agree with, and that is a dangerous trend in U.S. politics,” says Benjamin Crost, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at U of I.
“It's important to study where these movements came from, so we can understand how to prevent them from getting stronger, and prevent future attacks on democracy,” he adds.
Crost analyzed the association between unemployment rates and the number of extremist groups in U.S. states from 2005 to 2013. He published the research in a working paper at the Empirical Studies of Conflict website.
“A 1-percentage-point increase in unemployment rates correlates with approximately two additional anti-democratic groups per state per year,” he explains.
The analysis uses data from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on the number and geographic distribution of groups. SPLC keeps track of extremist movements in the U.S. including national groups such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, as well as local militia groups and extremist political parties.
Crost says the number of groups increased from 128 in 2007 to 807 in 2010. The average state-level unemployment rate increased from 4.3% to 8.8% in the same time period. By 2013, the number of groups had increased to 1096.
“These movements exploded after the financial crisis in 2008, and there was a hypothesis that economic conditions drove the increase,” he says. “However, the financial crisis coincided with the election of Barack Obama, which may have exacerbated latent racism and political animosity.”
Crost analyzed multiple additional factors that may have contributed to the rise in extremist movements. For example, to gauge for pre-existing racial resentment, he calculated the proportion of Google web searches for the racial slur commonly known as the “n-word,” an established measure of latent, underreported racism.
“I wanted to control for these variables in states that might have had a particularly strong backlash against Obama. There's considerable evidence that, for example, in places where people searched for the ‘n-word’ a lot, Obama underperformed his polls during the 2008 election,” Crost explains.
To estimate animosity towards liberal policies, Crost looked at the percentage of votes for Bush versus Obama in 2008, as well as the number of evangelicals – known to be a conservative demographic – in each state.
He found these factors didn’t change the overall trajectory of results, but latent racism exacerbated the effect. In states with higher racial animus, a 1-percentage-point increase in unemployment rate led to 2.8 new groups.
Furthermore, the effect was strongest for the white, male unemployment rate. That’s not surprising, as members of extremist groups are predominantly male and white, Crost notes.
“The interaction between adverse economic shocks and latent racial resentment triggered by Obama’s election combined in a powerful way to make these movements grow,” he says.
Crost suggests economic policies to stabilize the economy could have prevented this from happening. He conducted a counterfactual modeling exercise to estimate what would have happened without the effects of the financial crisis.
This exercise indicates that If unemployment rates had stayed stable from 2006, the number of groups would have been 379 rather than 807 in 2010.
“That means we can attribute more than 60% of the growth in anti-democratic extremist groups between 2007 and 2010 to the high unemployment rates during the financial crisis. If we had enacted strong measures after the financial crisis to stabilize unemployment rates against this financial shock, that could have had a large limiting effect on these groups,” Crost states.
“The ultimate conclusion is that labor market policies can potentially play an important role in preventing the spread of extremist movements,” he concludes.
The Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics is in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois.
The paper, “Economic Conditions and the Rise of Anti-Democratic Extremism” (ESOC Working Paper No. 24) is available at the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project.