Yesterday I went to a Starr Forum hosted by the Center for International Studies at MIT. Panelists were Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, David Art of Tufts University, and Jolyon Howorth, a visiting professor at Yale. CIS Director Dick Samuels moderated.
The theme, as you can see here, was Racism, Violence and Democracy. This forum was not exactly uplifting! We talked about the rise of far-right groups in Europe, and also about Brexit. But for me, the discussions about the United States were the most interesting.
Heidi has a lot of experience documenting domestic far-right extremist groups. The number of these groups started rising fast in the year 2000, and saw a new spike as President Obama took office – though, Heidi pointed out, these groups have tended to grow in number under every Democrat administration over the past few decades (they coalesce more easily when members can bond over their shared opposition to a particular POTUS).
The discussion was especially timely given the rise of Donald Trump, who has support from several extreme-right groups. In my view, one of the worst things Trump has done is encourage his supporters to monitor polling stations on Nov. 8, ostensibly in order to prevent fraud. The historical precedents for these kinds of warnings/tactics are very scary.
But this is 2016, not 1964. The U.S. is better than it used to be, even if it does have a long way to go. And panels/events like this one are useful because they promote dialogue and understanding about these important, if sometimes frightening, issues.
I’m looking forward to MIT’s next Starr Forum!