November 30, 2022

IntelBrief: The Threat Posed by Anti-Democratic & Anti-Institution Extremism

AP Photo/Michael Sohn

Bottom Line Up Front

  • In some Western countries, governments view the threat of violent extremism through the lens of “anti-democratic” or “anti-constitutional” behaviors, and in some instances as its own evolving driver of violent extremism and terrorism.
  • Governments and practitioners have expressed concerns that what starts as anti-democratic or anti-government behavior can blend with concepts such as accelerationism, to increase the likelihood that politicians and democratic institutions or processes will be targeted, as was seen in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom, for example.
  • Like many states globally, numerous EU countries are struggling to balance constitutionally protected freedoms with the need to set some boundaries to acceptable behavior, including determine what may be criminalized.
  • Because social media often incentivizes extreme language and behavior, anti-democratic and anti-government narratives can feature violent rhetoric and enter the mainstream, corroding pluralist political discourse.

Within the typologies of violent extremism, there is an evolving category that deserves deeper investigation. In some Western countries, governments have categorized “anti-democratic” or “anti-government” [or constitution] as its own driver of extremism, not necessarily linked to a political ideology but a more straightforward anti-establishment strain. It can be fueled by conspiracies and disinformation, inflicting a corrosive impact on the rule of law and long-established democratic norms, including free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power. The U.S. Capitol insurrection of January 6, 2021, was a tipping point, to some extent, and placed the United States in the unenviable position of being a net exporter of anti-government extremism and similar ideologies. However, this is not limited to any one country. ‘The Big Lie’ has gone global and become a force multiplier for illiberalism and autocracy on a far broader scale; conspiracy theories like QAnon, initially founded in the US, have even gained traction in several countries in Europe. In the United States, what has been called ‘anti-government violent extremism’ [anti-democratic extremism] has focused on sowing doubt about the integrity of elections and institutions; extremists have intimidated and harassed election workers to the point that many polling locations have had to install unprecedented security measures. True to the ideological “salad bar” that can drive violent extremism, anti-government and anti-democratic extremist narratives have increasingly resonated with adherents of other forms of extremism.

In some places, such as in a number of local contexts in the United States, these arguments are being fought out in municipal and community institutions, whether schools or local government, for example. Some illustrative examples have appeared in U.S. school boards, where parents and community members have sought to influence the curriculum to promote xenophobic, intolerant, and ahistorical narratives. Some recent examples have included debates about the teaching of race and gender concepts in American schools; earlier, there were examples of parents in one state removing references to the historical Caliphate in the Middle East, which they conflated with the so-called Islamic State terrorist group.

By almost any measure, social cohesion and community engagement are beginning to fray, exacerbated in part by creeping isolation, lingering challenges related to the pandemic, and a greater reliance on technology, particularly ubiquitous echo chambers that reinforce an ‘in-group versus out-group’ mentality. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted a number of social dynamics and led to a host of reported  issues related to mental and physical health, particularly in young people. Government-implemented lockdowns in several places appeared to divide populations; disagreements over vaccines led to the growth of conspiracies and disinformation, which further eroded trust in government. In August 2020, protesters motivated by COVID-19 skepticism, conspiracies, and anti-government sentiment stormed the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament, although they were quickly repelled. Nevertheless, the symbolism was not lost on those who understand the history of anti-democratic movements. There are legitimate concerns that what starts as anti-democratic or anti-government behavior can morph over time, and can blend with concepts such as accelerationism to increase the likelihood of plots targeting politicians, as has occurred in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom, for example.

In Europe, there have been several high-profile cases where elements of the political system have been deemed a direct threat to democratic norms and institutions. In Germany, the office tasked with investigating the far-left and the far-right is called The Office for the Protection of the Constitution. In Finland, the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) was banned not as a terrorist group, which many believe it is, but rather for being anti-constitutional. Some EU countries are struggling to concretize the contours of acceptable democratic behavior and thus, clarify what type of behavior goes beyond the pale. The Alternative for Germany party (AfD), a far-right populist party which has seen increasing electoral success since its 2013 founding, has often been accused of blurring the lines between official political party structures and the broader ecosystem of far-right extremist networks. In Germany, the domestic intelligence service can legally gather information on political movements or parties deemed a threat to the democratic order. Yet, dedicating special police and intelligence divisions to surveil potential threats looks different in different countries, with civil liberties and privacy rights varying depending on the country in question. The US is struggling with this dynamic, attempting to balance civil liberties and First Amendment concerns with domestic terrorism risks.

There is also a significant overlap between aspects of anti-democratic and anti-government extremism, and racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism (REMVE). Conspiracies such as the “Great Replacement” can serve as the connective tissue linking these ideologies and networks together, deepening political polarization and elevating the prominence of individuals and groups formerly considered on the fringes of society. In South Africa, such overlap is exemplified in the appeal of the “deep-state” QAnon conspiracy, which has been popular among anti-government extremists, and its connection to Apartheid-era swart gevaar (‘black danger’) mythology. This theory has been updated in its current iteration, claiming that the Black-majority government is conspiring against white South Africans and the country writ large. Anti-refugee, anti-immigrant, and pro-Fascist narratives dominate the discourse where these currents merge online, in some cases serving as an incubator for radicalization and extremist ideologies. Because social media often incentivizes extreme language and behavior, anti-democratic and anti-institution narratives can feature violent rhetoric, and enter the mainstream, compromising pluralist political debate. Rolling back the growing tide of anti-democratic and anti-institution extremism will take a concerted whole-of-society approach, including investing in education. This must be a long-term strategy to combat the corrosive effects of anti-democratic extremism, which takes many forms and seeks to insinuate itself surreptitiously, weakening norms and rotting the system from within.