A Primer On The Fairness Doctrine: How We Screwed Up

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EDIT: This post is now well over 10 years old, but it's still relevant today.... So we will keep it as is...

With the Internet overflowing with various pundits speculating on "What went wrong in the 2004 election?", I'd like to add my theory. Unlike other theories dancing around which take into account partisan intent, what people are thinking and the use of lots of tin-foil hats, I think there's a very straightforward path that shows how and why the American populace has developed into the polarized mindset that was responsible for the current political climate.

This is the first part of a two part rambling diatribe. The first part outlines what I feel are the two major causes of most of the problems. The second part outlines ideas I have on solving the problems in a realistic way given an environment that is vehemently hostile towards equitible debate.

Most people would agree that our current political climate is heavily polarized. The media most often calls attentions to extremes in the issues, rather than seeking common ground between groups. Even the president jumps on the bandwagon with statements like, "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists." With no room for compromise, fueled by a media system which seeks to divide everything into two clearly contrasting piles of soundbytes, it's no wonder half the public is extremely polarized and the other half extremely apathetic.

How did things get to this point? Many argue the winner communicated more effectively than the loser. I agree. And many argue that the losers didn't have the right message. To that I also agree. But trying to understand what the Kerry camp did wrong is a waste of time when you ignore the extreme tilt of the playing field upon which they performed.

It is my contention that two specific events have contributed to the current situation:

1. The veto of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 by Ronald Reagan:
The policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission that became known as the "Fairness Doctrine" is an attempt to ensure that all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station be balanced and fair. The FCC took the view, in 1949, that station licensees were "public trustees," and as such had an obligation to afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial issues of public importance. The Commission later held that stations were also obligated to actively seek out issues of importance to their community and air programming that addressed those issues. With the deregulation sweep of the Reagan Administration during the 1980s, the Republican-controlled Commission dissolved the fairness doctrine.

The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine harkened a new age in media and journalism. News outlets were no longer forced to adopt middle ground positions when covering issues; editorial no longer need be confined to narrow areas, and the airwaves exploded with thousands of heavily polarized pundits broadcasting 24 hours a day their agendas, without any concern for fairness or covering alternative viewpoints.

Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and thousands of other partisian pundits were free to spew their slanted take on the world without ever considering the need to offer anything but a wholly one-sided tale of the issues. Left un-regulated and therefore un-challeneged, their hubris expanded to epic preportions as evidenced in statements like, "Fair and Balanced, "No Spin Zone", etc.

And thus began the modern propaganda wars. Unfortunately it's more of a massacre than a real war.

Dan Rather talks about Media corruption

Yes, the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine also gave liberal entities the same freedom. The problem is the platforms for these pundits were mostly commercial radio stations, and the conservatives took the role of spokespeople for the agenda of corporate America, unarguably the true political power in the nation. Liberals, representing the moderate voice of the mainstream didn't have the resources that mouthpieces for big-pharma, insurance, finance, oil and defense contractors, and as a result, found themselves literally drowning in a sea of pro-big-business propaganda, with no way to get equal airtime and thus, no comparable method of getting their voice to even 1/10000th of the populace.

So now you have pundits-o-plenty on the airwaves, representing the agenda of the richest corporate benefactors. What more could you want? How about some way to give the most powerful media companies even more power and market control? Which brings us to #2:

2. The passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which had some very insideous media deregulation mandates tacked within:
Media mergers of unprecedented scale have continued unabated -- but there's no discussion of the dangers involved, or the controversy it should represent. Disney has since bought ABC, Westinghouse has bought CBS, and Time-Warner has bought Turner Broadcasting System. Congress cleared out the remaining obstacles for still more media mergers by passing the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Headlines in the media blared about the bill's attempt to censor pornography on the Internet, but otherwise remained completely silent about its deregulation of anti-trust laws for the media. For this bit of censorship, the Telecom Act was voted the number one censored story of 1995 by Project Censored.

This two-pronged approach: The eradication of guidelines dictating equality and fairness in covering differing sides of an issue, coupled with the radical unbridaling of media ownership restrictions has opened the floodgates to rampant polarization and control of mass media never before seen in the United States.

It used to be that most communities had multiple news sources, many of whom offered different sides to a story. The distance between the left and the right's viewpoint was much wider than it is now. With huge mega-media-corporations such as Viacom and Clear Channel, in some cases controlling extremely disproportionate shares of the populace, the definition of "liberal" has been pushed to far right of moderate (by today's standards, "liberal media" is defined as the absence of a discernable pro-conservative agenda). And hence the myth of the "liberal media" was put in play to further rationalize the radicalization of the mass media market.

When not having unconditional faith in ones' commander-in-chief becomes a shade of treason, you know things have gone horribly wrong. When so-called "liberal commentators" in mainstream media are mere submissive shadows of the domineering right-wing pundits, you will never get a fair shake, much less get your message across.

Look at Howard Dean. A simple "Ye-HAWWWW" ruined his political career. Who do you think did that? The "liberal media?" When an otherwise innocuous 10-second slice of videotape can completely destroy a legitimate political candidate, you're not on a level playing field. You're screwed.

When Bill Clinton is impeached for an innocuous transgression in his personal life, Michael Moore and the Dixie Chicks are despised by more than half the population for daring to champion the cause of the middle class, yet Rush Limbaugh can get caught in an illegal drug deal, Bob Novak can commit treason and out a CIA agent with no punishment, the President can lie to the American people about engaging in war and not get called on it, The vice-president can award multi-billion dollar no-bid contracts to a company he has interest in... and nobody does anything about it. You know you're not in Kansas anymore Toto.

This is why the Democrats never had a chance. The Republicans control the mass media. Well, let me qualify this: The corporations control the mass media and the Republicans have made it clear that corporate America is who they serve first and foremost. And anyone that challenges their Superior Vision For America(tm) is a terrorist, coward, tax-raising, immoral, un-Christian, gay promoting, gun confiscating, fetus-murdering, un-patriotic... LIBERAL.

Kerry was toast before his mic was even turned on.

The solution to the problem is to undo the damage caused by the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the monopolization of mass media allowed by parameters to the 1996 Telco Act.

To all you people frustrated with the lack of fair political debate, the Fairness Doctrine solves this problem; those of you who want to break the grip of the two-party system? The Fairness Doctrine is the device. There is no single issue that in the opinion of this writer would have a more profound impact on the improvment of our political and media system than this humble set of guidelines.

Before any of us bring up any other issue, the inequality between corporate opinions and average persons' issues as showcased in the media needs to be fixed. A top priority should be to lobby for the Fairness Doctrine to be made into law. If there ever was an issue worthy of the effort of an uprising of the people, this is it. Since the Republicans killed this principal, they will do their best to make sure it never sees light again, which is why the people must unify on this one issue beyond everything else. With the Fairness Doctrine in place, anything is possible; without it, it will always be an uphill battle for anything that isn't in the best interests of select powerful corporations.

Make No mistake, the fundamentalists are very happy the Fairness Doctrine is no longer enforced. They're even launching pre-emptive propaganda to try to insure it doesn't get reinstated:

See Part II - What to do about the media problem.

White Women In Peril - an interesting analysis of one symptom of the destruction of the Fairness Doctrine.


Well said.
Posted by Anonymous on 2004-11-14 02:24:59
I forwarded a link to this article to the DNC 2004 Election Feedback website and told them to pay attention.

(They might not like the part about "breaking the grip of the 2 party system" but oh well..)

The Democrats keep kicking themselves for not having a good enough message but I think that's a smaller problem than the fact that they are trying win on principles while ignoring the "informed electorate" part of the formula for democracy.

I think it's very, very sad that the Democratic Party's focus seems to be all about how to craft a better message and present it in flashier packaging, not about how to fix the dysfunctional mass media so that real information reaches the people, so they can make an informed decision.
fair's fair
Posted by Anonymous on 2004-11-23 20:32:51
...just the other night I listened to some name now forgotten on fox "news", on the Christian Right, base government censure of public airwave programming upon the airwaves belonging to the public. If that is so then the legal substance exists for the Fairness Doctrine II.
It was a fair win
Posted by Anonymous on 2004-12-24 13:19:13
The reason america voted bush into office is because america is retarded....55 million americans voted for a man with and IQ of a 6 year old....you jsut know somethings wrong with america when that happens....he denys people justice....trys to take away their rights of abortion and marriage...he is a horrible and extremely stupid man
Posted by Pile on 2005-01-02 16:39:48
This is not a democrat vs republican, liberal vs conservative issue. It just so happens conservatives have mostly their way, but things will change when corporate america doesn't profit more by embracing conservatism. There are already lots of signs. These same institutions that support the right wing fundamentalists also are inundating the media with images of superficiality, selfishness and sexuality which many Christians don't espouse.

What goes around, comes around. Ths sad part is that those who benefit from the radical policies are content with freedoms being limited as long as it's not their freedoms, but it will be eventually.
Posted by raionz on 2005-04-27 01:16:21
im putting a link to this at my page sometime in the near future if you dont mind


drop me a comment if u want me to take it down
The more links the merrier!
Posted by Pile on 2005-04-27 17:54:49
I think this is a very important article. I encourage it to be linked as much as possible. It's ok to reprint it too as long as a reference to bsalert.com is provided, but if you're online, I'd prefer a link to the story, as it's an ongoing saga that we're routinely going to update.
Posted by SN Man on 2005-09-28 15:35:15
There is nothing wrong with the US political system. Theres something wrong with the people who run it. Just kidding. I don't really care about politics. I'm too busy watching Spongebob and writing letters to myself and sending them to see what would happen.
I agree
Posted by Thorazine on 2006-01-25 17:40:39
These seemingly small changes have actually slanted the RIGHTS of the people to the one-sided view.

The opposition, in fact everyone, should be allowed fair access to media to counter the well-heeled "majority" of idiot's views. It is, after all, only fair.

Instead of contributing 3 dollars to the presidential campaign fund on my tax form, I would rather earmark that money to Equal media time for dissenters.

Sure, we would get the kooks and illiterate boobs talking, but we could make more informed choices.

Republicrats and Demicians need to be throttled, and throttled hard. They have crafted laws to exclude the majority.
Posted by raymond on 2007-01-17 18:26:48
Media bias? Your views are extreme and apparently you cannot establish reality from anything you disagree with. Examples:

"When Bill Clinton is impeached for an innocuous transgression in his personal life" - Media is to blame for this? Last time I checked, congress impeaches, not the media. SOME leaders actually believe in ethics from leaders.

"Michael Moore and the Dixie Chicks are despised by more than half the population for daring to champion the cause of the middle class" - No, Michael Moore is despised by half the population for distastefully lying for left wing views, which are, in turn, half the population. Dixie Chicks are despised by their base audience, which are OMG CONSERVATIVE! Neither of these are middle-class specific.

"Rush Limbaugh can get caught in an illegal drug deal" - I didn't realize he went unpunished. Many people get away with slaps on the wrist for drug possession.

"the President can lie to the American people about engaging in war and not get called on it" -The media calls him on it every day, even on fox news and listeners on talk radio. Where have yall been for EVER?

"Look at Howard Dean. A simple "Ye-HAWWWW" ruined his political career. Who do you think did that? The "liberal media?" - No! What ruined it was Howard Dean, the look in his eyes scared women, gay guys, and little children. The "liberal media" built him up, however, on the sense he challenged Bush on the war! (see above call on YOUR VERY OWN BS). BTW, he ruins his career every time he opens his mouth with the hate-speech he preaches about the opposite party.

" And anyone that challenges their Superior Vision For America(tm) is a terrorist, coward, tax-raising, immoral, un-Christian, gay promoting, gun confiscating, fetus-murdering, un-patriotic... LIBERAL." - Those names suck huh? How about yall stop using them on conservatives/republicans.

Good grief, either look both ways or dont step on the street, cuz ur gonna cause a pile up and ruin the day for everybody. I can just see televised media under your fairness indoctrination: liberals vs anti-american left-wingers would be fair to ur type, yet youd flame Hannity for bringing a weakling like Alan Colmes to his station. HAHAHA you ill-informed extremists are a damn joke, seriously...
Posted by Cletus on 2007-01-20 18:42:36
Yeh you stupid idits want fair doctors to be inoffice yer al nuts
Posted by Dale on 2007-07-02 16:33:03
quote - "Bob Novak can commit treason and out a CIA agent with no punishment"

No one was convicted of a violation of the Intelligence Indentities Protection Act. The only conviction was of Scooter Libbey for obstruction. How can that be?

Simple, simpleton! Plame was not a covert agent because she had not been deployed outside the US in the last five years and her identity as a CIA employee was not a secret.

No law broken by Novak, therefore no treason.
Posted by TheSimulacra on 2007-12-27 10:45:18
Right, Dale. So why was there an investigation if no crime occurred? You'd think that would be the first thing they'd check, n'est ce pas?

I don't know where you get this "five years" nonsense. The last time I checked the CIA is the one that decides when an agent's identity is safe to be revealed to the public, not the press, not the president's chief advisor, not the President. How in the hell would our intelligence system work if the media could just decide on their own when it's right to release the identity of a CIA agent? Turn off your radio and think for yourself for once.
Posted by rico on 2008-01-02 20:33:38
I agree 100% with this article. And it's sad that the GOP/Bush regime has so many Americans fooled. Shame on you republican sheeple, your priorities are F*CKED UP BIG TIME.
Posted by Steve K on 2008-07-31 12:07:58
Right. You're so full of sh*t and yourself you've knocked your head against the trees in the forest you're trying to find. The fundamental root cause of today's policital polarization and problems in the US is an uneducated voting public (can you say public schools and teacher unions?)and personal laziness and greed fostered by a victim society and political pandering. Whatever happened to principles such as self-reliance, individual liberty and economic freedom?
Mega Corp vs. Govt.
Posted by Jeff on 2008-09-25 10:47:30
So the evil corporations control the mass media...and you want the government to control the mass media. This is better...how?

You know, I consider myself to be fairly progressive but I'm always amazed at how completely daft most liberals are when it comes to the free market. Here's a 'primer', if you will...

1. Mass media survives on a diet of advertising revenue - period.
2. Advertising is only effective when media consumers (i.e. you and me) listen to it or view it.
3. Advertisers will only spend money with stations/shows that attract media consumers.

So the inescapable conclusion is that government must control the media. Oh wait...or maybe the conclusion is that progressives/liberals need to hone a more populist message instead of continually sending the lunatic fringe out to engage the masses. Thereby attracting more media consumers, attracting more advertising revenue from those nasty evil corporations and - oh my gosh, an epiphany - MORE AIRTIME FOR PROGRESSIVE IDEALS!!! Wow - it's so crazy it just might work.

But alas, I fear most liberals will agree with you and insist that government is precisely the entity that should ensure our freedom of media choice through legislation. I mean, since the government has such an upstanding record of safeguarding our freedoms - especially over the past 8 years - who could posibily argue against more government control of our media. Have you lost your mind!

The option is simple - progressives and liberals need to engage the masses where they are NOW with a message they can buy into NOW instead of insisting that everyone hate Wal-Mart, quit driving, shop only at Whole Foods, agree to more taxes and love the nanny state. Obama is proving to be one progressive that actually gets this and that's why the masses love him so.
why not fairness doctrine applied to liberals
Posted by mr. bill on 2008-11-20 17:24:21
why is only the right afraid of the Fairness Doctrine? with the main stream media so biased to the left, i think the Fairness Doctrine would be bad for us, since the main stream media is so obviously liberal (as are the main news papers, like the NY Times, Wash Post, LA Times, etc. ABC, NBC and CBS as well as CNN and obviously MSNBC)- all these media allys of ours are now liberally biased; but with the Fairness Doctrine it would force us to have a Sean Hannity following Ken Oderman, etc!
Posted by Pile on 2009-08-02 13:28:13
People need to keep discussing this issue
Free Speech Anyone?
Posted by Anonymous on 2009-12-18 01:43:52
this is basic freedom, right or left the governemnt shouldnt be able to tell me that i have to broadcast something i dont want to.

I mean while were at it why dont we just make a law that says broadcasters that have a comedic talk show must also have a show talking about why theyre not funny.

Its ridiculous, you guys need to get a grip on the idea of freedom and stop trying to rely on government interference to help your agenda
Understand what the Fairness Doctrine is about
Posted by Pile on 2009-12-18 03:34:10
It's not about the government telling people what they have to broadcast. It's about the government insuring people have a say in what gets broadcast. If you don't understand that distinction, get a little better educated before you start criticizing things and making ignorant claims about what the Fairness Doctrine does.
the opposition can only make strawman arguments
Posted by Pile on 2009-12-18 03:40:08
Notice how everyone who is opposed to the Fairness Doctrine uses the "liberal" strawman argument to dismiss the issue? The Fairness Doctrine has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with any particular party. The reason the right dismiss it, is because they are brainwashed by their pundits who are pandering to the big corporations. The big corporations are what controls the media, not "liberals" or "conservatives" and the one thing the Fairness Doctrine protects the people from, is not liberals or conservatives, but powerful corporations from taking over the media and only showing the sides of the stories that benefit their economic bottom line.

So, wait, there's lead in the city drinking water? Well, maybe they won't report it much in the media because some corporate advertiser might be partially responsible. Let's just make that go away. How is that a "liberal" issue? You guys need to f*cking figure this stuff out and think for yourselves.
Posted by Anonymous on 2009-12-18 09:57:55
The think for yourself stuff is classic, I love how you left wingers think anyone with an opposing view is either an idiot or ill informed and thus brainwashed because they havent heard the "truth".
and your argument is?
Posted by Pile on 2009-12-18 12:41:15
I wrote that article. I made a well thought out and well-referenced argument. All you can do is go, "Durr... you lib'rals..." And you wonder why someone might think you're an idiot? What are the right-wing counter arguments? That the Fairness Doctrine infringes on Free Speech? That's ridiculous and ignorant and downright wrong. The Fairness Doctrine does not in any way censor broadcasters. So anyone who uses that argument is either ignorant of the facts, or trying to spread misinformation and intentionally mislead people. I was being nice by suggesting the poster was merely "uneducated."
And your argument is... or Ha Ha to Haha
Posted by Maggiem on 2010-10-24 23:09:25
I feel entirely the same way as you do, only you said it better! I think these are #1 priorities in saving this government. Without truth, there is no democracy. Without truth, how does any American citizen make an intelligent decision on how to vote? Now, how do we do it--and FAST?

I think Obama should have addressed this problem as soon as he got into office. We wouldn't, now, even be dealing with Fox News anymore--throwing propaganda at us 24-7.

Haha: ; I can disprove your unresearched and false statements with primary documents. That is one of my talents; I teach research skills to college students. Bring it on!

I also wonder why Carl Rove (Bush's Brain) and Newt Gingrich (Disgraced Speaker) are regarded as credible representatives of the Republican Party?
We sure didn't trust them when they were operating in the Bush Administration.
danger will robinson
Posted by not much of a speller on 2011-03-12 12:40:24
post wwII, post nazi war crime trials, our leaders looked back to see how hitler was able to convince most of his fellow countrymen that that the elimination of a certian race of people was not only noble but also nessesary.
i believe they must have seen hitlers propaganda machine as playing a major role. his control over the air ways , the news papers and the elimination of diferent point of veiw was crucial
i believe our leaders saw a one sided media as a danger to the well being of our counrty .
i believe thats one of the reasons the fairness doctrine was born.
Still waiting for someone to do the right thing!
Posted by Progressive, not liberal. on 2017-01-08 07:23:19
Well it seems little has changed in the years since this was first written! Some of the names have changed, but not much else. The sad part of all this is that in 12 short days the orange faced, severely combed over, admitted sexual predator, Narcissistic personality disordered, snake oil selling, reality television personality,(who wouldnt recognize true reality if it bit one of his tiny little fingers) thin skinned con man and charlatan of the century, Donald J. Drumpf, will be sworn into office as the 45th POTUS. I just threw up in my mouth a little. The country has continued down the ever increasingly partisan and divisive road Reagan and his FCC appointees put us on in 1987. IMHO the election of Cheeto pussygrabber, was made possible BECAUSE of the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. Wonder how long after his thin skinned, media hating self is in office, that hell follow in his political idol, Vladimir Putins foot steps and begin censoring the media?
Posted by Pile on 2017-01-08 10:57:26
Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I think what we need to do is outline where the real enemy is. It's not republicans. It's corporations. They're taking everything over. It's true certain political parties are more beholden to them than others, but everybody loses in the end and we need to team up to fight them.
Great Article
Posted by JO 753 on 2018-11-05 08:27:22
I sent a link to several frendz who hav been sucked into the Fox Newz vortex.

The election iz tomorrow and they are convinsed that the Democrats are the evil lying bad guyz.
And here we are
Posted by RRR on 2021-01-17 06:53:50
After what happened on Jan. 6th, 2021, I started looking around, trying to find out what the hell happened to get us here.

A friend whom I hold am ongoing debate with sent me something Im going to share here. But before I do, let me say that shes an ex-marine, ex-Houston police officer and lifelong republican. I am a left leaning independent (voted for Nader) and honest seeker of the truth. Ive been wrong a lot in my life. But what Ive learned that is never wrong, hasnt failed me once yet, is to "dig-deeper". You can always find a viewpoint or fact that fits your own viewpoint, confirms your suspicions or says what you want to hear...all you have to do is look cursorily around. But, if you did a little deeper, youll find the absolute truth. Im thinking or the election of 1876 and its consequences in particular. Point is, repeal of the Fairness Doctrine seems to be one of those moments in our history that we can point to leading to the polarization of our country. Just look at the time line. No doubt about it. So, in the same spirit as this fine primer presented by bsalert, I give you the following (from Heather Cox Richardson:

Since right-wing insurrectionists stormed the Capitol on January 6 with the vague but violent idea of taking over the government, observers are paying renewed attention to the threat of right-wing violence in our midst.

For all our focus on fighting socialism and communism, right-wing authoritarianism is actually quite an old threat in our country. The nation’s focus on fighting “socialism” began in 1871, but what its opponents stood against was not government control of the means of production—an idea that never took hold in America—but the popular public policies which cost tax dollars and thus made wealthier people pay for programs that would benefit everyone. Public benefits like highways and hospitals, opponents argued, amounted to a redistribution of wealth, and thus were a leftist assault on American freedom.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that fight against “socialism” took the form of opposition to unionization and Black rights. In the 1920s, after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had given shape to the American fear of socialism, making sure that system never came to America meant destroying the government regulation put in place during the Progressive Era and putting businessmen in charge of the government.

When Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt established business regulation, a basic social safety net, and government-funded infrastructure in the 1930s to combat the Great Depression that had laid ordinary Americans low, one right-wing senator wrote to a colleague: “This is despotism, this is tyranny, this is the annihilation of liberty…. The ordinary American is thus reduced to the status of a robot. The president has not merely signed the death warrant of capitalism, but has ordained the mutilation of the Constitution, unless the friends of liberty, regardless of party, band themselves together to regain their lost freedom.”

The roots of modern right-wing extremism lie in the post-World War II reaction to FDR’s New Deal and the Republican embrace of it under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Opponents of an active government insisted that it undermined American liberty by redistributing tax dollars from hardworking white men to those eager for a handout—usually Black men, in their telling. Modern government, they insisted, was bringing socialism to America. They set out to combat it, trying to slash the government back to the form it took in the 1920s.

Their job got easier after 1987, when the Fairness Doctrine ended. That Federal Communications Commission policy had required public media channels to base their stories on fact and to present both sides of a question. When it was gone, talk radio took off, hosted by radio jocks like Rush Limbaugh who contrasted their ideal country with what they saw as the socialism around them: a world in which hardworking white men who took care of their wives and children were hemmed in by government that was taxing them to give benefits to lazy people of color and “Feminazis.” These “Liberals” were undermining the country and the family, aided and abetted by lawmakers building a big government that sucked tax dollars.

In August 1992, the idea that hardworking white men trying to take care of their families were endangered by an intrusive government took shape at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Randy Weaver, a former factory worker who had moved his family to northern Idaho to escape what he saw as the corruption of American society, failed to show up for trial on a firearms charge. When federal marshals tried to arrest him, a firefight left Weaver’s fourteen-year-old son and a deputy marshal dead. In the af­termath of the shooting, federal and local officers laid an 11-day siege to the Weavers’ cabin, and a sniper wounded Weaver and killed his wife, Vicki.

Right-wing activists and neo-Nazis from a nearby Aryan Nations compound swarmed to Ruby Ridge to protest the government’s at­tack on what they saw as a man protecting his family. Negotiators eventually brought Weaver out, but the standoff at Ruby Ridge convinced western men they had to arm themselves to fight off the government.

In February of the next year, during the Democratic Bill Clinton administration, the same theme played out in Waco, Texas, when officers stormed the compound of a religious cult whose former members reported that their leader, David Koresh, was stockpiling weapons. A gun battle and a fire ended the 51-day siege on April 19, 1993. Seventy-six people died.

While a Republican investigation cited “overwhelming evidence” that exonerated the government of wrongdoing, talk radio hosts nonetheless railed against the Democratic administration, especially Attorney General Janet Reno, for the events at Waco. What happened there fit neatly into what was by then the Republican narrative of an overreaching government that crushed individuals, and political figures harped on that idea.

Rush Limbaugh stoked his listeners’ anger with reports of the “Waco invasion” and talked of the government’s “murder” of citizens, making much of the idea that a group of Christians had been killed by a female government official who was single and— as opponents made much of— unfeminine (re­actionary rocker Ted Nugent featured an obscene caricature of her for years in his stage version of “Kiss My Glock”).

Horrified by the government’s attempt to break into the cult’s compound, Alex Jones, who would go on to become an important conspiracy theorist and founder of InfoWars, dropped out of community college to start a talk show on which he warned that Reno had “murdered” the people at Waco and that the government was about to impose martial law. The modern militia movement took off.

The combination of political rhetoric and violence radicalized a former Army gunner, Timothy McVeigh, who decided to bring the war home to the government. “Taxes are a joke,” he wrote to a newspaper in 1992. “More taxes are always the answer to government mismanagement…. Is a Civil War Imminent? Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn’t come to that. But it might.”

On April 19, 1995, a date chosen to honor the Waco standoff, McVeigh set off a bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people, including 19 children younger than six, and wounded more than 800. When the police captured McVeigh, he was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Abraham Lincoln and the words “Sic Semper Tyrannis.” The same words John Wilkes Booth shouted after he assassinated Lincoln, they mean “thus always to tyrants,” and are the words attributed to Brutus after he and his supporters murdered Caesar.

By 1995, right-wing terrorists envisioned themselves as protectors of American individualism in the face of a socialist government, but the reality was that their complaints were not about government activism. They were about who benefited from that activism.

In 2014, Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy brought the contradictions in this individualist image to light when he fought the government over the impoundment of the cattle that he had been grazing on public land for more than 20 years. Bundy owed the government more than $1 million in grazing fees for running his cattle on public land, but he disparaged the “Negro” who lived in government housing and “didn’t have nothing to do.” Black people’s laziness led them to abort their children and send their young men to jail, he told a reporter, and he wondered: “are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life… or are they better off under government subsidy?”

Convinced that he was a hardworking individualist, Bundy announced he did not recognize federal power over the land on which he grazed his cattle. The government impounded his animals in 2014, but officials backed down when Bundy and his supporters showed up armed. Republican Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) called Bundy and his supporters “patriots” Democrat Harry Reid (D-NV), the Senate Majority Leader at the time, called them “domestic terrorists” and warned, “it’s not over. We can’t have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it. So it’s not over.”

It wasn’t. Two years later, Bundy’s son Ammon was at the forefront of the right-wing takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, arguing that the federal government must turn over all public lands to the states to open them to private development. The terrorists called themselves “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.”

For the past four years, Trump and his enablers have tried to insist that unrest in the country is caused by “Antifa,” an unorganized group of anti-fascists who show up at rallies to confront right-wing protesters. But the Department of Homeland Security this summer identified “anarchist and anti-government extremists” as “the most significant threat… against law enforcement.” According to DHS, they are motivated by “their belief that their liberties are being taken away by the perceived unconstitutional or otherwise illegitimate actions of government officials or law enforcement.” Those anti-government protesters are now joined quite naturally by white supremacists, as well as other affiliated groups.

Right-wing terrorism in American has very deep roots, and those roots have grown since the 1990s as Republican rhetorical attacks on the federal government have fed them. The January 6 assault on the Capitol is not an aberration. It has been coming for a very long time.


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