Clearing the air on radical politics: Voinovich School research associate co-authors new book on radicalism in the U.S.

Daniel Kington
April 13, 2016

In the past decade, radical forces such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the Tea Party have proved to be powerful forces in U.S. politics. However, the influence of radical politics is nothing new. Labor, anti-racist and anti-capitalist movements have existed throughout almost the entirety of U.S. history, as have nationalist and white-supremacist movements. The 20th century later gave rise to environmental and fascist movements.

In spite of this lengthy history of radicalism, however, it’s often very difficult to find credible information about radical political movements.

“A lot of what is written is biased, either in favor of a given movement or against the movement,” Kate Leeman, research associate at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, said. “For example, it’s really difficult to find good, clear information about communism in the United States.”

This lack of credible information is what motivated Leeman to partner with Susan Burgess, professor of political science at Ohio University, to write the CQ Press Guide to Radical Politics in the United States. The book, which will be released later this month, focuses on the origins and developments of social movements as well as their influence on mainstream politics.

One of the first tasks Leeman and Burgess faced in writing the book was defining the term radical, in order to determine which groups should be included.

“Any political activity that challenges a fundamental tenet of the U.S. political system is radical,” Leeman said. “So that makes fascist groups automatically radical, because they’re challenging democracy. Groups that challenge capitalism are also automatically radical. The other possible way to get categorized as radical is by using tactics that are outside the political norm. That sometimes means violence, like lynchings or bombings, but more often it’s things that are criminal such as refusing to pay your taxes, trespassing or destroying private property. In some instances it’s just breaking taboos, like when women spoke out in public against slavery. This certainly doesn’t seem radical now, but it was viewed as a shocking display of immodesty in the early 1800s.”

This broad definition of radicalism means that a large variety of activist, insurgent and political groups merited inclusion in the book, such as striking railroad workers in the 1870s, the KKK, Black Nationalist groups, animal rights groups such as PETA, anti-immigrant groups such as the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s, and more. For Leeman, this meant learning even more about the history of radicalism than she had anticipated.

“It was fascinating to learn all of this history that I’d never known anything about,” Leeman said. “I don’t think I could be this kind of activist, but to see the way that thousands of people have, over the course of this country’s history, taken incredible risks—it’s truly inspiring. These activists have lost jobs and been sent to prison and in some cases died fighting for things like universal suffrage and the environment and labor. Literally thousands of people died or were injured seriously in the struggle to get a 40-hour work week and the right to unionize.”

Leeman hopes that the book can provide a contextual frame for others and demonstrate that radical politics in the U.S. have deep historical roots.

“I think knowing that there is a long history of socialism and organizing against police brutality can help people to understand  that  Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter are not entirely new, but fit within an on-going national struggle over issues of equality and justice,” Leeman said. “To put radicalism in context helps people to see it as something that does fit within the American spectrum.”