Organizational-Level Characteristics in Right-Wing Extremist Groups in the United States Over Time

Published date01 June 2020
DOI10.1177/0734016815626970
Date01 June 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Article
Organizational-Level
Characteristics in Right-Wing
Extremist Groups in the
United States Over Time
Victor Asal
1
, Steven M. Chermak
2
, Sarah Fitzgerald
2
,
and Joshua D. Freilich
3
Abstract
This study compares the organizational-level variables of violent and nonviolent far-right extremist
groups. This study makes an important contribution by coding for attributes for each specific year
that an organization existed. Prior research has only examined organizational characteristics at a
single point of time. Our strategy here better specifies differences between violent and nonviolent
extremist groups. We used a pooled cross-sectional time series analysis using logistic regression
because our dependent variable is dichotomous (the organization used violence this year vs. it did
not). We clustered on the organization and we included dummy years to control for time series
effects. We also included a lagged variable if the organization used violence in the year before. We
found that organizations were more likely to use violence if they were previously involved in vio-
lence, had multiple alliances with other extremist groups, had a large membership, had weak or
decentralized leadership or a strong ruling council, and advocated for inherent racial or ethnic
superiority. These results have important implications for law enforcement and future research on
extremism and violence.
Keywords
extremism, organizational violence, right wing
Introduction
This study compares the organizational-level variables of violent and nonviolent far-right extremist
groups. This research makes an important contribution by coding for attributes for each specific year
that an organization existed. Prior research has only examined organizational characteristics at a
single point of time.
1
Department of Political Science, University at Albany, Albany, NY, USA
2
School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA
3
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, SUNY, New York, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Steven M. Chermak, School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University, 512 Baker Hall, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA.
Email: chermak@msu.edu
Criminal Justice Review
2020, Vol. 45(2) 250-266
ª2016 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
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DOI: 10.1177/0734016815626970
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Organizational variables appear to be related to a group’s use of violence (Decker & Pyrooz,
2011). The current study extends this research by comparing the organizational characteristics
of violent and nonviolent groups using an innovative data coding strategy (Bartlett & Miller,
2012). There are only a few studies that specifically examine the impact of organizational-level
characteristics on violence (Asal & Rethemeyer, 2008; Chermak, Freilich, & Suttmoeller, 2013;
Oots, 1989). Although these studies provide important insights regarding what organizational
variables matter, they code organizational characteristics in a static manner. The organization is
the unit of analysis and each variable examined is given a single code. This is a limitation
because organizations can change dramatically in terms of leadership, structure, size, and other
key variables, which could impact whether the organization chooses to use violence as a tactic.
Our strategy follows the approach used by the Minorities at Risk Organizational Behavior
(MAROB) study (Asal & Wilkenfeld, 2013.]). The MAROB study codes a full suite of inde-
pendent variables for each year that the organization existed. This approach is more accurate in
measuring the organizational characteristics that increase the likelihood that a group commits a
violent action.
Extremist group-level violence is an important topic to examine for several reasons. First, there is
a widespread concern about the threat of terrorism generally and the danger posed by domestic
terrorism specifically. Law enforcement, for example, has expressed concern over lone wolf activity
as well as group-level violence (J. Freilich, Chermak, & Simone, 2009b), and incidents of domestic
terrorism outnumber those of international terrorism by 7-1 in a typical year (LaFree, Dugan, &
Fahey, 2006).
Second, there are a growing number of hate groups in the United States. Several factors may be
related to an increase in hate group recruitment and radicalization, including President Obama’s
victory in 2008 (and 2012), a growing number of returning veterans from the Iraq/Afghanistan wars,
efforts to regulate gun ownership, and the economic recession (Department of Homeland Security,
2009). There has been concomitant growth in hate group activity. The Southern Poverty Law Center
(SPLC) describes a 70%increase in the number of hate groups in the United States between 2000
and 2012 (SPLC, 2013).
Third, although international terrorism databases are prevalent, there are few reliable domestic
terrorism databases (Sanchez-Cuenca & Calle, 2009). Studies that have examined groups typically
use a case study approach (Chermak, Freilich, Parkin, & Lynch, 2012). Moreover, studies exam-
ining far-right extremism rarely use empirical data (Gruenewald, Freilich, & Chermak, 2009).
Importantly, there is also little empirical research comparing violent and nonviolent groups. This
is interesting because although single-actor terrorism is a concern, terrorism is usually (though not
always) a group activity (Crenshaw, 2000; Smith, 1994). Several studies have examined lone
wolves and the relationship between individual-level variables and violence. Individuals, how-
ever, can be impacted by participating in extremist groups, pushing individuals toward or away
from violence.
Fourth, coding organizational characteristics for every year a group is in existence is a unique and
innovative approach to examine group-level violence. Although there is some research comparing
the organizational-level characteristics of violent and nonviolent groups (Asal & Rethemeyer, 2008;
Chermak et al., 2013; Oots, 1989), these studies coded their variables statically. Even if an orga-
nization persisted for 10 years and changed dramatically over time, the researchers only coded one
set of characteristics. Our approach connects the violent activities of an organization to its organiza-
tional attributes at that specific time. This strategy is commonly used in political science studies
examining ethnopolitical organizations. For example, studies using the MAROB data collection
effort adopt this approach. We modeled data collection after this important data collection effort,
and, to our knowledge, this is the first time this approach has been used for extremist and groups in
the United States.
Asal et al. 251

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