The End of Dissent: A Study in Group Radicalization
Last year, on the MeatEater podcast, Steven Rinella interviewed environmental historian Randall Williams about his dissertation titled, “Green Voters, Gun Voters: Hunting and Politics in Modern America.” I have posted the entire podcast below and if you have the time, it is fascinating.
Williams’ dissertation looks at changing attitudes towards hunting as seen through the words of editors, writers and readers of some of the major hunting publications in the United States, primarily at Field & Stream and Outdoor Life. Williams wanted to examine the shift in public attitudes, away from broad support for hunters and towards a less accepting attitude, and what was being said about it at the time. The interview with Rinella walks listeners through each chapter of his work.
At one point he notes an interesting fact: Today, American hunters will often refer to themselves as ‘conservationists’ for good reason. Prior to the Nixon administration the term was used interchangeably with environmentalist. Hunters believed they were part of a long history of Americans who fought for environmental causes, dating back to John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. Eventually the two terms separated in the worst way possible, with both sides seeing the other as enemies. What caused this change is a story that took several decades to unfold.
After WWII, millions of young men who did not grow up hunting, but now had firearm training and a need to scratch some of the same itches that were satisfied being in the military, took to the woods. The numbers of hunters in the U.S. rose dramatically. What Williams found is that those men saw hunting as an opportunity to spend time, away from their families, with other men who had similar experiences. In hindsight, those men should have probably taken their children along, which might have prevented what happened in the 1970s. In the 1960s the tide shifted and hunting began to be viewed increasingly as an unnecessary and destructive thing. A generation of privileged American youths, the new Environmentalists, looking to find their own place in the world away from their parents, declared war on hunting. Ironically, they found their ally in the same person that they hated for their other causes.
Richard Nixon did not particularly care about the environment, but he did care about political victories. According to one poll, “…in 1965 only 28 percent of the U.S. population considered air pollution a somewhat or very serious problem in 1965; by 1970, that figure had risen to 69 percent”. So on January 1, 1970 Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act. The Environmental Protection Agency was June 1970 and opened for business in December of that year. On December 31, 1970 he signed the Clean Air Act. Those laws and agencies were not bad in the intent and to be sure, they have all done much good in this country. The problem lay in how they could be manipulated by the anti-hunting movement.
With the EPA now in existence, anti-hunting groups found they could use its bylaws to make hunting more and more onerous. Throughout the 1970s they demanded environmental impact statements for all sorts of hunting-related items, included proposed seasons themselves. Naturally, the tone of the conversation changed in those hunting publications that Williams studied. Hunters talked about being attacked from the Left, and it’s impossible to argue otherwise. As their numbers began to dwindle, due in part to the negative perception, those that continued to hunt began to circle the wagons and become insular. They also began to become more conservative and they began to radicalize.
What I found most interesting to hear, and Rinella also remarked on the same, was how hunters stopped tolerating dissent within their ranks. Whereas a decade earlier hunting publications felt comfortable publishing letters to the editors and articles where hunters debated ethical questions with one another, this new reality meant that type of interaction was no longer permissible. More than one writer lost their job during the following two decades when they expressed an opinion that was seen as anything less than mainstream. I can also testify that during the Bush years, an additional element was added to the hunting community. Hunting began to dovetail with what I call the ‘Toby Keith effect’ and suddenly it wasn’t enough to be a hunter. Hunting became associated with patriotism and the conservative brand of populism. I must admit, even when I was the most vocal of GOP supporters, I never liked people assuming I was a Republican just because I was a hunter.
In 2016, we are just starting to see the first thaw in this hard-line stance towards dissenters in the hunting community. Professional hunters and media personalities like Rinella and a few others are starting to test the waters a bit with Op-Eds and YouTube videos, but we are a long way from where we were prior to the 1970s.Williams also makes ancillary points in the podcast that the same dynamic occurred among hunters with the question of firearms. Whereas hunters were once willing to talk about what guns are appropriate for the pursuit of wild game, even today those conversations do not end well for contrarians. This dynamic has also originated with pressure from the Left, though I won’t go so far as to give them all the blame. How we react to criticism is our own choice.
What I can’t help but think about in all of this is the way that groups are radicalized when they are attacked. It’s no secret that the Right is a more homogeneous place, both in demographics as well as in opinion, so it’s much easier for conservatives to retreat inward when they feel under fire. I’ve both participated in that self-defense at times and occasionally been the victim of it when I was the dissenter. That is the new normal that was thrust upon the hunting community all those years ago, and sadly, it’s still very much a part of the landscape today.
There are contemporary lessons to be learned here. We live in a time where technology, social media, and well-intended websites like this one, give everyone a slightly louder voice than they sometimes deserved…myself included. That loud voice sometimes leads to unpleasant consequences that far outlast our immediate anger. Anti-hunting rhetoric from over 40 years still affects the conversation today. It wouldn’t be a terrible idea to think about the long-term effects of other conversations before we take aim at the other side.