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Conservatives Are Morphing into the Party of Doomsday Preppers

The ominous prophecies of government tyranny, financial meltdown and violent anarchy featured on "Preppers" inform more than just the survivalist movement circa 2013.

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Studying how ideas and narratives develop within survivalism is key to understanding how its doomsday thinking has propagated outward into the mainstream. “Survivalism centers around this crafting of tales,” says Oregon State sociology professor Richard G. Mitchell, Jr., who spent fifteen years inside the movement while researching his 2002 book  Dancing at Armageddon. “The survivalist trick is to tell their story in such a way that there’s a delicate optimism achieved, that what you have in terms of your personal resources, your material resources, your time, your knowledge and so on, is pretty much what you need.” What a survivalist chooses to prepare for, then, is not based on what is the most statistically probable threat to their safety, but on what fits their individual fears and unique circumstances, he says. For example, large numbers of survivalists stockpile gas masks, but as Mitchell  has pointed out before, more people have been killed by vending machines tipping over in the past 30 years than have died from biological or chemical terrorist attacks.

This rigid, irrational worldview, one that tries to force fit reality to one’s beliefs rather than the other way around, is a hallmark of reactionary thought. Nearly 50 years ago, Richard Hofstadter, in his seminal 1964  Harper’s essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” identified how irrational fears had fueled a similarly unhinged, anti-communist wing of conservatism. Hoftstadter’s essay predates the popular usage of the term “survivalism,” but it nonetheless recognizes the broader similarities between individuals with an inward, self-focused paranoia and those with an outward-looking group-based fear, what he calls the “paranoid spokesman” in politics. “They both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression,” he writes.

In addition, both survivalism and right-wing political populism experience cyclical ebbs and flows in their popularity. What are subtle shifts, however, become amplified by the press into dramatic boom and bust cycles. After large-scale trigger events—most recently, events like the 9/11 terrorists attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and the dual shocks of Obama’s 2008 election and the Great Recession—media attention in these groups inevitably picks up, and another generation comes forward to put a new gloss on age-old themes.

Thus, a movement like the Tea Party can ride the  zeitgeist rollercoaster from non-entity up to sensation and back down to political afterthought in four short years while the demographic cohort that overwhelmingly identifies with it— white, married, male, middle-aged conservatives—is remarkably homogeneous. Likewise, popular survivalist websites of today, such as and (short for “shit hits the fan”), like to repeat the claim that their burgeoning movement has as many as three million followers across the country. But Mitchell says these same numbers were bandied about throughout his many years of research. And in a survey conducted for his book, Mitchell found survivalists to be strikingly homogeneous as well—white (97 percent), married (74 percent), male (89 percent), fairly well educated (52 percent had a bachelor’s or higher degree), and with an average age around 40.

The similarities don’t end there. Just as a  New York Times/CBS poll found that “Tea Party supporters over all are more likely than the general public to say their personal financial situation is fairly good or very good,” survivalists also tend to be firmly ensconced in the middle class or well off. For these people the term “survivalism” is an awkward misnomer. “This is not the homeless on the streets of New York,” Mitchell points out. “This is a hobby. It is always done with surplus time, resources, money, interest and so on. You don’t run into a lot of really poor survivalists,” Mitchell notes, laughing.

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