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Social justice group examines how deeply the far-right has penetrated state politics

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have frequently said the number of lawmakers in Congress who supported "the Big Lie." On January 6, 2021, 147 senators and members of Congress voted to object to the Democratic election that Joe Biden had obviously won. This is a common political gambit. Some Democrats have cast similar votes in the past. But in this case, Republicans did it even after it was apparent that the lie had sparked violence and death right in front of them. Some lawmakers denied they believed the big lie, even as they objected to the election, while others seemed very much to believe it. So that's members of Congress. Less is known about how far these beliefs extend among state legislators, and now a survey is shining a light on that. NPR domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef joins us now. Good morning.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's the report say?

YOUSEF: So this report looked at more than 7,000 state legislative seats at capitols across the country during the 2021-2022 legislative period, Steve, and it found that 875 of them had joined at least one far-right Facebook group. So that's more than 1 in 10 of all state legislators and more than 1 in 5 of Republican state legislators. And, you know, you'll note that this may very well be an undercount. You know, maybe not all state legislators advertised their affiliations through joining Facebook groups. But it does start to paint a picture. It also had another key finding, which is that these legislators have been involved in sponsoring nearly a thousand bills across a number of areas, including limiting access to voting, limiting discussion of race in schools, restricting women's access to abortion, anti-LGBTQ legislation, putting restrictions on protests and more.

INSKEEP: Well, you're underlining how much state legislators do and why it matters what the legislators believe. But when you say somebody is far right, what does that mean?

YOUSEF: Right. So the researchers for this survey were really trying to draw a bright line between what they were designating as far right and what we might consider sort of more traditional conservative, like membership in the group ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, you know, support for the NRA or even support just for MAGA. You know, this was really looking at legislators who occupy echo chambers of misinformation online, you know, around things like anti-masking, election denial, COVID denial and even some who affiliate with movements that believe the federal government is illegitimate, Steve.

INSKEEP: Would you call them white nationalists?

YOUSEF: Not necessarily, but many of them do support agendas that would overturn sections of the Constitution. Devin Burghart heads the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which did the survey.

DEVIN BURGHART: If you allowed groups that fall into this category to bring their agenda to fruition in the United States, it would do things like get rid of equal protection and due process and even the amendment prohibiting slavery. We would get rid of things like women's voting rights. They're not out there saying we want to overthrow the government to create a white nation, but they are putting forward ideas wrapped in a constitutional package that, ultimately, have the same impact.

INSKEEP: Odette, these lawmakers were elected and tend to reflect the views of their constituents. Is that true in this case?

YOUSEF: It might be. But Burghart, you know, says this information is still helpful. It can help educate voters and even local reporters about how their state electeds are getting their information online and how it is informing legislation that affects residents of their states. So, you know, nonetheless, it's very helpful.

INSKEEP: NPR domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef. Thanks for your reporting.

YOUSEF: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.