A new report released yesterday by the Southern Poverty Law Center finds that the number of hate groups in the United States is continuing to rise, according to an article in today’s New York Times. 602 such groups were identified in 2000; by the end of 2011, 1,018 of them were actively operating, “meaning that the groups are registering members, passing out fliers, protesting or showing other signs of activity beyond maintaining a Web site.”

The article makes note of another very alarming development, one that even the experts at the SPLC describe as “stunning”: So-called “patriot groups” and “militia movements” — you know, self-styled “sovereign citizens” who refuse to put license plates on their cars or pay income taxes, John Birch Society types, and gun-hoarding anti-government types — have spiked by a whopping fifty percent from 2010 (824) to 2011 (1,274).  It is particularly unsettling to note the degree to which that surge coincides with the GOP’s mad dash to the lunatic right-wing Tea Party fringe, exemplified by attacks on women’s rights, unions, and LGBT rights (including attempts to repeal marriage equality in states like New Hampshire and Iowa where it’s already legal). In the past two years we’ve witnessed Donald Trump snidely parroting racist “birther” propaganda on network television, politicians like Sharron Angle implicitly endorsing armed insurrection with discussion of “Second Amendment remedies,” a Florida campaign manager calling for bullets to be used if ballots can’t achieve conservative right-wing goals, and the presidential candidacy of a notoriously anti-government member of Congress, Michele Bachmann, just to name a few examples. Considered in this context, the upswing in anti-government hate groups doesn’t seem any less frightening, but definitely a little less surprising.

The SPLC, which has been keeping tabs on hate groups for several decades, also reports 27 active anti-gay hate groups in 2011, up from 17 the previous year. Unfortunately, though, many of these anti-gay hate groups still enjoy a degree of visibility and veneer of respectability that their racist, anti-government, and anti-Semitic counterparts no longer do. Take Tony Perkins, for example. He heads the Family Research Council, a well-funded, high-profile organization that’s been certified by the SPLC as an anti-gay hate group. But unlike other hate group leaders such as David Duke or Matt Hale, Perkins is frequently featured as a guest commentator on network and cable television news shows. Surprisingly, one of the worst offenders is the cable network MSNBC, which has hosted Perkins 23 times since his group officially earned the “hate group” moniker. And as Wayne noted yesterday, the network recently rejected an ad calling on MSNBC to stop allowing this notorious bigot to spread his hateful message on their platform. It’s an egregious double standard, especially coming from a network that purports to “lean forward,” and this double standard demands both a forthright response and an immediate correction.

Today’s revelations about the presence of so many active hate groups in our midst should serve as a wake-up call, reminding all of us that the struggle against the forces of hate and bigotry is ongoing. Even as society continues to make huge leaps forward in the advancement of civil and human rights for all people, these groups are working hard to undermine those victories by stealthily encouraging a climate of misunderstanding, misinformation, and fear. We can never let down our guard, because if we do, we run the risk of inadvertently assisting them in that mission.