The last major anti-government movement came in the 1990s and led to the Oklahoma City bombing. Van Dyke coauthored a paper, published in 2002, showing that a decline in manufacturing jobs and family farms influenced the mobilization of militias.
"When people are facing economic hard times, they're looking for people to blame," Van Dyke explained, "and they look to the federal government."
Van Dyke joined UC Merced in the fall of 2008 to help grow the new campus. She had previously been working at Washington State University. She said UC Merced's student body is among the best she's taught.
"There's something about our first-generation college students," she said. "They are more engaged. They want to be here. Their parents didn't make them come."
Van Dyke's research focuses on hate crimes on college campuses, what leads people into activist careers and anti-government militias. Her research offers insight into some of society's most challenging problems and could be influential in future policy decisions.
Sourcing a report by Southern Poverty Law Center, Van Dyke notes that more than 350 militias were established last year, a "hugely disturbing increase." With such growth, Van Dyke is back trying to pinpoint the key factors that lead to such trends. Evidence suggests the economic downturn or a Democratic president or even both may be the cause.
In the case of the Oklahoma City bombing, there was a struggling economy in the Midwest and Democratic President Bill Clinton in the White House. She wants to know if the recent surge is fueled by the economy or by President Barack Obama. There also may be racist underpinnings as well, she noted.
Some people have become paranoid that the government is betraying citizens and ignoring the Constitution by taking away rights, such as bearing arms. Most Democrats, while favoring gun control, are not opposed to ownership, she noted.
Some lawmakers, Van Dyke said, have stoked the anti-government sentiment, which only increases the likelihood of rhetoric turning to violence.
"I'm seriously worried," she said. "It's really irresponsible for elected officials to encourage it."
Armed with Census and economic data, Van Dyke hopes to find some answers.