“…we have to say to the counterculture: Nice try, you failed, you’re wrong. And we have to simply, calmly, methodically reassert American civilization and reestablish the work ethic.”
-Newt Gingrich Contract with America
“Our political landscape is a toxic dump.”
-Bill Moyers Perspective, NBC News, March 7, 1995
by Jean V. Hardisty, Ph.D.
For those who have worked to further social justice and democratic values in the United States, the election of November 7, 1994 was a defeat. The election results indicate that the American public has repudiated the liberalism that has been the dominant method of social reform since the New Deal. The resurgent right has consolidated its power and is now implementing its agenda. There appears to be a new mood of meanness that expresses itself in spiteful ridicule of liberals, feminists, environmentalists, and those in a weak or dependent position, such as welfare recipients and immigrants. The response from liberals, progressives, and centrists alike has been a mixture of anger, disbelief, denial, and paralysis.
This is not the first time the United States has swung dramatically to the right. Periodically throughout US history, right-wing forces have thrived, promoting such themes as white supremacy, scapegoating of Jews, violent opposition to unions, and rabid anti-communism. During Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War racial hatred was mobilized to destroy gains made by Blacks, and then in the 1920s racial scapegoating created a period of unchecked lynchings of Black men. Immigrants, Catholics, and Jews were scapegoated as “carriers of socialism” and “Papal loyalists” during the first several decades of this century, and union members were violently attacked during the 1930s. The communist witchhunts of the McCarthy era in the 1950s is a recent example of rightist resurgence.
The history of US government repression of dissenters, the imperialistic adventures of the 19th and 20th centuries, the grim record of racism directed against people of color that dates to slavery, and the resistance to extending full rights to women are consistent and persistent themes in US history. In truth, a close examination of that history reveals it is more often out of sync with democratic values than aligned with them.
Just 20 years ago it looked as if this dismal historical record might be overcome. Certain commitments to equality and justice had been established in American political culture. These commitments were expressed in policy reforms, such as guaranteed access to the vote, legal services for the poor, or food and shelter for the elderly, the disabled, and those who cannot provide for themselves. These reformist policies tended to cluster under the general heading of liberalism, with those who saw liberalism’s reforms as inadequate to bring about real equality and justice- the left and progressives- acting as agents of conscience to expose the failings and shortcomings of liberalism.
Now the political swing to the right is so complete that liberalism has become a political orphan: not because it is a compromised ideology of reform, but because it has been painted as socialism in disguise. Secular humanism- one ideological source of enlightened liberal reformism- is now under attack from religious fundamentalism. The left, defeated and in disarray, is unable to exploit the widespread disillusionment with liberalism to promote its own analysis. Altogether, these political conditions add up to a formidable package of reaction which has an iron grip on the country.1 It is not surprising that those least able to protect themselves will suffer most from the right’s power grab. The growing gap between rich and poor is simply the most obvious indicator of the fate of the poor and dependent.
Mindful that we have been here before, the obvious question is Why Now? This is not a moment created simply by the hard work of a few right-wing white male leaders; nor is it entirely a product of the potential for repression and inequality inherent in capitalism; nor is it merely a swing of the political pendulum, a backlash against women, a result of the collapse of the family, a spiritual crisis; or any of the other magic bullet explanations that have been popularized since the alarming political debut of the New Right in 1980. Each of these explanations gets at an aspect of the country’s rightward swing.
This discussion will address the US right within the electoral sphere, and right-wing movements that operate within the Republican Party. Variously called the New Right, the new Republicans, the Religious Right, or the hard right, this sector does not include the extremist, paramilitary right, such as the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi groups, the Aryan Nations, and other violent white supremacist groups. Violent members of the anti-abortion movement, Christian Reconstructionists, David Duke, Pat Buchanan, and Pat Robertson represent “bridges” that link these two sectors. Though the paramilitary right is not discussed here, much of what is said in this article applies to that sector as well.
The complexity of a full explanation cannot be exaggerated. There are too many factors at play to say with certainty what they all are, or how much each contributes. However, that must not prevent a good-faith effort to lay out ideas and interpretations that hold the potential for insight. In order to chart a course for the next decade, it is important to assess the 1994 election, the mood of the country in general, and especially the apparent sweeping success of the right in hopes that such an understanding will provide some guidance for action.
An explanation that attempts to be comprehensive must take into account the widespread public sentiment that is finding expression in the right, and also the role of the leadership of the right in creating and mobilizing that sentiment. This discussion will draw on both factors in attempting to explain the contemporary rise of the right. To organize the discussion, I suggest that we take one step back in the causal chain and focus on five major economic, social, and political forces that provide the setting for the expression of a rightist agenda, and thereby underlie the success of the resurgent right. These forces are:
Each of these conditions has existed at previous times in US history. While they usually overlap to some extent, they also can be seen as distinct, identifiable phenomenon. The lightning speed of the right’s rise can be explained by the simultaneous existence of all five factors. Further, in this period they not only overlap, but reinforce each other. This mutual reinforcement accounts for the exceptional force of the current rightward swing.
In fact, the right has created a juggernaut- an overwhelming force that has now gained state power. For many progressives and liberals, the specter of fascism is alarming. That alarm is justified. We must remember that fascism begins as a mass movement that combines reactionary political policies and revolutionary fervor. The contemporary right combines a set of reactionary social policies with the fervor provided by fundamentalist religious beliefs and long-standing racism. That is hauntingly similar to the Weimar Republic in Germany, where the fervor was provided by nationalism rather than religious convictions. Further, the alienation created by a restructuring of the economy that is negatively affecting large numbers of workers can be compared with other economic settings in which fascism has attained power. Howard Phillips, an early New Right leader who is a right-wing ideological purist, has said, “The French Revolution was, to some degree, fueled by economic concerns. So I think what will trigger [a right-wing Christian revolution] is the economic problems.” (Stan: 1995)
One important distinction between the US setting and other settings in which fascism has risen is that the US right’s leadership is driven by fairly rigid ideological principles. Fascist leadership is characterized by craven opportunism- an apparent lack of consistent political principles that allows the leadership to change its ideology in order to adapt whatever strategy is necessary to attain and consolidate state power. Another distinction is that in the contemporary right there is not one leader who serves as the strongman. These differences are important, but it is not far-fetched to fear that the appearance of a right-wing charismatic leader with exceptional political skills might create the environment that would transform the current right-wing resurgence into fascism.
In the United States, as in many places throughout the world, there is a dramatic growth in the number and influence of people who identify themselves as religious fundamentalists. In fact, it can be argued that the US is in the midst of a religious revitalization. The term “revitalization movement” has been used by anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace in a classic 1956 essay to describe a conscious, organized effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture by seeking to bring about change in the whole cultural system, or at least substantial parts of the system (Wallace, 1956, 264-281). 2
People create a revitalization movement because they perceive that a part of the society’s cultural system is unsatisfactory. Their discontent leads them to commit themselves to work with urgency for an intended shift in the society’s worldview. The catalyst for dissatisfaction can be social stress caused by outside forces (such as war or famine) or social imbalances caused by changes within the society. That is, when people feel ill at ease within their society, or feel that they are losing ground relative to their expectations, they will often turn to religion as a vehicle for the restoration of meaning, purpose, and comfort in their lives. Their explicit goal is to revitalize their society through movement activism.
Wallace identifies a type of revitalization movement which he calls a “revivalistic movement.” We are all familiar with the American religious tradition of the “revival meeting”- part entertainment, part inspiration, and often depicted as a traveling “show” that came to small towns. The meetings featured charismatic preachers who won converts to a very conservative version of Christianity. It is associated with an earlier, more innocent and less sophisticated time, when people were less influenced by the media and peer pressure was the major disciplinary force in small-town and rural settings.
Revivalistic movements are an extension of the concept of a revival meeting. They are movements that appeal to large numbers of recruits because they emphasize the customs, values, and even the natural world that were thought to have been characteristic of previous, more satisfactory times. The movement’s strength comes from its promise that it will restore these characteristics which have been lost in the corruption of the contemporary world. When revivalistic movements are religious in nature, it is religious values revered in the past, such as the importance of adherence to a literal reading of biblical teaching, that inspire people’s interest in religious values as a source of healing and restoration. The movement’s message may even create a sense of longing for qualities now lost.
The contemporary movement known as the Religious Right is such a revivalistic movement. Based on evangelical, fundamentalist, Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Reconstructionist religious practices and values, it is made up of a broad array of very conservative Christian sectors, augmented by much smaller conservative religious sectors of Judaism, Catholicism, and Islam.
The political power of the Religious Right is nearly unprecedented in US history. With the exception of mobilizations against the teaching of evolution, a prominent role in the promotion of the restrictions of Prohibition, and the supportive efforts of many Black churches in the civil rights struggle, Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals have, in 20th century US history, most often been only marginally involved in politics and political activism. Though Father Charles Coughlin, the reactionary and anti-Semitic “radio priest” of the 1930s, and a few other charismatic, firebrand preachers rabble-roused for political goals, rank-and-file fundamentalist and evangelical religious sects have, for the most part, stayed out of the power struggles of the political sphere.
There were solid theological reasons for this lack of involvement in politics. For those who read the Bible literally, the focus is on the “end times”- an area of Christian theology formally known as eschatology. There is an important theological debate about the nature of the end times, a debate between those who are pre-millenialists and those who are post-millenialists. The differences between these two positions are so important that it was previously very difficult to bring the two groups together.
As predicted in the Book of Revelations certain events will happen when the world ends. These include the Rapture; a period of chaos known as the Tribulations; the return of Christ; and a thousand years of peace and harmony under his rule or that of his saints. For those who take the Bible literally, the prescription for a virtuous life is one spent in preparation for this Second Coming of Christ. Thus, involvement in day-to-day political struggles in contemporary secular society held little interest. Focused on the future, the moral health and godliness of this material world was somewhat irrelevant.
When the New Right began its political recruitment of Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists in the 1970s, it faced the question of how to bring them into the political sphere. It was crucial that shrewd organizing skills and convincing theological arguments be developed to inspire and justify their political involvement. A further complication lay in the division between pre-millenialists and post-millenialists about the nature of the Second Coming. For pre-millenialists, great events will precede the return of Christ- perhaps a rapture of Christian believers into heaven, but definitely a period of Tribulation which will culminate in the final battle of Armageddon. Only then will Christ return to rule on earth for one thousand years; this period’s end will mark the end of history. For post-millenialist evangelicals and fundamentalists, the great events of Rapture, Tribulation and Armageddon will followthe millennium. During the millennium, which some post-millenialists believe has begun, God’s elect will rule the earth. God’s elect are self-evidently Christian, and they bear a heavy burden to rule in a way befitting Christian principles. (Diamond; 1989)
Each theological position (and I have named only two here) dictates a different order of commitments in the conduct of daily life. In order to capture the large US evangelical and fundamentalist population for a massive political mobilization, the New Right’s religious leadership had to develop arguments that harmonized the differences and placed political activism at the top of all those different lists of commitments.
Two such arguments have achieved wide acceptance. First, whether one is a pre-millenialist or a post-millenialist, it can be argued that to do God’s work here on earth is to oppose earthly evil at all times. Because moral decay and behavior not consistent with biblical teachings are evil, they should be actively opposed. Second, agreement has emerged that it is Christians who have been given dominion (rule) over the earth by God. Thus it is wrong and worthy of opposition when secular persons inappropriately take that dominion. These arguments compel the involvement of evangelicals and fundamentalists (and charismatics and Pentecostals) in contemporary politics. Further, they resonate strongly with the “values” questions that are at the center of the agenda of both the religious and secular right.
Certain individuals, especially Robert Billings, Ed McAteer, Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, and, most recently, Pat Robertson get credit for recruiting Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals into politics. They organized in the 1970s, at a time when the number of citizens identifying themselves as born-again Christians was skyrocketing. By the 1980s, Christian revivalism had become a movement: a locus of righteous fervor, individual meaning, and political organizing. As early as 1981, a Gallup Poll found that 38 percent of the population claimed to have been “born-again.” (Gallup Opinion Index, 184: 1-77) While not all those born-again Christians are fundamentalists, nearly all are evangelicals.3
As this growth occurred, so too did the political sophistication of the Christian Right leadership. The strategic decision in the 1970s to take the movement into electoral politics, specifically within the Republican Party, was evidence of this growing interest in political power. (Diamond: 1995) Mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches, meanwhile, were plagued with low growth, dwindling finances, and a decline in those entering the priesthood or ministry.
The footsoldiers of the Religious Right precisely meet Wallace’s definition of members of a society who are dissatisfied and driven to introduce a new worldview. In this case, dissatisfaction over “moral decay” which they see as resulting from secular values was augmented by decline in their own status in society. Many evangelicals and fundamentalists felt that their lifestyle and values had become devalued and in many cases nearly invisible, at least in popular culture. Such feelings of status deprivation and conflict with the dominant values are powerful forces that promote a sense of alienation.
Equally important is the positive pull of the Christian Right. Membership in a movement- in this case one with a spiritual dimension- offers an antidote to a sense of alienation. Further, the theological authoritarianism characteristic of New Right Christian groups provides rules to live by and answers to life’s problems with absolute clarity, not fuzzy relativism. Thus, it is no surprise that activists in the Christian Right score exceptionally high on tests of intolerance. In a 1990/91 stratified random sampling of members of Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, one of the largest Religious Right organizations, and activists in Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America, researchers associated with the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron found that only 2 percent of Concerned Women for America activists and 6 percent of Focus on the Family members agreed with the statement, “A diversity of moral views is healthy.” (Smidt et al: 1994) This is a frightening statistic to those who rely on, or simply support, social tolerance and open-mindedness.
What does a growing and politically powerful Christian revivalistic movement mean for Jews in the US? Many conservative Jews may feel a similar sense of alienation from secular society and threat to their traditional religious practices, but it is unlikely that the Christian Right can provide answers that are satisfactory for Jews.
Certainly there are Jews who align themselves with the Christian Right- an example is the conservative Jewish group Toward Tradition, headed by Rabbi Daniel Lapin. Lapin argues that the proper practice of Jewish faith dictates a belief in moral values that are more closely aligned with those of conservative Christians than with those of liberals whose secular humanism runs against the grain of religious practice.
Another argument for Jewish support for the Christian Right is its consistent support for Israel. Because conservative Christian biblical teachings maintain that the Jews must return to Israel in order for the Second Coming to occur, the Christian Right has firmly supported US aid to Israel. The role of Israel as a buffer against communism in the Middle East was another appealing aspect of this alliance. For Jews who equate support for Israel with support for Jews, the Christian Right is a dependable and valuable ally.
Nevertheless, the relationship between Jews and the Christian Right is a source of considerable debate within the Jewish community. For, in fact, the political platform of the Religious Right promotes the return of America to its Christian roots. The slogan “America is a Christian country” has been the Christian Right’s motto. Their advocacy for prayer in schools and the erosion of a separation between church and state inevitably implies discrimination against Jews. Worse yet is the Christian Right’s belief that those who are not born-again are not in an appropriate relationship with God.
Even in its support for Israel, the Christian Right has simultaneously pursued a greater Christian presence in Israel and proselytized for Jews to convert to Christianity. (Mouly: 1985)
Despite the recent Christian Right practice of referring to their religious beliefs as “Judeo-Christian,” and the recent statement by Ralph Reed that he had not realized that the slogan “America is a Christian country” might be offensive to Jews, there is a substantial part of the Jewish community that remains suspicious that the Christian Right is anti-Semitic. A recent, long-overdue publication by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith presents a thorough and accurate review of the beliefs and practices of major Religious Right organizations. This book, The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America, presents clear evidence of the latent and active anti-Semitism that runs throughout the Christian Right. (Cantor: 1994)
The writings of Rev. Pat Robertson, whose Christian Coalition is now the pre-eminent organization of the Christian Right, are especially revealing. In his 1994 book, The New World Order, Robertson presents his own variation on a long-standing anti-Semitic conspiracy theory- a sinister plot by secret elites to rule the world, financed by Jewish bankers. Thus we see the leader of the Christians Right’s largest and most powerful organization publishing blatant anti-Semitic rhetoric as “education” for his members. (Lind: 1995)
Much like its anti-Semitism, the misogyny of the Religious Right is not always explicit. Women appear to be accorded very high respect within the tenets of conservative Christianity. In fact, one of the Christian Right’s largest and most active organizations is Concerned Women for America, a Christian women’s organization headed by Beverly LaHaye. LaHaye teaches that it is in her religion and her family that a woman finds her greatest fulfillment, not in the incorrect and misled principles of feminism. She leads her members to demonize and mobilize against liberal women by portraying them as pleasure-seeking, man-hating, and secular-minded purveyors of sex, abortion, and divorce.
For conservative Christian women, the proper place of the woman in the home is beneath the authority of her husband, who in turn is beneath the authority of God. Far from being a place of subservience, this is a woman’s life in its natural form, as intended by God and by a Godly society. Leadership should be in the hands of men; thus, it is entirely appropriate that in the case of the anti-abortion movement- perhaps the first of the New Right’s “social issues” to bring together a coalition of secular and religious rightists- the movement has consistently been led primarily by men.
In addition to its opposition to a range of reproductive rights that give women some control over their own bodies, the Religious Right opposes equal pay, single motherhood, sex education in the schools, lesbianism, feminist curriculum, and even daycare. Logically then, the women’s movement’s struggle for equality and independence for women is considered to be wrong by conservative Christian women. It is, in fact, seen as threatening to the health of the society as a whole.
The Christian Right’s agenda for women is explicitly anti-feminist, but perhaps more dangerous is its implicit attack on poor women. Because women are divided into those who are worthy (living by Godly practices) and unworthy (engaging in an ungodly lifestyle), many poor women who receive AFDC assistance, are single mothers, or are otherwise independent of men but dependent on the state, are also to be condemned. The Christian Right’s support for welfare “reform,” given that a majority of welfare recipients are women, belies any claim of concern for all women.
In fact, even conservative Christian women can become targets within the Christian Right. The evangelical men’s organization known as The Promise Keepers, which draws tens of thousands of men to its rallies in big-city stadiums, encourages men to take back the leadership within the family that they have given over to their wives through their own weakness and sloth. If the wife is not willing to give back the leadership of the family, then the Promise Keepers are urged to “take it back.” (Italics in original) (Evans, 1994)
To the extent that mainstream feminist goals are associated with liberalism, both the secular and religious right can be expected to portray feminists as abnormal, predatory, and dangerous. That is not surprising. It is notable, however, that conservative Christian women collaborate in the demonization of poor women, especially women receiving welfare, and women who are judged to have made mistakes. In their respect for and trust in authority, right-wing women find dignity and a sense of security and order in their proper and natural place under the authority of men. It is far less virtuous to pursue a wrong-headed notion of equality than to behave appropriately and be assured of respect. (Dworkin: 1983) For those women who do not understand the need for women to remain in their place and make the necessary sacrifices, there is disapproval that often turns to disgust and disdain.
The US economy, once based in industrial capital, is being structurally transformed by the declining significance of industrial production and the increasing role played by finance capital and the service and information sectors of the economy. The loss of US blue-collar industrial jobs, as even small corporations now locate production facilities in Third World countries, combined with the downsizing of lower and middle management corporate structures, have left a large part of the US workforce dislocated and disillusioned.
Much of the motivation for this restructuring comes from greater international competition, which has necessitated increasingly speculative business behavior in order to maintain a high level of profits. Profits now are chased with increasingly arcane schemes- including the takeovers, mergers, and buy-outs of the 1980s, which have continued in the 1990s.
How does the contemporary right-wing political movement relate to the changing US economic scene? In order to understand a part of the political motivation of the right, it is important to identify the economic interests it represents. It is clear that the right’s economic agenda (corporate tax cuts, changes in tax rates to benefit the wealthy, deregulation, privatization, anti-union legislation, and defunding the left) benefits business interests and high-income individuals. Yet there is conflict within the economic elite- with some corporate interests aligning with the right, while some align with the moderate wing of the Republican Party, and some with the Democrats. It is not until the differing interests of various sectors of business are distinguished that this conflict makes sense.
In the late 1970s, when the New Right became the focus of media attention, its leadership openly declared its allegiance to venture capitalism. Based largely in the West, especially the Southwest and California, and to a lesser extent in the South, venture capitalism represents a sector of corporate business that is young, often small and independent, and characterized by high risk. Oil, electronics, software, and some pharmaceutical companies are examples. In contrast, larger, older, multinational corporate entities, such as the “blue chip” companies often located in the Midwest and North Atlantic regions, represent a sector of capital with a different identity and different needs from the political system. The two sectors are sometimes called the Cowboys and the Yankees.
Liberalism pursued an agenda that, for some years, could be tolerated by the Yankee sector of capital. Large, older corporate structures needed the stability that unionization provided, and could afford to “buy” that stability with benefits and relatively high wages. Thus, during much of the post-WW II period, liberalism and corporate America were able to co-exist in an uneasy alliance. However, with the arrival of national economies that threatened US hegemony (such as Japan, Germany, Western Europe and the emerging Pacific rim countries), the larger, multinational corporate sector could no longer afford liberalism’s programs and, in the later 1970s, began its own assault on regulatory laws and labor’s pay rates and benefits packages. When the unions objected, they were eliminated.
Simultaneously, the venture capital sector of capital was represented by the New Right. 4 For this sector, stability was less important than an economic environment that was hospitable for fast growth. Therefore, deregulation, deunionization, and lower corporate taxes were the agenda. As the 1980s progressed, the needs of the two sectors converged, until there was no voice left to defend the economic policies of liberalism- regulation, strong unions, and corporate taxation. (Lyons, 1994) The attack on these policies was most viciously mounted by the New Right (and continues to be central to the agenda of the “new Republicans”), but it is also supported, though more quietly, by big business.
The result has been the preservation (even inflation) of profits, but at a high social cost. The right’s economic agenda has been the equivalent of a “shock” treatment for the US economy. In order to maintain slipping profits, a formula of increased economic speculation, downsizing of the labor force, and concentration of profits in the hands of upper management and stockholders has been followed. The result is a redistribution of wealth, so that profits are maintained but at a punishing cost to the average wage-earner. Thus, some are getting richer, many are getting poorer, and the American dream- the belief that hard work will equal success and a better standard of living for the next generation- has been shattered. (Sklar: 1995)
The discontent that inevitably results from such a blow to the working and middle class has taken the form of a right-wing populist political revolt. We have seen the appeal of rightist rhetoric in the midst of economic decline elsewhere- in Germany during the rise of National Socialism, and more recently in England during the rise of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory movement. Some political themes are common to all three cases: nationalism, tax protest, anti-government rhetoric, a nostalgia for a more “moral” time, and scapegoating.
White supremacism and racial bigotry pervade the economy and culture of US society, taking different forms at different times. Yet, when discussing the right, many journalists do not refer at all to race and racism. Others see racism as the principal social, psychological and economic motivation for right-wing politics. Certainly the theme of white resentment of a perceived increase in the power of racial/ethnic minority groups plays heavily in the agenda of the right. That resentment is fanned and augmented by the decreased sense of economic security of many working and middle class white people (such as suburban, white, Republican males, white rural males, or women whose status is attached to those men) as a result of economic restructuring. There is no doubt that racial resentment and racial bigotry are major factors in the current resurgence of the right.5
But how does it work? It is easy to see why so much contemporary analysis of the right does not discuss racism. The New Right in the early 1980s explicitly renounced racism, claiming to turn its back on its past association with the Ku Klux Klan and the George Wallace Presidential campaign. Whenever a racist slur, or an indiscreet racist joke is made public, apologies are made, and the culprit is chastised. It appears that, in public political discourse, only David Duke and his ilk are allowed to “speak race,” and even there, the Republican Party national leadership creates a public distance and disavowal. 6
Another factor that obscures the right’s racism is the intersection of race and class in the US. Because there now exists a substantial Black middle class (and increasingly a Latino and Asian middle class, though as yet only a tiny Native American middle class), there are groups of people of color who are less culturally threatening to the right. In an effort to broaden the tent of Republican voters, these middle class communities of color have, in some cases, been courted and promoted by the right. (Toler:1993)
Most journalists, working within the institutional racism of their own newspapers or television stations, often accept right-wing politicians’ self-portrayal as non-racists at face value, and because Americans get most of their information from journalists, the racial motivation of much of the current right’s program is not properly understood. What is needed in order to accurately assess the racial politics of the right is an examination of the consequences of the right’s political agenda for people of color.
Three public policy initiatives sponsored by the right are examples of the important role of racial bigotry and resentment in the right’s political agenda: welfare “reform,” the anti-immigrant campaign, and the attack on affirmative action. Here, racist language is barely concealed. Stereotypes such as the “welfare queen,” used to attack welfare recipients, “illegal aliens” to attack immigrants, and “reverse discrimination” to misrepresent affirmative action, are promoted for the political punch inherent in the equation of people of color and negative qualities. If people of color are grouped under the umbrella of unseemly characteristics, then to disdain or dismiss them is less easily identified as racism.
In many cases, the racist results of right-wing policies are built on racially encoded concepts. A sampling of some of the most powerful are: individual responsibility, states’ rights, and dependency. In both blatant and encoded racial slurs, the central political and psychological ploys used are stereotyping and scapegoating. Scapegoating is fixing blame for social stress, economic loss, or loss of political power on a target group whose constructed guilt provides a simplistic explanation. Scapegoating in turn depends on stereotyping- assigning characteristics (usually negative) not to individuals but to entire groups of people. In a society experiencing painful economic contraction, anger increases, lines harden, and hated stereotypes increasingly become scapegoats. When the dominant political force is actually promoting scapegoating and stereotyping, as the right has done so effectively, the practice is bound to thrive.
In a society founded on the system of enslavement of Blacks, the target of scapegoating is most often the African American population. The dominant culture- white, Protestant, and male- has historically held power in part by oppressing people of color and other hated out-groups, understanding that in order to maintain dominance it cannot tolerate true pluralism.
As always, the effectiveness of the hold of those in power depends in part on the strength of those challenging that control. Currently, the political cohesion of communities of color is diminished. The leadership of the African American community has been in a weakened and fragmented state for some time, and the results of civil rights and anti-poverty legislation, while significant, have not fulfilled their promise of transformation in the fortunes of Black people. Among Latinos, Asian Americans, and African Americans, economic competition and cultural differences create divisions that are easily exploited and make a movement across race and ethnicity difficult to hold together.
For many whites of all classes, however, the advances that have been made by people of color seem to hold particular symbolic significance. In a climate in which many whites feel anxious and vulnerable, there is a simmering racial resentment of those who appear favored by affirmative action, so-called “preferential treatment,” and a perception that Blacks have made gains faster than whites. Bilingualism, multiculturalism, and other hard-won gains are now the focus of white backlash. This backlash, often expressed in a form sanitized of racist slurs, attacks African American gains by arguing that Blacks no longer suffer discrimination and therefore do not “deserve” a helping hand. This dismissal of the continuing racism within US society, when combined with the anxiety and anger created in whites by economic contraction, results in whites scapegoating Blacks and other people of color for the slip in status of groups of whites.
In the world of the far right, of course, white supremacism is endemic, and no obligation is felt to obscure it. The far right is more extremist and ideologically alienated than the sector of the right that works within the political power structure. While there is important cross-pollination between the far right and the electoral right, this discussion is not addressing the racism and bigotry of the paramilitary far right.
Would the right have such success with its stereotyping and scapegoating if the economy were expanding? Perhaps not, simply because the economic pain would be less severe and scapegoating would be less needed as a foil to draw anger away from more accurate targets.
An important factor in explaining the success of the right is a shift in the values held by the majority of the US public. Since the end of the 1970s, a climate of stress and discord has reflected the confusion, resentments, and fears of a society undergoing rapid social change. That climate has been nurtured and exploited by the organized right to promote social conservatism and capture power. One method has been to encourage cynicism about the intentions of government, and especially the evil of liberal reformism. The right’s success in transforming public attitudes is a testimony to its own self-conscious organizing, as well as the failure of liberalism to counter with an emotionally compelling vision.
A central goal of the right is to restore the norms of social conservatism that dominated in the 1950s. In the late 1970s, the New Right’s leadership skillfully identified deep strains of discontent within the American public: fears, resentments, hatreds and confusion that bubbled beneath the surface of public life. By organizing this public unhappiness and confusion into anger targeted at the liberation/reform movements of the 1960s and 1970s, they both built on and aggravated social strain. An important vehicle for this organizing was the promotion of a romanticized view of what seems a simpler and more manageable time. The resulting change in public attitudes is a shift in political culture.
This shift is in the core values held by people in both the public sphere and in their private lives. Of course, there is enormous variation in the political culture of any society- by class, race, gender, ethnicity, and by idiosyncratic preferences. But what is identified as a society’s political culture is the body of values and attitudes held by the bulk of people as expressed in the voting booth and captured in randomized opinion polls and focus group research. The concept of political culture is too broad a generalization to reflect the vast numbers of subcultures in the US.
Generalization though it is, to talk about a shift in the political culture of the US does capture a real social transformation. It should not be surprising that such a shift is not a matter of smooth transition. The potential winners and the potential losers are locked in struggle, as those who were dominant try to hold on and the challengers try to consolidate power. The power struggle is easiest to track in the political sphere, and in the economic sphere. It is harder to track in the social/cultural sphere- though this is a vital part of the struggle. For this reason, it is a mistake to watch only the right’s success in public policy. It is equally important to pay attention to the “values questions.” For without capturing the cultural sphere, no economic and political shift will hold.
The struggle is between the liberalism that traces its roots to the New Deal and a right-wing countermovement that opposes the values and policies of that liberalism. The liberal reforms now under attack- for example, legalization of abortion, gains in rights for lesbians and gay men, public support for free expression, and the extension of civil rights protections to people of color- are matters of public policy, but also of values. Those who support these reforms, and the values that underlie them, are prime targets for this countermovement.
Movements and countermovements do battle at almost any period. In a complex dance that journalists describe as the swinging pendulum, progressive and reactionary forces vie for dominance and influence, and each works to expose the other’s agenda. When the Republicans dominate, the pendulum is said to have swung to the right. When Democrats dominate, it has swung to the left. Occasionally, however, there is a shift in the “center”- the majority of voters who act as the fulcrum or anchor for the swinging pendulum. This is a period of enormous confusion, when scapegoating increases.
Political science literature makes much of the strength of the center in US politics. It is often lionized as the reason for US political stability. The durability and common sense said to characterize the center is also often associated with the large US middle class. Common sense is thought to reside in that stable body of average Americans, whose wisdom keeps a democracy on course.
For nearly 20 years, the US political center has been moving to the right, attracted by the right’s platform of family values, nationalism, race resentment, and a rhetoric of the work ethic. The most skillful of the right’s strategists, especially Paul Weyrich and Howard Phillips, targeted areas in which liberalism was vulnerable, and with great skill, identified the themes of dependence, crime, taxes, and family values. Crucial to the right’s success is the mix of these themes known as the “social issues”- such as sexual promiscuity, the decline of the family, the rights of children, the legitimacy of a gay or lesbian sexual orientation, etc. The right has appealed to age-old American cultural strains: Calvinism, self-reliance, patriarchy, Christian worship, and patriotism, to create a backlash countermovement of enormous effectiveness. The right’s organizing has been documented in a number of cases, perhaps most impressively by Ellen Messer-Davidow in her articles on the right’s attack on higher education. (Messer-Davidow, 1993)
A move to the right usually means a shoring up of the “establishment.” But the contemporary US right’s conservatism is not of the system-supporting type. Classical conservatism favors respect for government, reverence for the church as an institution, support for the nuclear family, and free market economics. It holds the individual as the most important unit in society. In major respects, the shift now occurring does not conform to classical conservatism. The right- both religious and secular- is more extreme in its ideology. It fosters suspicion- if not hatred- of government, dismissal of the mainstream Protestant churches, and a punitive and intrusive role toward individual sexual conduct and sexual orientation.
Rather than a familiar brand of conservative “Father Knows Best” Republicanism, this right-wing social movement organizes the expression of more extreme instincts. It is built on a backlash fueled by anger- in the form of resentment, spite, vengeance, envy, loss, and bitterness over declining status- on the part of those who feel that they have not benefited from the changes of the last 30 years. (Gusfield: 1963; Crawford: 1980) This social anger is also fed by the current religious revitalization, economic contraction and race resentment discussed above. This volatile combination of reactionary instincts is fanned by the right and directed toward the targets of liberals, feminists, people of color (especially through stereotyping of welfare recipients, criminals, immigrants, and drug users), and lesbians and gay men, all perceived to be the beneficiaries of liberal social change.
A number of specific grievances and deprivations underlie the right’s successful organizing of a countermovement. First is anxiety on the part of the white, suburban middle class Protestants who were dominant for generations and in the 1980s began to see themselves as losing status and therefore willing to join backlash movements. The assurance of a secure and predictable place in society, while never guaranteed, was certainly expected as part of the heritage associated with white skin, education, and middle class family of origin. Policies designed to fortify the liberal ideals of tolerance and pluralism and increased equality seemed to threaten the standing of white heterosexual middle-class Protestants and Catholics, especially males. In the heat of disillusionment and right-wing propaganda, this sector of white voters abandoned the Democratic coalition. (Edsall and Edsall: 1990)
But the right’s resurgence is not based exclusively in the middle class. Working class whites also suffer social stress and perceived loss of status, and especially resent their obvious competitors- African American men, women, gays and lesbians, and immigrants. They also resent the New Class, the small but visible young urban professional nouveau riches of the 1980s. These yuppies, as they are known, are stockbrokers, professional couples with no children, single women corporate executives, MBAs who specialize in mergers and buy-outs, and lawyers who specialize in large real estate transactions. In short, they do not work with their hands, they have excess income which they spend on luxury items, and they are unattached or only loosely attached to church or family.
Across class lines there is a shared anxiety and confusion over the speed of social and cultural change- change that is perceived as making the society more violent, more sexually permissive, less orderly, and less predictable. There is particular anxiety in raising children, because it is in this sphere that so much of the perceived decline in American society becomes concrete.
It is in the raising of children that much of the American dream is most vividly enacted. The United States as the world’s dominant economic power, ever-growing and bringing increased prosperity to each succeeding generation, is a revered image in our political folklore. Though the American dream is itself a social invention, it is a particularly powerful one. One successful strategy of the contemporary right has been to wrap itself in the American dream, and to portray liberals as killers of that dream. (Quigley: 1992) The right’s caricature of an all-powerful liberalism has proved elastic enough to have caused any grievance.
For middle- and working-class white Protestants anxious about their own status and resentful of the loss of the American dream, the demonization of liberals and progressives deflects anger away from upper-class Republicans- the only group that has remained relatively untouched by the economic contraction, social changes, and shift in political culture of the last three decades. Whether or not a right-wing backlash movement prevails, this group will remain stable. In fact, due to deregulation, and changes in the tax code, it is expanding. While upper-class Republicans may not be culturally comfortable with the “resentment constituency,” there is little in this movement that appears to threaten their position in society. Thus, the takeover of the Republican Party by its right wing is unlikely to be opposed by any upper class elites except the weakened and faltering Republican moderates, who support a more traditional brand of classical conservatism.
Media plays an important role in the current shift and should be mentioned as a factor in the right’s resurgence. The right has vilified the mainstream media as liberal and biased against conservative and Christian views. By creating new media outlets, such as Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network, and by pressuring mainstream media through boycotts of advertisers’ products and letter-writing campaigns, the right has gained remarkable media access. As documented by the newsletter of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the opinions represented even within the television outlet most attacked by the right, PBS, range from centrist to right wing. (Extra!: 1993) With the exception of past sporadic appearances by the late Erwin Knoll on the McNeil/Lehrer News Hour or an occasional independent film with a progressive theme, there is no voice of the left on television. Pacifica Radio is one of only a handful of left radio outlets. As the political “center” moves to the right, public debate increasingly takes place between the moderate right and the extreme right.
Before the electronic age- specifically satellite television transmission, cable TV and talk-radio programming- a diversity of values existed in greater distance from each other. Decision-making elites and opinion makers were thought to have more information than the average person, and for that reason were often accorded the role of representing their constituents. Today, people feel that they have enough information to be direct decision-makers. (Inglehart: 1990) This has encouraged a strong streak of populism that is a crucial ingredient in the right’s social movement.
The right has promoted a belief that wisdom resides in the average (white) person and that elites and intellectuals are no longer needed as mediators between government and the people. Thus, an important part of the culture shift is a demand by middle- and working-class white voters for a more direct democracy, in order to express their discontent. This has allowed those who understand and utilize that demand- in this case the right, not the left- to gain political advantage by quickly providing an outlet for it. And it has led to further disenfranchisement of the poor and underserved, who are less well-trained and well-equipped for the challenges of direct democracy.
Social stress and culture shift might equally cause a leftist resurgence- an identification of the source of the problem within capitalism, its power structure and the owning class that controls it. At times this has been the case, but the strength of the right has succeeded in suppressing and deflecting such political impulses, in part through the vehicle of an effective, coordinated, and well-funded movement infrastructure.
Social, political, and economic discontent, no matter how strongly powered by mutually reinforcing causes, does not result in revolutionary change unless there is a political movement to capture the anger and direct it in a certain direction. The right’s ability to capitalize on the economic chaos, racial tensions, and social discontent of the current historical moment can be explained, in large part, by its stronger political movement.
This movement is well-financed and well-run, combining shrewd strategic planning for political success with a rigid set of ideological principles backed by a certitude based in religious beliefs. The membership organizations, networks, think tanks, media outlets, campus publications, coalitions, interest groups, PACs, and funders that work to advance the right’s political movement make up its “movement infrastructure.”
While a movement cannot succeed without substantial mass sentiment to support it, its precise level of success is shaped by the strength and effectiveness of its infrastructure. (Hixson, p. 273) Public education, which is key to any change in political direction, depends on movement-oriented think tanks, research centers, publishing houses, TV and radio outlets, and schools and universities. Legislative initiatives to press movement goals require legal firms. Mobilization for popular campaigns to pressure legislators requires grassroots membership organizations. Capturing electoral power requires political consultants, PACs, media expertise, and grassroots training programs for political supporters.
The right’s strategists, funders, organizers and activists have modeled the creation of an effective movement infrastructure. By attending to movement-building, they have created a juggernaut- an overwhelming force that has swept the right to power and swept away liberal reformism in 15 short years.
In the early 1990s Beth Schulman, Associate Publisher of In These Times magazine, circulated a memorandum that discussed the difference in funding patterns of progressive funders and right-wing funders. She pointed out that the right-wing funders invested in the building blocks or skeletal structure of their movement- such as publications, research centers, think tanks, and academic fellowships and chairs designated for rightist scholars, campus organizations, and youth groups. (Schulman: 1992 and Bleifuss: 1995)
Liberal and progressive foundations, on the other hand, were not underwriting movement-building, but instead were funding good works that promised to assure better social conditions and promote equality and tolerance. Much of this funding could be classified as humanitarian aid, which was needed in the face of the social service cuts of the Reagan/Bush years. Unable to turn a deaf ear to need and suffering, liberal and progressive funders lacked the discipline and single-mindedness of the right’s funders. The result is that the right got greater political mileage for each dollar invested because the movement it underwrote was focused on a strategic plan for seizing power.
Thus, in the case of a particular right-wing issue, such as the liberalism of higher education or the increasing effectiveness of the gay rights movement, the right had in place all the components needed to launch a full scale campaign to press the issue. Local single-issue organizations could tap into the resources of national right-wing legal firms, research centers, publishing houses, funders, and membership organizations. This allowed the fire-power of an entire movement to assist the political work of the smallest grassroots right-wing effort.
One of the most effective roles of the right-wing movement infrastructure has been its role in knitting together secular social and economic conservatives and conservative religious activists. These two groups might have existed side-by-side without a conscious effort to coordinate and integrate their work. By combining forces through the networks and coalitions of the right, the impact of each sector has increased dramatically. United, the secular and religious right have seized power; separately, that would have been unlikely.
Related to movement infrastructure is the need for strategic planning. Without clear analysis, defined goals, and developed strategies, even the strongest movement will spin its wheels without actually capturing power. Two academics who write about the right’s strategic planning are sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset and his critic, Michael Rogin, political scientist at UC/Berkeley. Lipset identified three sectors that contribute to right-wing success: Republican politicians, their core constituency of upper-income conservatives, and the lower-middle and working class adherents of backlash movements. Writing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lipset focused much of his attention on working class rightists. As a result, the role of Republican politicians and upper-income conservatives in the US right was long overlooked in academic circles.
Michael Rogin has corrected this oversight by using “resource mobilization theory.” In case studies that have examined Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, and political behavior in Orange County, California, Rogin has highlighted the role of political elites (Republican Party activists and office-holders in this case) and “cause activists,” right-wing activists whose organizational base is outside the Party, but whose political goal is control of the Party. This is a crucial aspect of the success of the right wing of the Republican Party in taking over the Party. The “cause activists” are not harnessed by Party unity, or even Party loyalty. The Republican Party is simply a vehicle for the right’s goals- the most appropriate and sensible vehicle, but one that is itself in need of right-wing reform.
In a search for new electoral cleavages to exploit within the Democratic Party, the right’s Republican partisans saw the potential of the social issues, including racial tensions, as a source of division within Democratic ranks. A strategy of luring socially conservative Democrats away from the Democratic Party, which dates to the 1960s and is known as the Southern Strategy, has accomplished several overlapping goals: the growth of the power of the Republican Party, the diversion of resources to Republicans through control of policy-making decisions that affect the distribution of wealth, and the weakening of such political opponents as Democrats and left-leaning independent voters.
These goals were achieved not simply because of a spontaneous expression of backlash social sentiments, racial resentments, or economic anger. They were accomplished by capturing decision-making positions (winning political office), mobilizing resources (getting control of bureaucracies), and swaying public opinion (activating political ideologues through a network of organizations, publications, churches, research organizations, grassroots groups, national coalitions, conferences, TV and radio, voter education, and activist training). Because the right’s movement is not led by Republican office-holders, the movement is not always system-supporting. It is often system-opposing, as New Right and Christian Right leaders ignore or confront Republicans deemed insufficiently loyal to the movement. (Diamond: 1995)
The role of the federal government in promoting or squelching a growing social movement is fluid and opportunistic. The government can be either a passive judge of competing movements and interests, or an active participant that promotes or inhibits them. The government can channel resources, confer legitimacy, and provide leadership for a social movement. (Lo: 1982) In the current right-wing movement, government power has been hotly contended- an acknowledgment of the crucial role that it can play as an asset or a roadblock for a movement.
Government also has its own independent interests, primarily those of self-preservation and preservation of the status quo. In some cases those needs may call for expanded rights for some groups, the promotion of greater tolerance, or strengthening of one or another disadvantaged group. In most cases, however, government interest lies with those holders of power whose interests it most strongly represents. In the case of the right, when right-wing activism is so extreme that it is directed at the overthrow of the government or the massive disruption of the status quo, government represses that sector.7
For the most part, the right’s movement-building has been financed by elites outside government, who have bankrolled a movement infrastructure that is openly hostile to government power in its New Deal form. Elites inside government have often (unsuccessfully) opposed the right’s rapid ascension.
The current electoral and cultural success of the right has not occurred in a vacuum, but during a specific historical period in which five overlapping and reinforcing factors have converged to create a hospitable environment. These factors are driving the political and social direction of the country relentlessly to the right.
This analysis can help us to understand the challenge we face in responding to the dangerous movement known as the New Right, the Christian Right and the new Republicans. It is discouraging that many of the factors discussed above- especially economic contraction, social backlash, and the strength of the right’s political infrastructure- mitigate against liberal reformist social change. That does not mean, however, that there is no hope. What is needed is a clear appreciation of both the danger we now face, and the potential for positive change that exists despite that danger.
The reactionary forces of this historical moment will not be stopped simply by progressives working harder. The engine of reaction must first be slowed in order to create breathing room for liberalism and the left. This requires a massive campaign of public education to expose the right’s hidden agendas and actual motivations. There must also be careful documentation of the consequences of right-wing policies. Simultaneously, progressives need to develop new leadership and new ideas. (Levitas, et al: 1995)
The most important quality in developing new ideas may be the ability to listen with new ears to the concerns, fears, hopes, and aspirations of the traditional constituencies of the left- low-income people, people who suffer from discrimination (especially racism and sexism), and working people on whose backs the profits of a rapacious capitalism are built. Historically, liberals and progressives have been better at advocacy than at listening. While the left and liberals have accomplished a great many reforms, the right has been more successful at creating a simple message that wins support by encapsulating frustrations and directing them toward unpopular scapegoats.
This is a powerful marketing formula that has been used in the past to bring ultra-right movements to power, most notably in Germany in the 1930s. It is a technique that thrives in a setting of economic hard times for working people. It rests on a movement infrastructure that can organize aggressively to spread the message and win recruits. And it thrives when progressives, reformers, humanists, and liberal religious people underestimate the threat they face or are too weak or unorganized to hold the line.
Religious liberals will have a crucial role to play in the restructuring of the liberal/left coalition. The punitive and vengeful brand of Christian fundamentalism that now dominates the Religious Right must be confronted by those whose religious beliefs lead to humane, socially conscious public policy.
Further, the strategists of liberal and progressive social change must admit the failure of their message and their policies to hold the loyalty of the average voter. With that admission must come a self-criticism that is honest, thorough, and seeks input from not only those who stayed with liberalism, but also those who have rejected it. Failed revolutionary movements in other countries are sometimes criticized by progressives for failing to examine adequately the reasons for their loss of popular support. No less should be done in the face of our own failure, if the rebuilding is to avoid the shortcomings of the past.
1 For an excellent account of the history of the rise of the right, see Chip Berlet, “The Right Rides High.” The Progressive, October, 1994, pp. 22-29. This article is woven into the text of Culture War on this website.
2 There is no rigorous and universally-agreed definition of a “movement.” In the case of religious and social movements, often something as specific as a campaign mounted by a group of like-minded citizens is labeled a movement. In this discussion the term movement will be reserved for umbrella movements rather than their sub-movements. Thus, the term social movement will refer to the collectivity of active campaigns mobilized by the right around the social issues. Economic, political, and religious movements will refer to the collectivity of active campaigns mobilized by the right around economic, political, and religious issues. All these movements unite under the rubric of the contemporary US right.
3 The definitions of evangelical and fundamentalist are murky because they describe movements rather than institutions. George Marsden (1991) attempts a definition: Christian evangelicalism includes any Christian who is traditional enough to affirm the basic beliefs of : 1) the final authority of the Bible, 2) the reality of scripture, 3) redemption through Christ, 4) the importance of missionary work, and 5) the importance of a spiritually transformed life. A Christian fundamentalist is an evangelical who is militant in opposition to liberal theology or to changes in cultural values or mores. Pentecostalism, which dates to the 1920s, is associated with faith healing and speaking in tongues, signifying dramatic intervention of the supernatural. A slightly different and more modern form of supernatural religious practice is practiced by “Charismatics.” To be born-again refers to a conversion experience in which one surrenders his or her life to Jesus Christ, thus making Jesus your personal Lord and savior. (Diamond, 1989)
4 The sectors are drawn in an over-simple fashion for the sake of the argument. Many New Right organizations received financial support from sources within the multinational sector, and many aspects of the political agendas of each overlap; most notably in the cultural sphere and the area of the “social issues.”
5 The term “white” is used here to refer to Americans of European descent who are non-Jews. Needless to say, skin color and racial identification are far more complex than allowed by schemes of racial classification. They are, to a large extent, social constructions.
6 The Republican Party refused to back David Duke in his 1991 campaign for Governor of Louisiana, despite the certain victory of the Democratic candidate, Edwin Edmunds.
7 This is the case when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) has attacked right-wing enclaves that have stockpiled weapons, right-wing tax protesters who have defied the IRS, or far-right movement activists who have engaged in illegal activity.