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Challenging the Political Right:
by Chip Berlet
Political Research Associates
The new conservatism has been successful because it has built a movement
that serves as an umbrella under which political, religious, cultural,
electoral, and economic sectors of conservatism and reaction can gather
around shared concerns while still disagreeing about specific topical
issues and long-term methodology.1 The
great irony is that several rightists leaders admit they learned this
coalition-building strategy from the labor, civil rights, and antiwar
movements of the left.
It is important to understand that the various sectors of the political
right have tapped into genuine anger and disillusionment within the middle
and working classes. In some cases, like bleak economic futures and declining
pay scales, the complaints are legitimate. In some cases, like majority
backlash responses to the demands for social justice from marginalized
groups, the complaints are illegitimate. But either way the sense of
grievance is real. The sleight-of-hand employed by demagogues of the
right is to focus this sense of grievance on scapegoats and conspiracist
theories of secret liberal elites.
Progressives need to engage in three activities simultaneously: challenging
the scapegoating, prejudice, and myths; providing clear strategic analysis
and real alternatives that respond to people's specific legitimate concerns
and needs; and joining in broad and diverse community-based coalitions
engaged in joint work to solve specific problems.
Recognizing who has gained and who has lost in the current economic
climate must be part of the discussion. As Frederick Douglass noted,
those with power and privilege concede nothing without a struggle. The
rightist backlash would have been less destabilizing had there been progressive
leadership able to help pilot the society through the roaring ocean waves
tossed up in reaction to demands for rectifying centuries of economic
and social injustice. For instance blaming massive job loss and underemployment
on affirmative action is scapegoating, but it would be a difficult scapegoat
for the right to peddle in a full employment economy.
The cleverest trick is how the right has empowered and elevated spokespeople
who, though often anecdotal, claim to represent vast constituencies:
African-Americans who oppose affirmative action, women who oppose feminism,
Mexican-Americans who call for immigration control. Their discourse is
counterintuitive in its opposition to apparent self interest, and thus
the hardest to decode and confront as scapegoating. Our most effective
response as progressives is to empower and elevate as leaders persons
whose core identities and beliefs transcend boundaries: Latina artists
who support free expression and immigration rights, Christians who support
separation of church and state, African-American lesbians who speak out
against racism and homophobia, veterans who oppose militarism, comedians
who gleefully dissect the absurd claims of our emperor politicians who
flap about wearing no intellectual clothes.
In confronting scapegoating, it is important to isolate the handful
of ideologues cynically promoting racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism
and other forms of supremacy from their audience who may embrace these
ideas consciously or unconsciously, but whose prejudice and discrimination
has not hardened into a zealous worldview. The right has gained many
of these converts because they are the only organized oppositional movement
challenging the status quo in a coherent manner that provides seemingly
plausible explanations and solutions. Labeling and demonizing the right
as radicals and extremists who should be shunned is like helping miners
pan for fool's gold on Saturday when we should be spending our workweek
organizing them to take control of the mines.
The media has been easily manipulated by persons adept at scapegoating
and demagoguery. In part this is due to the degrading of news as corporate
empires gobble up media outlets and the reduction of resources made available
for serious research while advertising pressures increasingly drive style
and content. There are structural and stylistic reasons as well, including
the emphasis on short takes and sound bites over more thoughtful longer
discussions, the need for exciting images, the rise of infotainment and
shock talk shows. Perhaps most influential has been the massive funding
for right-wing think tanks that churn out talking heads like chicken
nuggets and send them off to interviews surrounded by skillful publicity
agents and media-packaging professionals.
Democratic public discourse is disrupted by scapegoating, Opposing scapegoating
is both a moral issue and strategically vital because of the role scapegoating
plays in building rightwing populism which can be harvested by fascism.
Fascism begins by organizing a mass movement with bitter anti-regime
rhetoric. Human rights organizers working for social and economic justice
need to encourage forms of mass political participation, including democratic
forms of populism, while simultaneously opposing scapegoating and conspiracism
that often accompanies right-wing populism.
The removal of the obvious anti-communist underpinnings assisted left
wing conspiracists in creating a parody of the fundamentalist/libertarian
conspiracist critiques. Left wing conspiracists strip away the underlying
religious fundamentalism, antisemitism, and economic social Darwinism,
and peddle the repackaged product like carnival snake oil salesmen to
unsuspecting sectors of the left. Those on the left who only see the
antielitist aspects of right-wing populism and claim they are praiseworthy
are playing with fire. Radical-sounding conspiracist critiques of the
status quo are the wedge that fascism uses to penetrate and recruit from
Given the trends we are facing, people who want to defend democracy
have to fight on four fronts. We must organize against:
_ The rise of reactionary populism, nativism, & fascism with roots
in white supremacy, antisemitism, subversion myths, and the many mutating
offspring of the Freemason/Jewish banker conspiracy theories.
and other anti-democratic forms of religious fundamentalism, around the
world, which in the US is based in White Anglo-Saxon Protestant with
its subtexts of patriarchy and homophobia.
_ Authoritarian state actions
in the form of militarism and interventionism abroad and government repression
and erosion of civil liberties at home.
_ The antidemocratic neocorporatism
of multinational capital with its attack on the standard of living of
working people around the globe.
As we promote progressive solutions, we must also join with all persons
across the political spectrum to defend the basic ideas of mass democracy,
even as we argue that it is an idea that has never been real for many
here in our country. The principles of the Enlightenment are not our
goal, but resisting attempts to push political discourse back to pre-enlightenment
principles is nonetheless a worthy effort.
Some of these ideas first appeared in Third Force magazine,
and in "Following the Threads." In Unraveling
the Right: The New Conservatism in American Thought and Politics,
ed. Amy E. Ansell. (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1998).
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