A Call To Defend Democracy And Pluralism

by the Blue Mountain Working Group

November 1994

We are a group of individuals interested in joining with others to rebuild a multi-issue movement for progressive social change that can assist in informing and organizing broad coalitions to reverse the ominous rightwing backlash currently sweeping the United States. In May, 1993 we came from across the nation to the conference center in Blue Mountain, NY to share our concerns about the growing prejudice and scapegoating being provoked by intolerant and anti-democratic religious and secular movements of the hard right.

A wide range of individuals participated in the three-day meeting, including organizers, activists, journalists, academics, and researchers. Some had institutional affiliations, others did not. All the participants had been involved in educating about or organizing against right-wing campaigns at the local or national level, and had shown a commitment to respecting diversity and valuing cooperation. The goal of the gathering was to meet and discuss our experiences and ideas, develop a national perspective, and begin to outline a strategic response that reflected the diverse communities where we work and live. We carried out our discussions with a sense of purpose, a knowledge of history, a commitment to thoughtful and thorough discussion, a desire to learn from each other, and a humility born of painful experience heightened by an apprehension of peril. This statement is one result of our ongoing discussions during the past eighteen months.

We see the current general right-wing backlash as one of the most significant political developments of the decade, combining well-funded national institutions with highly-motivated grassroots activists. To effectively counter this movement, we believe it is essential to understand the specific and complicated components of the political right wing across its many forms, and the often conflicting and competing aspects of right-wing theory and practice.

While the political right in the US can be bewildering in its complexity and shifting identities and allegiances, its players historically have assembled their core tenets and shared agendas from the same set of beliefs. They include conscious or unconscious support for white privilege; male supremacy; subservience of women and people of color; hierarchical religious and family structures; the protection of property rights over human rights; preservation of individual wealth; a rapacious form of unregulated free market capitalism; aggressive and unilateral military and foreign policies; and authoritarian and punitive means of social control. They also include opposition to the feminist movement and abortion rights; democratic pluralism and cultural diversity; gay rights; government regulations concerning health, safety, and the environment; and minimum wage laws and union rights.

The most activist segments of the US political right working within the electoral system are distinct from traditional conservatism, with its support for the status quo, as well as distinct from the far right or ultra right, with its overt theories of racist biological determinism and open support for individual and collective violence. We see some overlap among these tendencies, especially in local campaigns, but contend the current coalition effort uniting diverse rightwing activist groups around specific common themes represents a historic phenomenon that has appeared before in US history during times of economic and social stress. Various activist right-wing movements have historically been called the hard right, intolerant right, authoritarian right, regressive right, reactionary right, nativist right, populist right, radical right, extremist right, moralistic right, orthodox right, traditionalist right, nationalist right, exclusivist right, self-righteous right, elitist right, zealous right, theocentric right, theonomic right, and theocratic right.

We feel the phrase that best describes the essence of the contemporary activist right-wing movement is "anti-democratic right." The main goal of the antidemocratic right is to craft a reactionary backlash movement to co-opt and reverse the gains of the progressive social movements of the 1960's and 1970's which sparked the ongoing civil rights, student rights, antiwar, feminist, ecology, and gay rights movements.

To achieve this goal the anti-democratic right works in many arenas--cultural, social, artistic, electoral, legislative, legal, political, academic, journalistic, religious, and theological. It has an infrastructure that engages in research, strategic analysis, media outreach, fundraising, education, community organizing, and direct action. The specific segment of the anti-democratic right that most concerns us is a growing coalition of well-funded reactionary political activists working with authoritarian religious zealots to define what it means to be an American in narrow, spiteful, and exclusionary terms.

The leaders of the anti-democratic right recognize that many persons have real grievances over various social and economic problems in our society, but these leaders cynically divert attention away from a serious discussion of these complex issues toward targeted scapegoats such as African-Americans, Asians, Arabs, and other people of color, Spanish-speaking residents, feminists, lesbians, gay men, immigrants, welfare recipients, Jews, Muslims, the disabled, and other persons, many of whom are still seeking equal access to the promised benefits of our society.

In a country confronting complex problems, the anti-democratic right offers simple slogans. In a society of many cultures, the anti-democratic right offers a monocultural vision of citizenship. In a society struggling for participatory democracy, the antidemocratic right offers elitism, exclusivity, and submission to authority.

The leaders of the anti-democratic right are deeply troubled by critical thinking, cultural diversity, and dissent; and they warn about the chaos of mass democracy and pluralism, and the evils of liberalism and secular humanism. When they speak of traditional family values, they often speak only of those values which traditionally have reinforced disproportionate access to power and privilege for certain segments of our society--the upper class, males, whites, heterosexuals, northern Europeans, and Christians.

Many leaders of the anti-democratic right depend on fundraising through direct mail and televangelism, where using divisive and polarizing scare tactics to raise money has become commonplace. We have seen some leaders of the anti-democratic right use deception, false or unreliable statistics, pseudo-science, and pseudoacademic research. They opportunistically promote stereotypes, scapegoating, objectification, and irrational conspiratorial analyses alleging secular humanist treachery. They gracelessly exploit divisiveness, dehumanization, demonization, and demagoguery. They smugly act in a moralistic, self-righteous, even sanctimonious manner. They seek to impose their rigid and uncharitable views on every American. The danger they pose to democratic pluralism is real.

The anti-democratic right seeks to control what we read, the music we hear, the images we see, how we learn, what happens to our bodies, how we worship, and whom we love.

The rise of the anti-democratic right in our country occurs at a time when racial nationalism is sweeping Europe. We have witnessed the murders of immigrants, people of color, and religious minorities in Germany, and the spread of anti-Jewish bigotry across the continent. Who could have predicted the brutal ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia or the election victories of neo-fascists in Italy? In our own country, hate crimes and physical assaults on persons in targeted groups are on the increase. We have seen the shootings of abortion providers and bombings of clinics. We should not be complacent and dismiss the possibility that an economic or social crisis in the US could serve as a trigger for some hard-right religious zealots or reactionary racial nationalists to engage in paramilitary activity or unleash a campaign of intimidation and violence that could destabilize our own country.

It may seem a remote possibility, but it can happen here. We know from history that authoritarianism, theocracy, demagoguery, and scapegoating are building blocks for fascist political movements; and that people mobilized by the cynical, regressive, populistsounding sentiments sown by a Ross Perot can be harvested by the angry, divisive, racial nationalist rhetoric of a David Duke or Pat Buchanan. We also know the paradox of fascism is that when most people finally are asking whether or not it is too late to stop it...it is. Better that resistance be early and preventative rather than late and unsuccessful.

Because we believe the anti-democratic right is a growing social movement, we see three immediate tasks to protect democratic values: 1) defending diversity within a pluralistic society, 2) maintaining the separation of church and state, 3) protecting the right to privacy for all people.

We share a sense of urgency. Time is of the essence. We must stop the hard right anti-democratic backlash movement before it inflicts more damage on our society. In defending democracy and pluralism we must refrain from using the same polarizing techniques of scapegoating, demonization, and demagoguery that have been so successful for the antidemocratic right.

As we fight intolerance we will consciously strive to resist using the same intolerant tactics we oppose. We will respect diversity while defending democracy. We recognize that many of the individual grassroots activists being mobilized by the leadership of the antidemocratic right are sincere and honest people with real fears concerning jobs, family, schools, and personal safety. They are not our enemies, they are our neighbors--and potentially our allies.

We defend the right of all persons to hold religious beliefs and moral codes without government restriction or interference. But we insist that in a constitutional democracy the arguments for legislation and regulation be based on rational debate and factual evidence that demonstrate a useful purpose and a compelling government interest.

The leaders of the anti-democratic right wave the flag, wrap themselves in the cloak of religion and claim they speak for God and country. We are not attacking God when we confront those who pridefully presume to speak for God. We are not attacking religion when we challenge those who imply that only persons who share their specific narrow theological viewpoint can claim religious or moral values. We are not attacking our country when we rebuke those who peddle a message of fear, prejudice, and division.

To stop the right-wing backlash we must help to build broad popular coalitions that include at the core all the communities under attack by the antidemocratic right in its many incarnations; and we must also include in these coalitions all persons of good conscience willing to defend democratic pluralism. Our allies are all persons who oppose theocracy and control by an authoritarian elite, and all persons who are willing to stand up for a real, dynamic, and vibrant democracy.

As progressives we believe there are many values we must uphold in building any principled coalition. Our method of work as a progressive coalition must reflect diverse styles, perspectives, and goals. We must speak with many different voices representing the many different threads that weave the social fabric of our nation. We see progressive social change as an ongoing process involving persons from many constituencies and issues working together whenever possible in an alliance for democracy and pluralism.

Our alliance embraces the struggles for racial and ethnic justice especially for persons who trace their identity to Africa, South America, Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, Asia, the Middle East, and the Pacific Islands. Our alliance embraces the struggles for fairness and tribal rights for the native peoples of this continent.

Our alliance embraces the movements seeking equal rights and safety for women. Our alliance embraces groups promoting a woman's right to control her own body, defending abortion rights, advocating comprehensive sexuality education and family planning, and seeking implementation of gay-positive curricula and AIDS awareness education. Our alliance embraces the equal rights movements defending the lesbian, gay male, bisexual, and transgender communities.

Our alliance embraces those seeking social and economic justice for AfricanAmericans and the eradication of the vestiges of slavery and second-class citizenship. Our alliance embraces the struggles against scapegoating of immigrants, people of color, and welfare recipients. Our alliance embraces groups challenging racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Jewish prejudice.

Our alliance embraces the impoverished seeking dignified work and a living wage. Our alliance embraces residents of the inner city seeking control and revitalization of their communities. Our alliance embraces those in rural areas seeking to preserve the family farm and fighting for fair agricultural and land use policies. Our alliance embraces persons opposing the anti-regulatory Wise Use, Sovereignty, Counties, and States Rights movements. Our alliance embraces groups fighting for a decent minimum wage, accessible child care, compassionate welfare regulations, and meaningful job training. Our alliance embraces alienated youth and the isolated homeless.

Our alliance embraces persons learning to overcome physical, emotional, and psychological challenges to independence. Our alliance embraces movements for a sound environment, better schools, bilingual education, and universal health care. Our alliance embraces persons decrying religious bigotry against Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and other belief systems. Our alliance embraces groups resisting militarism, ultra-nationalism, fascism, and genocide.

We come from churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of spiritual worship and secular reflection. We come from labor unions, non-profit agencies, progressive businesses, foundations, membership organizations, and social clubs. We come from farms and ranches, industrial worksites, office buildings, schools, colleges, factories, and the streets. We come from cities, suburbs, and rural areas. We are organized and unorganized, and work inside and outside the home. And we yearn to build a true alliance that unites all of us on the basis of mutual respect as we defend democracy and pluralism.

We see a synergistic interactive relationship among activists, organizers, researchers, journalists, and academics from these various movements and constituencies as resulting in the most informed and useful analyses, strategies, and tactics to bring about effective action for social change. We believe there must be two-way interaction between the national and local levels. The needs and specific issues of local partners must inform and shape national strategies, and at the same time, the resources developed by national groups must be made available to grassroots organizers to stimulate informed discussion of various strategies and tactics. At the leadership level, there has not yet been sufficient cooperation of potential progressive allies, and many people in national organizations still need to be educated about the serious nature of the threat posed by the anti-democratic right.

Hard experiences have taught us that short term tactics that divide communities for the sake of individual electoral victories are short-sighted, frequently backfire, and even when successful, weaken the type of long-term coalition building that is necessary for eventual victory. It is essential to develop an analysis that bridges issues, helps communities understand the threat to them, and pulls together diverse constituencies and issues. The antidemocratic right has been successful in reframing the public debate over key issues such as family, morality, and children. We must participate in and reclaim this debate.

We believe in full equality for everyone--nothing more, but nothing less.

Ours is a vision of democracy where all have an equal voice. Of a democracy where progressive populism encourages active participation by all residents in open, full, and honest debates over legislation and government policies. Where we elect our government representatives on the basis of ideas, not images. Where the consent of the governed is informed consent, not manipulated consent. Where the wealth of wisdom possessed by a political candidate is more important than the reach of their wallet. Where elections offer real choices rather than rotating elites. Where the majority sets policies while consciously respecting the rights of the minority; and both the majority and the minority have their grievances carefully considered, and have access to representation. This is the promise of our nation. We must work to see this promise achieved, rather than see it eroded by the regressive populistsounding demagoguery of the antidemocratic right.

Our goal is twofold: we must stop the hard right; and we must pursue the unfulfilled promises of a healthy pluralistic democracy: justice, equality, security, and fairness--the real American Dream.

Many of us who met at Blue Mountain have continued working together as an informal network, and this has helped us gain the perspective we need to be more effective in our individual tasks fighting the right in cities and states across the country. It is vital that we all share information, advice, criticisms, and assistance as we learn to work together. The anti-democratic right has a multi-issue strategic agenda, but its tactic is to focus its attacks on one high-visibility target constituency at a time. No single segment of our society has demonstrated an ability to resist these attacks alone. We must learn to work together. We urge everyone who desires to defend and extend democracy to join together in forming broad and diverse locally-based coalitions to resist the rollback of rights; to block the backlash; to fight the right.

The leaders of the anti-democratic right say their movement is waging a battle for the soul of America. They call it a culture war. We believe the soul of America should not be a battleground but a birthright, and that culture should be celebrated not censored. We believe America is defined by ideas and values, but not those limited by religious beliefs, biology, bloodlines, or birthplace of ancestors.

The time has come to stand up and vigorously defend democracy and pluralism against the attacks orchestrated by cynical leaders of the anti-democratic right. History teaches us that there can be no freedom without liberty, no liberty without justice, and no justice without equality; and we look forward to success because we know it is through the never-ending struggle for equality, justice, liberty and freedom that democracy is nourished.

Russ Bellant
Journalist/Researcher
Author: "The Coors Connection"
Detroit, Michigan

Chip Berlet
Journalist/Activist
Political Research Associates
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Anne Bower
Executive Director/Editor
The Body Politic Magazine
Binghamton, New York

Robert Bray
Fight the Right organizer
National Gay & Lesbian Task Force
San Francisco, California

Mandy Carter
Director, A National Call to Resist Campaign
National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum
Washington, District of Columbia

Fred Clarkson
Journalist/Researcher
Co-author: "Challenging the Christian Right"
Northampton, Massachusetts

Marghe Covino
Co-Founder, Project Tocsin
Sentinel Institute for Research & Education California

Elias Farajaje-Jones
Howard University
School of Divinity
Washington, District of Columbia

Suzanne B. Goldberg
Staff Attorney
Lambda Legal Defense
New York, New York

Barbara J. Hart
Legal Director,
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Reading, Pennsylvania

Kate Harris
Reproductive rights organizer
Consultant to non-profit groups
California

David Mendoza
Ex. Director,
National Campaign for Freedom of Expression
Arts Activist
Seattle, Washington

Scot Nakagawa
Activist/Organizer
National Gay & Lesbian Task Force
Portland, Oregon

David Nimmons
Social justice activist
Gay and lesbian community
New York, New York

Suzanne Pharr
Writer/Organizer
Women's Project
Portland, Oregon

Skipp Porteous
President,
Institute for First Amendment Studies
Great Barrington, Massachusetts

Tarso Ramos
Researcher/Activist
Western States Center
Portland, Oregon

Loretta Ross
Program Research Director,
Center for Democratic Renewal
Atlanta, Georgia

Barbara A. Simon
Gen. Counsel,
Institute for First Amendment Studies
Massachusetts

Urvashi Vaid
Organizer/Author
Human rights activist
Provincetown, Massachusetts

Thalia Zepatos
Writer/Organizer
Campaign Consultant
Portland, Oregon

Organizations, when listed, are for identification only. Drafts of earlier versions were circulated among selected activists and researchers for their comments. This final version reflects the substantial and thoughtful input of many persons other than those whose names appear on this page.

For a packet of materials on promoting democracy and pluralism, including an extensive introductory bibliography and resource list, a list of pro-democracy groups, and a list of groups promoting reaction, orthodoxy, & exclusion, send $5 to Political Research Associates, 1310 Broadway Street, Suite 202, Somerville, MA 02144.

This article is adapted from:
Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash

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