Drifting Right and Going Wrong
An Overview of the U.S. Political Right
By Chip Berlet and Jean Hardisty
Our country is in the midst of the longest
period of right-wing reaction against movements seeking equality, social
justice, and economic fairness
since the period of Reconstruction in the south. We picture hooded
Ku Klux Klan nightriders carrying torches and lighting crosses when we
this late 19th century turmoil. We tend to forget the societal institutions
and systems that also played a role in creating oppression for Blacks
and preserving privilege for Whites.
Now, in the early twenty-first century, the attacks on social and economic
justice predominantly take the form of state and national legislation
passed by mainstream politicians. The right-wing backlash today is targeted
at a subtler “enemy.” It is no longer simply African Americans who are
portrayed as less than deserving citizens. Today the electoral Right
uses an allegedly “colorblind” template to identify those who are outside
acceptable norms of morality and family values. So, it is welfare “queens,” lesbians
and gay men of all races, and “illegal aliens” (to name just a few) who
are, by virtue of their identity, living an un-American life. In
fact, anyone who is not Christian is suspect, especially Muslims. Jews
are accepted as allies to the extent that they sign onto the Right’s
agenda. Meanwhile, virulently antisemitic Extreme Right groups,
including the neonazis, continue to advocate for White supremacy, promoting
their agenda by recruiting young people to a vision of an idyllic “White
Those who want to successfully challenge the Right’s policies need to
understand that not all sectors of the U.S. Right are alike. There are
multiple networks of organizations and funders with differing and sometimes
competing agendas. Different ideas and methods are used in various right-wing
social and political movements. No one organization “controls” the political
Right. No single deep-pocket funder is “behind” the Right. Some large
organizations are important, but many others appear to be more influential
than they really are.
Traditional Republican Party conservatism is composed of several sectors,
including corporate conservatives, moderate conservatives, libertarians,
and neoconservatives. In addition, the Political Right includes other
sectors such as the Christian Right, the Patriot movement, and the Extreme
Right. Critics need to sharpen their focus and examine the details. It
is not fair to equate the Ku Klux Klan with the Christian Right. It is
fair to criticize anti-democratic aspects of both movements.
The Christian Right, for example, has no qualms about denouncing the
Klan and other groups on the Extreme Right that promote naked White supremacy
and antisemitism, or that use aggressive intimidation or insurgent violence.
A few zealots in the Christian Right use violence to oppose abortion,
but Christian Right activists overwhelmingly work for reforms through
legislation and support for candidates for public office. Some of these
reforms, however, would deny certain civil rights protections to people
who step outside heterosexual monogamy. The Christian Right urges women
to adopt “traditional” roles that are secondary and submissive to men.
Calls to make this country a Christian nation implicitly promote the
idea that Jews and other non-Christians are second-class citizens. Much
of Christian Right ideology privileges the culture of White northern
Europeans at the expense of diversity and a pluralistic model of democracy.
So while the ultraconservative Christian Right and the Extreme Right
are separate movements, they pull the society in the same direction,
even while remaining critical of each other’s groups, leaders, and plans.
Meanwhile, the Patriot movement occupies a middle ground between the
Christian Right and the Extreme Right. The Patriot movement represents
a type of right-wing populism that periodically surfaces on the U.S.
political landscape. Its most visible recent aspect was the armed “citizens
militias” that flourished in the mid 1990s. The militia movement now
has largely collapsed, but there is still a flourishing Patriot subculture
with groups such as the John Birch Society and the website www.freerepublic.com
serving as typical examples. People in the Patriot movement see the world
through the lens of conspiracy, believing the government to be controlled
by secret elites and fearing tyrannical government repression. Many deny
the bigoted antisemitic aspect of their conspiracism or the White supremacist
lineage of their bogus "constitutionalist" states' rights legal arguments.
Some early militia leaders came out of Extreme Right hate groups, and
often tried to mask their bigotry to attract a larger audience.
Pat Buchanan is a key figure in this Patriot sector, where his brand
of xenophobic nationalism finds an enthusiastic audience. Patriot leaders
take fears over the economy, corporate globalization, and downsizing
and focus them onto scapegoats, ranging from immigrants and people of
color to the United Nations. Many in the militias, for example, blame
their slipping social and economic status on an alleged government conspiracy
to build a global New World Order. Sometimes people in the Patriot movement
try to recruit from progressive groups involved in antiwar or anti-globalization
Participants in the Christian Right represent a different demographic
group. They are often upwardly mobile suburbanites who are members of
conservative Protestant evangelical, charismatic, or fundamentalist churches.
These churches are growing rapidly across the country, while moderate
or liberal Protestant denominations such as the Presbyterian Church USA
and the United Church of Christ are losing members in record numbers.
Not all members of conservative Protestant churches are active in the
Christian Right, but it is within these churches that people are recruited
and mobilized into social movements and political campaigns.
Those that join Christian Right groups, such as Concerned Women for
America, tend to get much of their information about politics and world
events not from network television and daily newspapers but through media
produced by the Christian Right – including magazines, radio programs,
television evangelists, and direct mail. These sources frequently portray
a world awash in sin, with liberals, feminists, peaceniks, homosexuals
and other subversives undermining a godly America. The Christian Right
is the largest social movement in the United States, and the biggest
voting bloc in the Republican Party.
Within the Republican Party, the Christian Right competes with more
secular, upstart free market libertarianism and button down business
conservatism for dominance. Activists from all three ideologies are appointed
to federal and state agencies and join debates over public policy, swamping
calls for progressive reforms. This can create confusion for proponents
of affirmative action or humane welfare policies who find themselves
defending their views against three different sets of negative arguments.
A local school board can find its comprehensive sex education curriculum
under attack from libertarians who claim it is a waste of tax dollars,
conservatives who claim it is an inappropriate diversion from the core
curriculum, and Christian Right activists who claim it is immoral.
A network of national and state-level conservative think tanks churn
out educational and research materials for their activists and sympathetic
politicians and journalists. This explains why campaigns over school
vouchers, sentencing guidelines, union dues, and faith-based initiatives
seem to sweep across the country in waves. The Right’s intellectual infrastructure
began to be built in earnest in the late 1970s and matured in the mid
1980s. Examples of national think tanks include the Heritage Foundation
for business conservatives, the Cato Institute for libertarians, and
the Free Congress Foundation for the Christian Right. Through the synergy
of research, publications, and conferences a variety of ideas are debated,
slogans sharpened, and campaigns launched. Conservative foundations and
corporations have learned to fund strategically, while most centrist
and progressive foundations are reluctant to fund movement-building,
for instance the type of infrastructure of the type that has been so
successful for the Political Right.
In the 1950s academics popularized the idea that people who joined right-wing
(and left wing) social and political movements were a “lunatic fringe” of “extremists” who
suffered from some psychological malady. But most scholars now see right-wing
activists (and activists in general) as relatively average people, recruited
by friends into groups that offer a reasonable-sounding plan to solve
political, economic, cultural, or social problems. This is true even
for some people who join the many small neonazi groups, and it is certainly
true for those active in more mainstream right-wing movements. Their
recruitment of average concerned people is the result of a carefully
planned campaign to restore the Right to dominance in the Republican
Party and the country as a whole.
How did the Political Right gain so much power? After World War II the
political Right faced four major hurdles in building a successful movement:
it was identified as a club for wealthy elitists; it was fractured by
internal feuds; it was seen as a safe harbor for racists; and it tolerated
a nest of conspiracy theorists, some of whom were antisemites.
In the mid 1950s, William F. Buckley, Jr. and a group of his Old Right
conservative intellectual allies set out to restore the image and power
of the Right, using Buckley’s magazine National Review as the vehicle
for debate. Known as “fusionists,” they were determined to roll
back the social welfare policies of Roosevelt’s New Deal at home by building
a conservative coalition composed of economic libertarianism, social
traditionalism, and militant anticommunism. Professor Jerome L. Himmelstein
explains that "The core assumption that binds these three elements is
the belief that American society on all levels has an organic order––harmonious,
beneficent, and self–regulating––disturbed only by misguided ideas and
policies, especially those propagated by a liberal elite in the government,
the media, and the universities." The fusionists began speaking out against
overt White supremacy and antisemitism, and ostracized the John Birch
Society for its paranoid-sounding conspiracy theories.
In the late 1970s a group of conservative strategists who had been active
in the failed 1964 Barry Goldwater presidential campaign began to formulate
a “family values” agenda that held enormous appeal for traditionalist
conservatives of the Republican Party and the burgeoning Christian evangelical
population. The coalition really jelled in 1979, when Robert Billings
of the National Christian Action Council invited rising televangelist
Jerry Falwell to meet conservative organizers Paul Weyrich, Howard Phillips,
Richard Viguerie, and Ed McAteer. They wanted to use abortion as a wedge
issue to split social conservative traditionalists away from the Democratic
Party. Falwell took their idea of a "Moral Majority," and turned into
an organization. This emerging movement became known as the "New Right" and
it built a conservative voting base, provided foot soldiers for what
became known as the Culture War, and captured the Republican Party.
After the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe
during Ronald Reagan’s second Administration, militant anticommunists
focused on opposing big government, bureaucratic regulations, liberal
collectivism, and godless secular humanism here at home. This allowed
the fusionist coalition to continue into the new millennium. The electoral
political Right still seeks coalition among its different sectors, but
tolerates substantial disagreement over specific policy questions. For
instance libertarians often support abortion, gay, and immigrant rights
and defend civil liberties, in opposition to many business conservatives
and Christian Right traditionalists. But libertarians will join with
these other right-wing sectors to support tax cuts and harsh punitive
sentencing of criminals.
Simultaneously, a new partner in the conservative coalition emerged.
Neoconservatives were former liberals--who had supported the Cold War
against communism--who then shifted their concern to what they saw as
a rising threat of global terrorism. They tend to be strong supporters
of aggressive Israeli policies in the Middle East, and suspicious of
Islamic militants. They support global U.S. military intervention that
is both pre-emptive and unilateral, and have significantly influenced
U.S. foreign policy since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
Neoconservatives joined with the Christian Right to support “traditional” moral
values--which translates to attacks on the feminist, reproductive rights,
and GLBT movements. They seek to pack the state and federal court system,
including the U.S. Supreme Court, with appointees who share their ultra-conservative
Key to the success of the new conservative coalition of the 1980s and
1990s was the use of populist-sounding rhetoric to mobilize resentment
among predominantly White middle class and working class constituencies,
especially men. Playing on anger over the erosion of traditional privileges,
along with more legitimate fears over economic and social crises, the
political Right skillfully demonized target groups and promoted scapegoating
stories about waves of criminal immigrants and lazy welfare queens—stories
that usually carried a racist subtext. It replaced overt racist rhetoric
with what rightist leaders call a “colorblind” political agenda. They
claim the legislation prompted by the Civil Rights Movement ended the
need for government action against discrimination and racism, and then
systematically oppose all government programs aimed at redressing the
effects of ongoing institutional racism
Right-wing populist rhetoric masks the fact that changes in the tax
code and other economic initiatives pursued by the Right in the 1980s
and 1990s overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy, and created vast disparities
between the rich and poor. Yet these initiatives were presented as reforms
to stop the “tax robbery” of average citizens by government bureaucrats
labeled as corrupt and incompetent.
Tax cuts invariably defund those programs of the federal government
that seek to help impoverished constituencies, enforce laws against discrimination,
and protect the environment. At the same time, federal funds have been
shifted to build a huge infrastructure for the military, and various “anti-terrorism” programs
of “homeland security” that have seriously eroded civil liberties.
This history helps explain how the political Right rose to its position
of power and now dominates policy debates. The ascendance of right-wing
political power over government policies may seem less dramatic than
the vigilantism of the militias or the murderous terror of Extreme Right
race hate groups, but it has resulted in a dramatic erosion of civil
rights, civil liberties, and basic human rights for many people in our
country. The sectors of the Right may work separately, but together they
continue to pull the nation away from the goal of building a truly fair
and equitable democratic society.
A version of this article first appeared in early 2003 in the NCJW
Journal, Winter 2002, pp. 8-11.
Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates (PRA),
is co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America. Jean Hardisty, founder
and president of PRA, is author of Mobilizing Resentment.