What are the Different Sectors of the Right?

by Chip Berlet and Margaret Quigley

As the United States slid into the twenty-first century, the major mass movements challenging the bipartisan status quo are not found on the left of the political spectrum, but on the right. The resurgent right contains several strands woven together around common themes and goals. There is the electoral activism of the religious fundamentalist movements; the militant anti-government populism of the armed militia movement; and the murderous terrorism of the neonazi underground--from which those suspected of bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City appear to have crept.

It is easy to see the dangers to democracy posed by the neonazis, Ku Klux Klan, and racist skinheads. However, hard right forces such as dogmatic religious movements, regressive populism, armed militias, and White racial nationalism also are attacking democratic values in our country.

The best known sector of the hard right--dogmatic religious movements--is often called the "Religious Right" It substantially dominates the Republican Party in at least 10 (and perhaps as many as 30) of the 50 states. As part of an aggressive grassroots campaign, these groups have targeted electoral races from school boards to state legislatures to campaigns for the US Senate and House of Representatives. They helped elect dozens of hardline ultraconservatives to the House of Representatives in 1994. This successful social movement politically mobilizes a traditionalist mass base from a growing pious constituency of evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, pentacostal, and orthodox churchgoers.

The goal of many leaders of this ultraconservative religious movement is imposing a narrow theological agenda on secular society. The predominantly Christian leadership envisions a religiously-based authoritarian society; therefore we prefer to describe this movement as the "theocratic right." A theocrat is someone who supports a form of government where the actions of leaders are seen as sanctioned by God--where the leaders claim they are carrying out God's will. The central threat to democracy posed by the theocratic right is not that its leaders are religious, or fundamentalist, or right wing--but that they justify their political, legislative, and regulatory agenda as fulfilling God's plan.

Along with the theocratic right, two other hard right political movements pose a grave threat to democracy: regressive populism, typified by diverse groups ranging from members of the John Birch Society out to members of the patriot and armed militia movements; and White racial nationalism, promoted by Pat Buchanan and his shadow, David Duke of Louisiana.

The theocratic right, regressive populism, and White racial nationalism make up a hard right political sector that is distinct from and sometimes in opposition to mainstream Republicanism and the internationalist wing of corporate conservatism.

Finally, there is the militant, overtly racist far right that includes the open White supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members, Christian Patriots, racist skinheads, neonazis, and right-wing revolutionaries. Although numerically smaller, the far right is a serious political factor in some rural areas, and its propaganda promoting violence reaches into major metropolitan centers where it encourages alienated young people to commit hate crimes against people of color, Jews, and gays and lesbians, among other targets. The electoral efforts of Buchanan and Duke serve as a bridge between the ultraconservative hard right and these far right movements. The armed milita movement is a confluence of regressive populism, White racial nationalism, and the racist and antisemitic far right.

All four of these hard right activist movements are antidemocratic in nature, promoting in various combinations and to varying degrees authoritarianism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories, nativism, racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, demagoguery, and scapegoating. Each wing of the antidemocratic right has a slightly different vision of the ideal nation.

 More Details:
Theocratic Right -- Regressive Populism -- White Racial Nationalism -- Far Right


Excerpted from a chapter in the South End Press book Eyes Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, edited by Chip Berlet

Right Wing 101:

This article is an updated excerpt from a longer article published in the 1992 Public Eye Magazine.
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