Right-Wing Populism in America:
What is Right-Wing Populism?
Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons
From the Introduction:
Canovan argues: all forms of populism “involve some kind of exaltation of and appeal to ´the people,´ and all are in one sense or another antielitist.”1 We take these two elements—celebration of “the people” plus some form of antielitism—as a working definition of populism.
A populist movement—as opposed, for example, to one-shot populist appeals in an election campaign—uses populist themes to mobilize a mass constituency as a sustained political or social force. Our discussion of populism will focus mainly on populist movements.
Michael Kazin calls populism a style of organizing.2 Populist movements can be on the right, the left, or in the center. They can be egalitarian or authoritarian, and can rely on decentralized networks or a charismatic leader. They can advocate new social and political relations or romanticize the past.
Especially important for our purposes, populist movements can promote forms of antielitism that target either genuine structures of oppression or scapegoats alleged to be part of a secret conspiracy. And they can define “the people” in ways that are inclusive and challenge traditional hierarchies, or in ways that silence or demonize oppressed groups.
Repressive Populism and Right-Wing Populism
We use the term repressive populist movement to describe a populist movement that combines antielite scapegoating (discussed below) with efforts to maintain or intensify systems of social privilege and power. Repressive populist movements are fueled in large part by people’s grievances against their own oppression but they deflect popular discontent away from positive social change by targeting only small sections of the elite or groups falsely identified with the elite, and especially by channeling most anger against oppressed or marginalized groups that offer more vulnerable targets.
Right-wing populist movements are a subset of repressive populist movements. A right-wing populist movement, as we use the term, is a repressive populist movement motivated or defined centrally by a backlash against liberation movements, social reform, or revolution. This does not mean that right-wing populism’s goals are only defensive or reactive, but rather that its growth is fueled in a central way by fears of the Left and its political gains.
The first U.S. populist movement we would unequivocally describe as right wing was the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, which was a counterrevolutionary backlash against the overthrow of slavery and Black people’s mass mobilization and empowerment in the post-Civil War South. Earlier repressive populist movements paved the way for right-wing populism, but did not have this same backlash quality as a central feature.
Characteristics of Right-Wing Populism
One of the staples of repressive and right-wing populist ideology has been producerism, a doctrine that champions the so-called producers in society against both “unproductive” elites and subordinate groups defined as lazy or immoral.
Kazin points out that as it developed in the nineteenth century,
In the 1920s industrial philosophy of Henry Ford, and Father Coughlin’s fascist doctrine in the 1930s, producerism fused with antisemitic attacks against “parasitic” Jews. Producerism, with its baggage of prejudice, remains today the most common populist narrative on the right, and it facilitates the use of demonization and scapegoating as political tools.
Demonization and Scapegoating
Demonization of an enemy often begins with marginalization, the ideological process in which targeted individuals or groups are placed outside the circle of wholesome mainstream society through political propaganda and age-old prejudice. This creates an us–them or good–bad dynamic of dualism, which acknowledges no complexity or nuance and forecloses meaningful civil debate or practical political compromise.
The next step is objectification or dehumanization, the process of negatively labeling a person or group of people so they become perceived more as objects than as real people. Dehumanization often is associated with the belief that a particular group of people is inferior or threatening.
The final step is demonization; the person or group is framed as totally malevolent, sinful, and evil. It is easier to rationalize stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, scapegoating and even violence against those who are dehumanized or demonized.
In The Origin of Satan, Elaine Pagels points out that today,
Scapegoating in the form of the ritualized transference and expulsion of evil is a familiar theme across centuries and cultures
We use the term scapegoating to describe the social process whereby the hostility and grievances of an angry, frustrated group are directed away from the real causes of a social problem onto a target group demonized as malevolent wrongdoers. The scapegoat bears the blame, while the scapegoaters feel a sense of righteousness and increased unity.
The social problem may be real or imaginary, the grievances legitimate or illegitimate, and members of the targeted group may be wholly innocent or partly culpable. What matters is that the scapegoats are wrongfully stereotyped as all sharing the same negative trait, or are singled out for blame while other major culprits are let off the hook.4
Scapegoating often targets socially disempowered or marginalized groups. At the same time, the scapegoat is often portrayed as powerful or privileged. In this way, scapegoating feeds on people’s anger about their own disempowerment, but diverts this anger away from the real systems of power and oppression.
Conspiracism is a particular narrative form of scapegoating that frames the enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm. Like other forms of scapegoating, conspiracism often, though not always, targets oppressed or stigmatized groups.
In many cases, conspiracism uses coded language to mask ethnic or racial bigotry, for example, attacking the Federal Reserve in ways that evoke common stereotypes about “Jewish bankers.” Far-right groups have often used such conspiracy theories as an opening wedge for more explicit hate ideology.
On a local level, Herman Sinaiko observes, “The most decent and modest communities have people in their midst who are prone to scapegoating and who see the world as run by conspiracies. A healthy community is organized in a way that controls them and suppresses their tendencies.”5
Conspiracism differs in several ways from legitimate efforts to expose secret plots.
First, the conspiracist worldview assigns tiny cabals of evildoers a superhuman power to control events; it regards such plots as the major motor of history. Conspiracism blames individualized and subjective forces for political, economic, and social problems rather than analyzing conflict in terms of systems, institutions, and structures of power.
Second, conspiracism tends to frame social conflict in terms of a transcendent struggle between Good and Evil that reflects the influence of the apocalyptic paradigm.
Third, in its efforts to trace all wrongdoing to one vast plot, conspiracism plays fast and loose with the facts. While conspiracy theorists often start with a grain of truth and “document” their claims exhaustively, they make leaps of logic in analyzing evidence, such as seeing guilt by association or treating allegations as proven fact.
According to Damian Thompson:
Apocalyptic Narratives and Millennial Visions
New Study updates Right-Wing Populism in America. See how to download the entire report:
by Chip Berlet
Appendix 2 - expanded Chart from page 419
Step-by-step Charts Explaining the Producerist Narrative in Right-Wing Populism
Bibliography from Book - Online (searchable)
Other Bibliographies of Interest
PRA is an affiliate of:
Unless otherwise noted, all material on this website is copyright 1981-2013 by Political Research Associates
Political Research Associates • 1310 Broadway, Suite 201 • Somerville, MA 02144
Voice: 617.666.5300 • Fax: 617.666.6622 • email@example.com