Challenging the Political Right: Towards an Effective Response

[Special Trumping Democracy Edition]

by Chip Berlet
Political Research Associates [retired]
[First published in 1999]

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. The great irony is that several [rightist] 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 right-wing 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 [hucksters] 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 the left.

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.

_ Theocracy 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 [neoliberalism] 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.


Editorial updates are enclosed in [ brackets ] Some of these ideas first appeared in [the now defunct] 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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