Unraveling the Right for Campaign 2000
Right wing ideas and groups have had a significant effect on US elections during the past 20 years. Despite their major role on the electoral scene, the political right suffers from media coverage that frequently trivializes their arguments, or that lumps a broad variety of tendencies into one demonized "lunatic fringe" of "religious political extremists."
That's just not fair.
It certainly is no way to figure out what's happening inside the Christian Right, with the disagreements between candidates like Gary Bauer and intellectuals like Paul Weyrich. It won't help us understand why Pat Buchanan is toying with the populist Reform Party; and being supported by a leftist African-American woman named Lenora Fulani who has run for President as a third-party candidate herself.
I am no fan of the political right, having spent thirty years studying it and helping progressive activists challenge its ideas. Yet I get aggravated when I hear liberals imply that conservative Christian evangelicals are ignorant Bible-thumpers who would rather be torching crosses at the local Ku Klux Klan rally.
Sound like an exaggeration? Let's take the phrase "religious political extremists." You will find the phrase repeated endlessly in direct-mail fundraising pitches. It was popularized by an Inside-the-Beltway polling firm looking for a phrase that would lump together everyone from Christians concerned with abortion to armed neonazis. It was the most negative-sounding phrase that focus groups thought described everyone they didn't like on the right. Smacks of guilt by association to me. It's a label that encourages people to not think about issues being raised on the right.
To me, the most important way to challenge people on the political right is to engage in a spirited public debate. As long as voting citizens on the right agree to play by the rules of an electoral system, we should treat them with civility and respect. That doesn't mean we can't point out when they use scapegoating or spread conspiracy theories about secular humanists taking over America. If their information is faulty, or their ideas prejudiced, we can certainly rebuke them for it.
No one organization “controls” the Right. No single funder is “behind” the Right. Some large organizations are important, but many others appear to be more influential than they really are. Recognize that there are multiple networks of organizations and funders with differing and sometimes competing agendas.
Different Sectors of the RightSo let's talk about the different sectors of the right. First, lets distinguish between those people who play by the rules and those who do not. Let's say "playing by the rules" means:
Those on the right who "play by the rules" are the Conservative Right, while those who do not, are the Hard Right.
For detailed explanations of the sectors in the above chart, visit the Sectors of the Right page.
To read more about different aspects of right wing organizing, visit the Topics Page at the PRA website, or check out our extensive collection of bibliographies. It is important to see all election campaigns as building coalitions across sectors that focus on what are defined as core issues while agreeing to disagree over other issues. During the past few years, there have been a number of cracks and fissures within the political right over issues like abortion, gay rights, foreign policy, tactics, immigration, etc. Despite this, elections have a way of bridging many differences. This is true for the political right.
What is Populist Producerism?One of the key features of the political right that I think helps explain its concerns is the concept of populist "producerism." Producerism is a populist narrative that describes the "productive" citizen in the middle as being squeezed by parasitic forces from above and below. Today there are four main sectors of the right where repressive forms of right wing populism with its producerist narrative are used to mobilize movements: the Christian Right, libertarianism, regressive patriots and Armed Militias; and Far Right insurgents and Neonazis.
Populist producerism draws from a long history of conspiracy theories in the US political Right. Richard Hofstadter popularized the idea of conspiracism when he coined the term “paranoid style” to describe the belief among some right-wing populists in "the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character.”
Damian Thompson, argues that “Richard Hofstadter was right to emphasise the startling affinities between the paranoid style and apocalyptic belief—the demonisation of opponents, the sense of time running out, and so on. But he stopped short of making a more direct connection between the two. He did not consider the possibility that the paranoia he identified actually derived from apocalyptic belief."
Social scientists following Hofstadter usually divided the phenomena he described into discrete yet related components: apocalypticism, demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracism. They also moved away from the idea that conspiracism was tied to a pathological psychological condition. In fact, they challenged "centrist/extremist" theory -- the classic social science school of thought regarding collective behavior which gave us the terms extremist and radical right in the first place. Most social scientists who study the right now use more complex social movement theories to analyze the political right.
One of these new social science ideas is the concept of producerism--which is a form of right wing populism.
With producerism, conspiratorial allegations about parasitic elites seen as manipulating society lead to anger being directed upwards. The list of scapegoats seen as among the alleged elite parasites includes international bankers, Freemasons, Jews, globalists, liberal secular humanists, and government bureaucrats. The parasites below are stereotyped as lazy or sinful, draining the economic resources of the productive middle, or poisoning the culture with their sinful sexuality. Among those scapegoated as lazy are Blacks and other people of color, immigrants, and welfare mothers. The sinful are abortionists, homosexuals, and feminists. A repressive force is directed downwards toward people seen through this stereotype and prejudice. In this context, conspiracy theories that often accompany producerism are a narrative form of scapegoating; and they overlap with some demonizing versions of Christian millennialist end times scenarios that watch for betrayal in high places and a population turning from God and drifting into laziness and sin.
The overall outcome of the producerist model of populism is a broad social and political movement sometimes called "Middle American Nationalism" or "The Radical Center" or "Middle American Radicals." Whatever the label, this is a form of repressive populism with a producerist narrative. As the size of the repressive populist sectors grow, politicians and activists within electoral reform movements try to recruit the populists toward participation within electoral political frameworks. As they seek votes, some politicians begin to use populist rhetoric and pander to the scapegoating.
Authors such as Anna Marie Smith, Amy Ansell, Jean Hardisty, Sara Diamond, and Holly Sklar note how in Britain and the United States, right-wing repressive populism diverts attention from inherent white supremacism by using coded language to reframe racism as a concern about specific issues, such as welfare, immigration, tax, or education policies. Non-Christian religions, women, gay men and lesbians, youth, students, reproductive rights activists, and environmentalists also are scapegoated. Sometimes producerism targets those persons who organize on behalf of impoverished and marginalized communities, especially progressive social change activists.
Defending Democary and DiversityA few years ago I helped write the Blue Mountain Statement that argued for civil discourse while opposing certain anti-democratic tendencies on the political right, especially the Hard Right. We felt threatend by some organizing on the right that undercut the basic ideas of semocracy and pluralism in an increasingly diverse society:
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.I'm an optimist, and believe in the idea of democracy, even though I think we have a long way to go to achieve real participatory democracy. The formula for democracy is profoundly populist. It is the faith that over time, the majority of citizens, given enough accurate information, and the ability to participate in an open public debate, reach the right decisions to preserve liberty and defend freedom.
Alas, some populist demagogues have found an unfortunate affinity with modern mass communications and its simplistic packaging of information. This is especially true on the political right. A demagogue is a charismatic leader who uses inflammatory rhetoric based on prejudice or misinformation to mobilize a constituency to action. In some cases what used to be denounced as demagoguery is now praised by pundits as spin control.
Democracy depends not only on ensuring freedom of speech, but also on ensuring
the ability for all of us to carry on serious debate based on accurate information
rather than prejudice or misinformation. Informed consent—the bedrock of the
democratic process—relies on accurate information. Demagogues traffic in lies,
distortions, and emotionally manipulative appeals, often aimed at inflaming
stereotypes and prejudice already embedded in the society. Demagoguery is toxic
to democratic discourse, no matter where it comes from on the political spectrum.
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