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Who is the Right?

"What constitutes 'harm' is, of course.determined by the state and the law; and the state and the law will define harm in the shadow of the dominant ideology of power."2 -Upendra Baxi.

In this article:

  • Liberals
  • The Right
  • Three Major Sectors of the Right

  • In reality, those who control the State make the laws, and it is they who define what harm is and is not and therefore what is and is not harmful. It follows, then, that the definition of what is a crime, and who is a criminal, what is or is not legal, is determined by those who control the State, define harm, and accordingly make the laws. While the State has a major impact on all aspects of citizens' lives in modern times, it especially does so in the area of law and order- because the modern State has monopolized both the defining and the administering of law and order, including using force and violence, and the imposing of punishment. The State, thus, literally holds the keys to incarceration. The criminal justice system, which is part of the overall Prison-Industrial Complex, is an intrinsic part of the State. Control of the State, therefore, means control of the criminal justice system. Since 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan, the Right controls the State in the United States, and thus it controls the criminal justice system.

    This does not mean that if the Right were to lose control of the State and the criminal justice system that the system itself would crumble, or be dramatically different-because the problem is structural not superficial. Since the first colonists set foot on the shores of what is now called the United States of America, the political, economic, and social structures of U.S. society, including the U.S. State, have been based on systems of oppression that enable one group of people to enjoy privilege and to hold and exercise power over others; and these systems have been ideologically justified. From the expropriation of land from sovereign Indian nations and the genocide of Indian peoples, to the establishment of slavery and indentured labor, to the denial of equality for women (including the right to vote), to widespread homophobia, there have always been institutionalized forms of oppression.

    Since the very beginning, however, there have always been voices resisting this oppression and calling for progressive social change. And progressives have consistently pointed out the irony that the ideas we value so highly-freedom, equality, democracy, and justice-are undermined by those practices that do not apply these values to everyone equally. These progressive voices have been countered throughout U.S. history by political and social forces calling for retaining the status quo, which privileges the wealthy, Whites, heterosexuals, and men; and that supports an imperialistic and militaristic international agenda while opposing social and economic equality and justice within the United States. At Political Research Associates (PRA) we call the forces that generally defend this status quo the Political Right (or Right Wing movements). For the most part, even with major contradictions, the Left is the mirror opposite of the Right.

    Can't Live with Them, Can't Live without Them

    Within the Left, we also distinguish between progressives who question systemic oppression and work to dismantle it; and liberals who tend to be reformist in their views and strategies. Liberals and liberalism (which is the ideology liberals draw their inspiration from) generally address only the symptoms not the disease of social and economic injustice, only the effects rather than the roots of oppression and repression. Therefore, many liberals, while vociferously opposing individual acts (and individual effects) of racism, sexism/patriarchy, heterosexism/homophobia, and classism/capitalism, systematically fall short in taking the next step in challenging the institutionalized forms and systemic nature of these oppressions that are deeply rooted in U.S. society and culture. Welfare and affirmative action, which many liberals support, are examples of programs that are sorely needed in the absence of social and economic justice in our society, but they are in the final analysis band-aids that do not radically treat the entrenched structural and systemic oppression and injustice in society. In some cases, liberals might be opportunistic in their acceptance or even support of oppression-for instance, President Clinton's support for policies such as welfare reform or the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Sometimes, when they are fearful, liberals step away from issues and ignore the Political Right's oppression or repression; for instance, during the beginning of the McCarthy Era with its witch hunts for Red subversives after World War II.

    In the case of free trade policies, many liberals are complicit in furthering or bolstering economic oppression, not so much because they are trying to ride on the back of popular opinion, but because they actually believe in unregulated free trade and unrestrained free market capitalism. Likewise, in the case of foreign policy, many liberals do not question the institutional racism inherent in U.S. foreign policy, and in the idea that the United States is rightfully the world's most powerful economic and military power that dictates what the rest of the world should do. And in the case of criminal justice and the Prison-Industrial Complex, many liberals, mostly White, support "tough-on-crime" policies out of a combination of White Fear (see box on White Fear) and because, many of them also accept the conservative argument that criminals are individuals that choose to commit crimes and do not question the root causes of social and economic oppression that give rise to what gets classified as crime in the first place. In all of these above cases liberals have often moved lockstep with the Right.

    But still, liberals are a vital ally for progressives to have because at many other times they, working with progressives, have moved the State away from pursuing the most blatantly repressive techniques, tactics, and policies against people, especially those who have historically been excluded or marginalized, such as the poor, immigrants, ethnic and racial minorities, and women-even as the Political Right has moved U.S. society toward supporting increased oppression and the U.S. State toward employing increased repression. While it is true that liberals do not fundamentally challenge the basic tenets of capitalism and free market ideology, it is also the case that liberals often oppose its excesses, and the excesses of the State. And when in power, liberals have often provided the vital breathing room for progressives to do the difficult work of systemic social transformation. What progressives need to realize is that meaningful social change has more often than not occurred when progressives and liberals have come together as allies. Progressives need to remember that they need liberals-but that they also need to hold liberals accountable.

    The Right

    The modern Political Right, especially since the 1970s, has effectively reframed a whole series of issues in a way that has moved federal and state governments toward an increasing level of repression. While successfully establishing their framework, the Political Right has managed to hide its own role in the process. What this means is that even as the arguments of the Political Right have become widely accepted, the way it actually created this situation has been overlooked. Many "average Americans," mainly middle class Whites, now simply accept arguments for repressive measures-mandatory minimums, "three strikes and you're out," etc.-as "common sense." As a result many liberals, particularly those in electoral politics, have "gone with the flow" in supporting such repressive measures. But it is crucial to realize that while many liberals may have followed what they think is popular opinion, many others, especially White wealthy or middle class folks, themselves benefit from a system that privileges them and maintains the status quo of racial and social inequality. And thus, they do not question the systemic roots of injustice and oppression.

    Progressives and those who are working for social and economic justice need to illustrate how the current criminal justice system, and the criminalization of the poor, racial minorities, immigrants, all of which have deep roots in U.S. history benefits those who-and this includes middle class and wealthy White liberals-have historically enjoyed privilege and held power in U.S. society.

    If we seek to challenge a situation, it is useful to understand how that situation was created, so that we can develop successful ways to frame arguments, which show that a different-less repressive-approach is possible and desirable. Studying different sectors of the Political Right to see how their arguments have convinced both society (including many liberals) and the government that increasing repression or oppression is acceptable, is thus necessary. While the Right alone is not culpable for economic and social injustice, particularly at the systemic level, it certainly plays a major role in perpetuating and increasing it.

    At a very basic level PRA defines the Right as those groups and individuals that actively oppose social equality and economic justice within a society. There are of course exceptions to any generalization; right-wing libertarians oppose economic justice but often support social equality, for example LGBT rights on grounds of the right to privacy. The Right includes groups that define democracy, or the nation, in a narrow way to exclude various communities, such as the poor, people of color, immigrants, women, and gays and lesbians. They also include groups that demonize, scapegoat, and deny equal rights to those they seek to exclude. The Political Right in the United States is a complex network of social and political movements that now controls the Republican Party, the government (through Republican majorities in Congress and the Bush Administration), and indeed much of the country. While the Right is not limited to a single political party in the United States, for the most part it has found a home in the Republican Party over the last 40-50 years. The Democratic Party continues to have conservative members, especially from but not limited to states in the South; and these members represent the right-wing in the Democratic Party.

    It is important to remember that the Right is not monolithic. It is not one institution or group. It does not think in one way. It does not always agree on every issue. It does not have a single agenda. No one single individual or organization controls the Right or funds it. Sometimes, the different groups within the Right disagree on issues that can be quite divisive. Yet, on other fundamental issues, the Right is in basic agreement. For example, it is generally in favor of a freemarket capitalist economic system, "traditional" or "family" values, and a strong role for government in maintaining law and order within the country (through increased policing) and U.S. domination abroad (through a strong military and a web of conforming allies).

    Sometimes, the Right opposes the government and the system (the system is the various arms of the government including the Congress, the Administration, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the military, and the police, plus societal institutions such as the media, churches, etc.) and seeks to change the status quo. An example would be the struggle to overturn Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal. At other times it supports the system and the government and fights to maintain the status quo, as in when it supports the efforts by conservative lawmakers to define marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman.

    The Right is a social and political movement with many different components; each of which is a vital arm of the movement's infrastructure and plays an important part in the movement's overall mission. Some of the most significant components of the Right include the following:

    National Organizations such as the National Rifle Association or the Christian Coalition are often the most visible arm of the Right. They are usually groups with large memberships and big budgets. Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, for example, has its own zip code and a budget that runs over a $100 million/year.

    Local Activists, who are often members of these national organizations, are the foot soldiers (or grassroots activists) of the Right. They are sometimes not that obvious because they are our neighbors, the people on the local Parents Teachers Associations or school boards. As the rank and file members of the Right, they are instrumental in providing financial support and, more importantly, in providing political support during elections. In a 2000 survey, self-identified Christian Evangelicals, for instance, accounted for between 25-45 percent of the U.S. population. And while not all of them vote in a bloc, within the Republican Party the Christian Right is the single largest organized voting bloc (40 percent of George W. Bush's electoral support in 2000 came from it), accounting for its influence.

    Think Tanks such as The Heritage Foundation, which published the "Mandate for Leadership" in 1980, a document that served as the blueprint for President Reagan's domestic and foreign policies, are in a sense the brains of the Right. But besides national level think tanks like Heritage or the libertarian Cato Institute, almost every state in the country now has at least two right-wing think tanks that are linked in two overlapping networks. One is primarily secular right-wing libertarian in orientation, while the other is affiliated with the Christian rightist Family Research Council (FRC). In Massachusetts, for example, there is the Pioneer Institute, a right-wing libertarian think tank that has been extremely influential in pushing for privatization in the state, especially in the areas of public education and public health; and the FRC affiliated Massachusetts Family Institute, which has been a leading anti-gay marriage voice.

    Media and Publicity outlets are part and parcel of the Right's arsenal. Early on, the Right realized that to successfully get its message out, it needed not only to have an effective message and frame, but that it also needed to control the medium. Christian Right groups vigorously lobbied to have federal ownership restrictions removed in order for them to be able to purchase radio and television stations, as well as print media. Today, the Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network combines religious programming with regular newscasts that have a decidedly Christian fundamentalist slant to millions of viewers worldwide. Similarly, The Washington Times daily newspaper is owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, which also owns the global newswire service, the United Press International.

    Foundations have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into right-wing institutions and causes in a very strategic way. They fund the national organizations, media and publicity campaigns, individual ideologues and think tanks, and programs for recruiting and training youth. Some of the large conservative foundations include the Coors Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the group of Scaife Family Foundations.

    Ideologues are the thinkers and visionaries of any movement, including the Right. While the think tanks usually focus on policy, the ideologues emphasize the long-term vision, mission, and direction of the movement. William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder and editor emeritus of the National Review is one such thinker whose ideology of Fusionism in the 1950s brought together three sectors of the Right in the United States around the themes of anticommunism, "traditional values," and free-market capitalism. William Bennett is another such ideologue writing frequently on issues of morality in America. Bennett was the "Drug Czar" under President George H.W. Bush.

    Spokespersons are some of the most visible individuals on the Right. They are usually mediasavvy, well-credentialed, sometimes young, and oftentimes women, people of color, or gay who present the Right's perspective on any given issue to the general public. People like Ann Coulter, Dinesh DeSouza, Star Parker, and John Paulk take the Right's message to the public through speaking engagements at college campuses, appearances on television talk shows, and by writing books or articles in newspapers. Their presence and activism serves to show the Right as being more than straight White old men. It is also harder to accuse the Right of being opposed to equality for women, people of color or being antigay when women (Coulter), people of color (DeSouza, Parker), or [ex]gays (Paulk) are the ones advocating policies that would result in the denial of full equality to women, people of color, and gay people.

    Cultural Workers are extremely important recruiting tools for the Right, especially among young people. Christian Right or Far Right rock bands and composers create music that serves as a medium for their message. For instance, there is a Christian Rock band called Hammertown, and also a Far Right hate music group by the same name.

    Three Major Sectors of the U.S. Political Right

    Another way to understand the Right is to look at it in terms of its different sectors. What we mean is that since the Right is not monolithic, and various groups within it have different ideologies (or belief systems) and agendas, it makes sense to distinguish them based on what they stand for. At PRA, we draw on Sara Diamond's basic division of the Right into three broad sectors- Secular, Christian, and Xenophobic-and then sub-divide them further to account for differences within each. Sometimes these sectors come together to work towards common goals and sometimes they oppose each other based on their values and principles. For example, White nationalist groups within the Xenophobic Right are overtly racist and have a racist agenda, whereas Christian Right and Secular Right groups disavow overt racism. For the Xenophobic Right race is the central framework and primary issue; for the Christian Right it is gender and sexuality.

    Different sectors of the Right also interact differently with the State. The Secular and Christian Right are currently the two sectors that control the State. Whether in the White House, the Congress or the courts, it is representatives of these two sectors that are currently in charge. For the most part, they seek to influence and control the State through electoral politics. Groups within the Xenophobic Right are often skeptical of the State and see the State itself as a problem; and have often been targets of State repression themselves.

    The Secular Right is, in some ways, the most difficult to comprehend. While not all rightwingers are secular, many secular rightists are moderate and not very conservative Republicans; with many being libertarians who are fiscally conservative but liberal or moderate on social issues. To complicate matters, secular rightists can also be conservative Democrats. Moderate Republicans include individuals like former secretary of state Colin Powell, Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. On certain social issues such as affirmative action or a woman's right to have an abortion, moderate Republicans are more in line with liberal Democrats than others of their fellow Republicans who might be ultraconservative. Similarly, some liberals in the Democratic Party who are part of the Democratic Leadership Council are more in line with many Republicans on issues such as free trade, welfare, and "tough on crime." Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, former president Bill Clinton, or Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts would be examples.

    The Christian Right is currently one of the most loyal and influential voting blocs within the Republican Party. Dr. James Dobson (Focus on the Family), Rev. Jerry Falwell (founder of the Moral Majority), and Rev. Pat Robertson (founder of the Christian Coalition), Tim La Haye (coauthor of the bestselling novels from the Left Behind series), and Beverly La Haye (founder of Concerned Women for America) are some of the more well-known figures within the Christian Right. Former attorney-general John Ashcroft is an example within electoral politics. We further sub-divide the Christian Right between Christian Nationalists (who are more numerous) and Christian Theocrats. Nationalists believe that the United States is God's chosen nation, which has been undermined by secular liberals, feminists, and homosexuals. They oppose reproductive rights, equality for gays and lesbians, sexuality education, and support prayer in schools, etc. Theocrats go a step further and believe that Christian men are ordained by God to run society. Hardliners within this sub-sector support biblical law as the law of the land, and treating non- Christians as second-class citizens.

    Finally, there is the Xenophobic Right, which includes militant, overtly racist groups such as White supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members, racist skinheads, and neonazis. Although numerically small at present, it is a serious political movement 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, immigrants, Jews, and gays and lesbians, among other targets. Overt racist ideology, however, is often repackaged in coded language by other right-wing sectors-called New Racism by scholar Amy Ansell-and the involvement in electoral politics by Pat Buchanan and David Duke serve as a bridge between the Xenophobic Right and more mainstream conservatives.

    Knowing your opposition means you're better prepared to counter its arguments and challenge its agenda and policies. For an extended look at the Right and all of its sectors and major actors, please visit PRA's website



    Defending Justice is a publication of Political Research Associates (PRA), an independent nonprofit research center that exposes the Right and larger oppressive movements and institutions. PRA produces research and analytic tools to inform and support progressive activism.

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