Challenging and Defeating the Right
Q&A With Nikhil Aziz, Ph.D., PRA's Director of Research
Palak Shah, Editor of the Defending Justice Activist
Resource Kit talked to Nikhil Aziz, PRA's Director of Research about why it is important for progressive
activists and people in general to learn about the Right.
PS: Why should people learn about the Right?
NA: The Right is more than hooded men in white robes. The average right-winger in the United States
is not a cross-burning Ku Klux Klan member or a gun-toting NRA member. It can, literally, be the guy
or gal next door. Like you, she might have a job and a couple of kids in school. Like you, he may go to
church and softball games, and worry about his kids' future. Unlike you, she might never have come out
on the street in a political demonstration or debated an opponent on talk radio. All he might do is to
regularly write his representative in Congress whom he faithfully votes for every election. The point is
that there is no stereotypical right-winger.
Even if all the KKK and NRA members, and their families, had voted for those politicians that put
place the policies that are rapidly increasing incarceration, gutting entitlement programs, and disenfranchising
large numbers of citizens, that alone would not be enough to put those politicians in
power. Their support base is much wider, and made up largely of ordinary Americans. It is easier to identify
elected politicians, government officials, or heads of corporations as responsible for various
policies that we oppose, but harder to identify their support base-the millions of "our own fellow citizens,
organized effectively into right-wing social movements over many decades, [that] play a key
role in sustaining the existing political-economic system."
At Political Research Associates, we aim to tell you
who that is, why someone might support such policies, and how you might mobilize effectively
against such an agenda. But to challenge your opposition you have to know it, and know it well.
And to do that, you have to "become familiar with the names, the faces, methods of operation and,
perhaps most importantly, the underlying philosophies of right-wing movements."
PS: Are all right-wingers the same? Do they all have
the same views?
NA: No. Actually, the Right is full of contradictions,
but what complicates matters further is that the Right is not one monolithic group that has one
common view. It seems to have contradictory positions on a number of things, including the nature of
government and the use of government power. How is it, for instance, that many right-wingers oppose
abortion as the taking of life, but support the death penalty? The distinction they draw is between what
they perceive to be innocent "pre-born" life and the criminal guilty. Or, why does the Right support
tough law enforcement when it comes to drug use but seemingly looks the other way at corporate
fraud? What is important to understand is that underlying these apparent contradictions are "consistent
patterns in the Right's orientation towards the [S]tate."
PS: What does this mean?
NA: Well, let's take social and economic policies as
an example to explain what this means. The Right wants the State (that is the government + the
bureaucracy + the military + the police + the judiciary + other arms of government) to ban abortion
and sex education (if it goes beyond advocating abstinence). It opposes federal funding of childcare
and hate crimes laws that would include violent crimes against gays and lesbians. But on other issues
the Right opposes the State, as in when it tries to make the wealthy pay a larger and fairer share of
taxes or when it imposes environmental regulations on corporations. The underlying issue, then, is not
really about being for or against government but rather about being for or against what government
does or should do.
When we understand that, we can quickly see that
across the board "the Right favors a strong role for the [S]tate when it comes to enforcing order at
home or abroad, be that through the means of the military, police or religiously inspired codes of conduct.
At the same time, the Right wants the [S]tate to refrain from distributing wealth, power and legal
rights more equitably throughout society."
PS: But Bill Clinton supported welfare "reform" and
was all "tough on crime." And he is a liberal. So
why does this whole Left-Right thing matter?
NA: It is true that President Clinton and many liberals supported a lot of the measures and policies
during the 1990s that we progressives opposed, including the way welfare was "reformed" and the
increasingly harsh and punitive role of the criminal justice system. This is not entirely surprising
because when it comes down to the wire, liberals (and liberalism, which is the ideology that inspires
liberals) address only the symptoms not the disease of social and economic injustice, only the impacts
not the roots of oppression. And at a very fundamental level, what we are talking about is not one
individual President or a particular government but a system of oppression that is deeply rooted in our
culture and society. Patriarchy/Sexism, Racism/Xenophobia, Homophobia/Heterosexism,
Classism/Capitalism, and other ideologies and systems of oppression exist in society regardless
of who is in power-conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats-and the only way these can be
overcome is through transforming society itself not simply through "regime change." Societal transformation,
however, doesn't happen overnight. And that is why, as PRA founder Jean Hardisty has
argued, liberals and liberalism are important, because it allows progressives some "breathing room" to
organize, mobilize, and continue to work towards the long term goal of societal transformation, ending
systems of oppression, and achieving social and economic justice.
Besides, systems of oppression don't stand entirely
independent of other factors. They are constructed, validated, and perpetuated by ideology-our beliefs
and ideas about how a society should be structured, what role a government should play, how we as
individuals living together in a society should relate to each other, and such. Right-wing ideology, that
is the Right's vision of social, political, and economic relations, is diametrically different from a progressive
ideology of social and economic justice and equality.
PS: But then how come a right-winger like Pat
Buchanan opposes NAFTA like we do?
NA: Pat Buchanan is a right-winger, and he does
oppose NAFTA, but not like we do. When sections of the Right oppose free trade and corporate-led
globalization they don't oppose it for the reasons progressives do. Their opposition to NAFTA doesn't
come from their opposition to the stranglehold of big business on labor in the United States or in
Mexico, or low wages in China or India. They oppose it because they fear that international
treaties like NAFTA might limit the independence and ability of the ruling class in this country to
make decisions that affect ordinary peoples' lives. Or, they fear that cheaper labor from other countries
would cut into the profits that U.S. corporations make. But instead of saying that publicly, they
drive a wedge between U.S. and Mexican workers by scapegoating lower-paid Mexican workers as
responsible for taking away your jobs. Even though, in reality, neither Mexican nor American workers
had a say in designing and implementing NAFTA and both opposed it for pretty much the same reason-
it would hurt them.
PS: Why isn't this more well-known?
NA: The mainstream media, which as you probably
know is corporate-owned, generally thrives on events rather than issues. Plus, since it is corporateowned
and controlled, it does not seriously question policies that are or might be opposed to corporate
interests. As a result the "news focuses on unusual actions taken by unusual people." When an
anti-abortion activist murders a doctor, or a neonazi blows up a building, that person is identified as "the
Right." It is easy to not only identify him but also to dismiss him as an irrational extremist and to deal
with him under the law. "What escapes most media coverage are the routine ways and means through
which the Right keeps its foot soldiers prepared to strike when it is time to vote, lobby, or protest.
Most of this activity happens outside official political channels. It happens in Wednesday night church
meetings and over weekday Christian call-in shows." This superficial coverage also enables and directs
the general public to question the symptoms.
PS: How powerful is the Right today?
NA: The Right is not over. It is all over. In the United
States today, the Right controls the White House, both houses of Congress, and has a 5-4 majority on
the Supreme Court that could get even more solidified. Its power appears unstoppable, as do its policies
-all the more reason for you to understand it, in order to be able to effectively challenge and
defeat it. The Right has been successful for many reasons, but one major reason is that it has tapped
into a real feeling of anger, disillusionment, and insecurity felt by ordinary Americans. Some of
these fears, like bleak economic futures, declining pay scales, and terrorism are legitimate. Others, like
the backlash of historically privileged groups to the demands for social and economic justice from marginalized
groups, are not. In both cases, however, the feeling of grievance is real. What the leadership
of the Right has done is to channel this insecurity into attacking scapegoats (poor people, immigrants,
minorities, and women), and successfully framed or cloaked its divisive messages to receive widespread
PS: What do you suggest those seeking to the
challenge the Right should do?
NA: PRA suggests that progressives, especially
activists, need to do five things in furthering their
agenda for a just and equal society:
- Challenge the scapegoating, prejudice, and
myths that the Right engages in, and counter
the frames it uses to cloak its divisive messages
to make them become the accepted norm.
- Identify real alternatives that are responsive to
people's legitimate concerns, needs, and fears,
including of those people who do not identify
as progressive or even liberal.
- Form broad and diverse community-based
coalitions, and work in solidarity to achieve
social and economic justice and societal
- Push liberals to move left and bring them into
coalitions to challenge systemic and institutionalized
- And in order to do all of this, recognize and
understand the Right and impart a clear analysis
of its agenda and policies.