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Organizing Advice:

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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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 acceptance.

PS: What do you suggest those seeking to the challenge the Right should do?
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 transformation.
  • Push liberals to move left and bring them into coalitions to challenge systemic and institutionalized oppression.
  • And in order to do all of this, recognize and understand the Right and impart a clear analysis of its agenda and policies.



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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