Drifting Right and Going Wrong

An Overview of the U.S. Political Right

By Chip Berlet and Jean Hardisty

Our country is in the midst of the longest period of right-wing reaction against movements seeking equality, social justice, and economic fairness since the period of Reconstruction in the south. We picture hooded Ku Klux Klan nightriders carrying torches and lighting crosses when we think of this late 19th century turmoil. We tend to forget the societal institutions and systems that also played a role in creating oppression for Blacks and preserving privilege for Whites.

Now, in the early twenty-first century, the attacks on social and economic justice predominantly take the form of state and national legislation passed by mainstream politicians. The right-wing backlash today is targeted at a subtler “enemy.” It is no longer simply African Americans who are portrayed as less than deserving citizens. Today the electoral Right uses an allegedly “colorblind” template to identify those who are outside acceptable norms of morality and family values. So, it is welfare “queens,” lesbians and gay men of all races, and “illegal aliens” (to name just a few) who are, by virtue of their identity, living an un-American life.  In fact, anyone who is not Christian is suspect, especially Muslims.  Jews are accepted as allies to the extent that they sign onto the Right’s agenda.  Meanwhile, virulently antisemitic Extreme Right groups, including the neonazis, continue to advocate for White supremacy, promoting their agenda by recruiting young people to a vision of an idyllic “White America.”

Those who want to successfully challenge the Right’s policies need to understand that not all sectors of the U.S. Right are alike. There are multiple networks of organizations and funders with differing and sometimes competing agendas. Different ideas and methods are used in various right-wing social and political movements. No one organization “controls” the political Right. No single deep-pocket funder is “behind” the Right. Some large organizations are important, but many others appear to be more influential than they really are.

Traditional Republican Party conservatism is composed of several sectors, including corporate conservatives, moderate conservatives, libertarians, and neoconservatives. In addition, the Political Right includes other sectors such as the Christian Right, the Patriot movement, and the Extreme Right. Critics need to sharpen their focus and examine the details. It is not fair to equate the Ku Klux Klan with the Christian Right. It is fair to criticize anti-democratic aspects of both movements.

The Christian Right, for example, has no qualms about denouncing the Klan and other groups on the Extreme Right that promote naked White supremacy and antisemitism, or that use aggressive intimidation or insurgent violence. A few zealots in the Christian Right use violence to oppose abortion, but Christian Right activists overwhelmingly work for reforms through legislation and support for candidates for public office. Some of these reforms, however, would deny certain civil rights protections to people who step outside heterosexual monogamy. The Christian Right urges women to adopt “traditional” roles that are secondary and submissive to men. Calls to make this country a Christian nation implicitly promote the idea that Jews and other non-Christians are second-class citizens. Much of Christian Right ideology privileges the culture of White northern Europeans at the expense of diversity and a pluralistic model of democracy. So while the ultraconservative Christian Right and the Extreme Right are separate movements, they pull the society in the same direction, even while remaining critical of each other’s groups, leaders, and plans.

Meanwhile, the Patriot movement occupies a middle ground between the Christian Right and the Extreme Right. The Patriot movement represents a type of right-wing populism that periodically surfaces on the U.S. political landscape. Its most visible recent aspect was the armed “citizens militias” that flourished in the mid 1990s. The militia movement now has largely collapsed, but there is still a flourishing Patriot subculture with groups such as the John Birch Society and the website www.freerepublic.com serving as typical examples. People in the Patriot movement see the world through the lens of conspiracy, believing the government to be controlled by secret elites and fearing tyrannical government repression. Many deny the bigoted antisemitic aspect of their conspiracism or the White supremacist lineage of their bogus "constitutionalist" states' rights legal arguments. Some early militia leaders came out of Extreme Right hate groups, and often tried to mask their bigotry to attract a larger audience.

Pat Buchanan is a key figure in this Patriot sector, where his brand of xenophobic nationalism finds an enthusiastic audience. Patriot leaders take fears over the economy, corporate globalization, and downsizing and focus them onto scapegoats, ranging from immigrants and people of color to the United Nations. Many in the militias, for example, blame their slipping social and economic status on an alleged government conspiracy to build a global New World Order. Sometimes people in the Patriot movement try to recruit from progressive groups involved in antiwar or anti-globalization organizing.

Participants in the Christian Right represent a different demographic group. They are often upwardly mobile suburbanites who are members of conservative Protestant evangelical, charismatic, or fundamentalist churches. These churches are growing rapidly across the country, while moderate or liberal Protestant denominations such as the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ are losing members in record numbers. Not all members of conservative Protestant churches are active in the Christian Right, but it is within these churches that people are recruited and mobilized into social movements and political campaigns.

Those that join Christian Right groups, such as Concerned Women for America, tend to get much of their information about politics and world events not from network television and daily newspapers but through media produced by the Christian Right – including magazines, radio programs, television evangelists, and direct mail. These sources frequently portray a world awash in sin, with liberals, feminists, peaceniks, homosexuals and other subversives undermining a godly America. The Christian Right is the largest social movement in the United States, and the biggest voting bloc in the Republican Party.

Within the Republican Party, the Christian Right competes with more secular, upstart free market libertarianism and button down business conservatism for dominance. Activists from all three ideologies are appointed to federal and state agencies and join debates over public policy, swamping calls for progressive reforms. This can create confusion for proponents of affirmative action or humane welfare policies who find themselves defending their views against three different sets of negative arguments. A local school board can find its comprehensive sex education curriculum under attack from libertarians who claim it is a waste of tax dollars, conservatives who claim it is an inappropriate diversion from the core curriculum, and Christian Right activists who claim it is immoral.

A network of national and state-level conservative think tanks churn out educational and research materials for their activists and sympathetic politicians and journalists. This explains why campaigns over school vouchers, sentencing guidelines, union dues, and faith-based initiatives seem to sweep across the country in waves. The Right’s intellectual infrastructure began to be built in earnest in the late 1970s and matured in the mid 1980s. Examples of national think tanks include the Heritage Foundation for business conservatives, the Cato Institute for libertarians, and the Free Congress Foundation for the Christian Right. Through the synergy of research, publications, and conferences a variety of ideas are debated, slogans sharpened, and campaigns launched. Conservative foundations and corporations have learned to fund strategically, while most centrist and progressive foundations are reluctant to fund movement-building, for instance the type of infrastructure of the type that has been so successful for the Political Right.

In the 1950s academics popularized the idea that people who joined right-wing (and left wing) social and political movements were a “lunatic fringe” of “extremists” who suffered from some psychological malady. But most scholars now see right-wing activists (and activists in general) as relatively average people, recruited by friends into groups that offer a reasonable-sounding plan to solve political, economic, cultural, or social problems. This is true even for some people who join the many small neonazi groups, and it is certainly true for those active in more mainstream right-wing movements. Their recruitment of average concerned people is the result of a carefully planned campaign to restore the Right to dominance in the Republican Party and the country as a whole.

How did the Political Right gain so much power? After World War II the political Right faced four major hurdles in building a successful movement: it was identified as a club for wealthy elitists; it was fractured by internal feuds; it was seen as a safe harbor for racists; and it tolerated a nest of conspiracy theorists, some of whom were antisemites.

In the mid 1950s, William F. Buckley, Jr. and a group of his Old Right conservative intellectual allies set out to restore the image and power of the Right, using Buckley’s magazine National Review as the vehicle for debate.  Known as “fusionists,” they were determined to roll back the social welfare policies of Roosevelt’s New Deal at home by building a conservative coalition composed of economic libertarianism, social traditionalism, and militant anticommunism. Professor Jerome L. Himmelstein explains that "The core assumption that binds these three elements is the belief that American society on all levels has an organic order––harmonious, beneficent, and self–regulating––disturbed only by misguided ideas and policies, especially those propagated by a liberal elite in the government, the media, and the universities." The fusionists began speaking out against overt White supremacy and antisemitism, and ostracized the John Birch Society for its paranoid-sounding conspiracy theories.

In the late 1970s a group of conservative strategists who had been active in the failed 1964 Barry Goldwater presidential campaign began to formulate a “family values” agenda that held enormous appeal for traditionalist conservatives of the Republican Party and the burgeoning Christian evangelical population.  The coalition really jelled in 1979, when Robert Billings of the National Christian Action Council invited rising televangelist Jerry Falwell to meet conservative organizers Paul Weyrich, Howard Phillips, Richard Viguerie, and Ed McAteer. They wanted to use abortion as a wedge issue to split social conservative traditionalists away from the Democratic Party. Falwell took their idea of a "Moral Majority," and turned into an organization. This emerging movement became known as the "New Right" and it built a conservative voting base, provided foot soldiers for what became known as the Culture War, and captured the Republican Party.

After the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during Ronald Reagan’s second Administration, militant anticommunists focused on opposing big government, bureaucratic regulations, liberal collectivism, and godless secular humanism here at home. This allowed the fusionist coalition to continue into the new millennium. The electoral political Right still seeks coalition among its different sectors, but tolerates substantial disagreement over specific policy questions. For instance libertarians often support abortion, gay, and immigrant rights and defend civil liberties, in opposition to many business conservatives and Christian Right traditionalists. But libertarians will join with these other right-wing sectors to support tax cuts and harsh punitive sentencing of criminals.

Simultaneously, a new partner in the conservative coalition emerged. Neoconservatives were former liberals--who had supported the Cold War against communism--who then shifted their concern to what they saw as a rising threat of global terrorism. They tend to be strong supporters of aggressive Israeli policies in the Middle East, and suspicious of Islamic militants. They support global U.S. military intervention that is both pre-emptive and unilateral, and have significantly influenced U.S. foreign policy since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

Neoconservatives joined with the Christian Right to support “traditional” moral values--which translates to attacks on the feminist, reproductive rights, and GLBT movements. They seek to pack the state and federal court system, including the U.S. Supreme Court, with appointees who share their ultra-conservative viewpoints.

Key to the success of the new conservative coalition of the 1980s and 1990s was the use of populist-sounding rhetoric to mobilize resentment among predominantly White middle class and working class constituencies, especially men. Playing on anger over the erosion of traditional privileges, along with more legitimate fears over economic and social crises, the political Right skillfully demonized target groups and promoted scapegoating stories about waves of criminal immigrants and lazy welfare queens—stories that usually carried a racist subtext. It replaced overt racist rhetoric with what rightist leaders call a “colorblind” political agenda. They claim the legislation prompted by the Civil Rights Movement ended the need for government action against discrimination and racism, and then systematically oppose all government programs aimed at redressing the effects of ongoing institutional racism

Right-wing populist rhetoric masks the fact that changes in the tax code and other economic initiatives pursued by the Right in the 1980s and 1990s overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy, and created vast disparities between the rich and poor. Yet these initiatives were presented as reforms to stop the “tax robbery” of average citizens by government bureaucrats labeled as corrupt and incompetent.

Tax cuts invariably defund those programs of the federal government that seek to help impoverished constituencies, enforce laws against discrimination, and protect the environment. At the same time, federal funds have been shifted to build a huge infrastructure for the military, and various “anti-terrorism” programs of “homeland security” that have seriously eroded civil liberties.

This history helps explain how the political Right rose to its position of power and now dominates policy debates. The ascendance of right-wing political power over government policies may seem less dramatic than the vigilantism of the militias or the murderous terror of Extreme Right race hate groups, but it has resulted in a dramatic erosion of civil rights, civil liberties, and basic human rights for many people in our country. The sectors of the Right may work separately, but together they continue to pull the nation away from the goal of building a truly fair and equitable democratic society.


A version of this article first appeared in early 2003 in the NCJW Journal, Winter 2002, pp. 8-11.

Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates (PRA), is co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America. Jean Hardisty, founder and president of PRA, is author of Mobilizing Resentment.

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