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Right-Wing Populism

Responding to Staged Confrontations

by Chip Berlet

This is about seeing the complexity of and relationships among Democracy, Leadership, and Citizenship

The town meeting confrontations over health care are an example of right-wing populist protests that periodically sweep across the United States. The anger, fear and resentment are often mobilized by cynical political elites as part of an orchestrated response. This does not mean, however, that the persons currently disrupting the town meetings have no right to participate in the public square.

Calling these protestors 'extremists' or 'wingnuts'; suggesting they are mere puppets of elite rightist spinmasters; or demanding they be silenced, undercuts the basic concepts of the democratic process.

At the same time, being aware of how historic right-wing populism has played out in ways that promote scapegoating of immigrants, people of color, and Jews is vital to protect the democratic process.

This is a difficult balancing act, but a necessary skill set for those who want to defend and extend democracy as a system built on informed consent.

What to do? In the short run, people scheduling public meetings need to set the ground rules for participation up front, and enforce them with courtesy and without political bias.

In the long run, the Obama administration and the Democratic Party need to learn how to rebut false and misleading statements and beliefs without name-calling; calmly rebuke those spreading the misinformation as harming civil society; and develop strong and clear arguments to defend their proposed programs.

These are the Three R’s of Civil Society: Rebut, Rebuke, Re-Affirm. The tendencies found within right-wing populism are toxic to democracy, but the solution is not to short-circuit the democratic process, but to ensure that questions are fully answered and all voices are heard.

Everyone has a right to get clear answers from their elected officials. And everyone at a public meeting has an obligation to stand up--physically--and object to mob rule.

Right-Wing Populism

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