Challenging the Right

About Chip Berlet

Towards an Effective Response
Making Distinctions, Choosing Rhetoric
Challenging the Far Right

Towards an Effective Response

The new conservatism has been successful because it has built a movement that serves as an umbrella under which political, religious, cultural, electoral, and economic sectors of conservatism and reaction can gather around shared concerns while still disagreeing about specific topical issues and long-term methodology.1)Some of these ideas first appeared in Third Force magazine, and in “Following the Threads.” In Unraveling the Right: The New Conservatism in American Thought and Politics, ed. Amy E. Ansell. (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1998).

The great irony is that several rightists leaders admit they learned this coalition-building strategy from the labor, civil rights, and antiwar movements of the left.

It is important to understand that the various sectors of the political right have tapped into genuine anger and disillusionment within the middle and working classes. In some cases, like bleak economic futures and declining pay scales, the complaints are legitimate. In some cases, like majority backlash responses to the demands for social justice from marginalized groups, the complaints are illegitimate. But either way the sense of grievance is real. The sleight-of-hand employed by demagogues of the right is to focus this sense of grievance on scapegoats and conspiracist theories of secret liberal elites.

Progressives need to engage in three activities simultaneously: challenging the scapegoating, prejudice, and myths; providing clear strategic analysis and real alternatives that respond to people’s specific legitimate concerns and needs; and joining in broad and diverse community-based coalitions engaged in joint work to solve specific problems.

Recognizing who has gained and who has lost in the current economic climate must be part of the discussion. As Frederick Douglass noted, those with power and privilege concede nothing without a struggle. The rightist backlash would have been less destabilizing had there been progressive leadership able to help pilot the society through the roaring ocean waves tossed up in reaction to demands for rectifying centuries of economic and social injustice. For instance blaming massive job loss and underemployment on affirmative action is scapegoating, but it would be a difficult scapegoat for the right to peddle in a full employment economy.

The cleverest trick is how the right has empowered and elevated spokespeople who, though often anecdotal, claim to represent vast constituencies: African-Americans who oppose affirmative action, women who oppose feminism, Mexican-Americans who call for immigration control. Their discourse is counterintuitive in its opposition to apparent self interest, and thus the hardest to decode and confront as scapegoating. Our most effective response as progressives is to empower and elevate as leaders persons whose core identities and beliefs transcend boundaries: Latina artists who support free expression and immigration rights, Christians who support separation of church and state, African-American lesbians who speak out against racism and homophobia, veterans who oppose militarism, comedians who gleefully dissect the absurd claims of our emperor politicians who flap about wearing no intellectual clothes.

In confronting scapegoating, it is important to isolate the handful of ideologues cynically promoting racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism and other forms of supremacy from their audience who may embrace these ideas consciously or unconsciously, but whose prejudice and discrimination has not hardened into a zealous worldview. The right has gained many of these converts because they are the only organized oppositional movement challenging the status quo in a coherent manner that provides seemingly plausible explanations and solutions. Labeling and demonizing the right as radicals and extremists who should be shunned is like helping miners pan for fool’s gold on Saturday when we should be spending our workweek organizing them to take control of the mines.

The media has been easily manipulated by persons adept at scapegoating and demagoguery. In part this is due to the degrading of news as corporate empires gobble up media outlets and the reduction of resources made available for serious research while advertising pressures increasingly drive style and content. There are structural and stylistic reasons as well, including the emphasis on short takes and sound bites over more thoughtful longer discussions, the need for exciting images, the rise of infotainment and shock talk shows. Perhaps most influential has been the massive funding for right-wing think tanks that churn out talking heads like chicken nuggets and send them off to interviews surrounded by skillful publicity agents and media-packaging professionals.

Democratic public discourse is disrupted by scapegoating, Opposing scapegoating is both a moral issue and strategically vital because of the role scapegoating plays in building rightwing populism which can be harvested by fascism. Fascism begins by organizing a mass movement with bitter anti-regime rhetoric. Human rights organizers working for social and economic justice need to encourage forms of mass political participation, including democratic forms of populism, while simultaneously opposing scapegoating and conspiracism that often accompanies right-wing populism.

The removal of the obvious anti-communist underpinnings assisted left wing conspiracists in creating a parody of the fundamentalist/libertarian conspiracist critiques. Left wing conspiracists strip away the underlying religious fundamentalism, antisemitism, and economic social Darwinism, and peddle the repackaged product like carnival snake oil salesmen to unsuspecting sectors of the left. Those on the left who only see the antielitist aspects of right-wing populism and claim they are praiseworthy are playing with fire. Radical-sounding conspiracist critiques of the status quo are the wedge that fascism uses to penetrate and recruit from the left.

Given the trends we are facing, people who want to defend democracy have to fight on four fronts. We must organize against:

  • The rise of reactionary populism, nativism, & fascism with roots in white supremacy, antisemitism, subversion myths, and the many mutating offspring of the Freemason/Jewish banker conspiracy theories.
  • Theocracy and other anti-democratic forms of religious fundamentalism, around the world, which in the US is based in White Anglo-Saxon Protestant with its subtexts of patriarchy and homophobia.
  • Authoritarian state actions in the form of militarism and interventionism abroad and government repression and erosion of civil liberties at home.
  • The antidemocratic neocorporatism of multinational capital with its attack on the standard of living of working people around the globe.

As we promote progressive solutions, we must also join with all persons across the political spectrum to defend the basic ideas of mass democracy, even as we argue that it is an idea that has never been real for many here in our country. The principles of the Enlightenment are not our goal, but resisting attempts to push political discourse back to pre-enlightenment principles is nonetheless a worthy effort.

Making Distinctions, Choosing Rhetoric

Sara Diamond is frustrated by the ideological blinders imposed by centrist/extremist theory, especially when it portrays the Christian Right as a “extremist” ally of the far right:

“. . . . liberals organized against the Christian right can make hay by exploiting the ‘radical right’ paradigm…. Were liberal critics to analyze the Christian right as a natural ally of corporate Republicanism, they might find themselves labeled as “radicals.” The New York Times and CNN would stop calling, and the foundation dollars would dry up. . . .It does no good, then, to see the Christian right through the blinders of a ‘radical/extremist’ paradigm. It is outrageous that the right wants to pad-lock gays in the closet, deprive women of reproductive freedoms, enforce antiquated and monolithic school curricula-the litany is well known. But in the coming season of local and statewide elections, the Christian right will hold the high ground as well-organized, well-heeled, and genuinely discontented opponents of the Clinton era status quo. To crudely blast politically active evangelicals as ‘extremists’ will only increase their claimed underdog status. The only way for opponents to beat back otherwise inevitable Christian right gains will be to disavow namecalling and instead-with cool heads-conduct grass-roots voter education on the true policy aims of the Republican/ Christian right alliance.”

Challenging the Far Right

While the tactics used to fight the far right should be different from those used to confront the religious right, the basic theory of organizing remains the same. The theoretical and academic concerns discussed in this paper have real meaning for community organizers seeking to confront racism and antisemitism and other forms of supremacy in local areas. Since the needed solution will be based on the analytical framework, there is a need to understand the framework before organizing effectively. The overt and conscious racism and antisemitism of the old Ku Klux Klan or Neo-Nazi groups is easy to point out and organize against. With the rise of new paranoid conspiratorial movements, with more coded and obscure messages, this task becomes more difficult.

The forms of prejudice become important to decode. Overt or covert? Conscious or unconscious? Institutional of individual? Personal or political? Is it possible to drive a wedge between persons who hold prejudiced views and persons spreading messages of race hate? Is this ignorance or ideology? These are important questions for the community organizer. In times of economic and social distress, people often turn towards swift solutions and the strong leadership of the “man on the white horse.” Authoritarianism undergirds militarism outside our borders and repression inside our borders. When combined, as it is now, with the theocracy of right-wing fundamentalists, and the corporatist assumptions behind global restructuring on behalf of multinationals, the goal of democracy seems hopeless.

It is easy to see why febril conspiracy theories about secret teams, evil elites, bilious bankers, corrupt politicians, jack-booted Gestapo’s, and UN troops carrying new world orders have such an attraction to some on the left. They certainly are far more entertaining than systemic analysis and social movement theory. The problem, however, is not some mythic cabal of secret elites that confused conspiracist columnists such as Alexander Cockburn imagine ruling the world. That analysis leads us into the arms of the proto-fascist militias and asks us to set aside the struggles for racial and gender justice.

We must heed the words of the late African leader Amilcar Cabral who advised: “don’t shoot shadows.” We must call the demons out by name: Racism, White Supremacy, Antisemitism, Homophobia, Patriarchy, Corporatism, Authoritarianism, Militarism, Reaction, Christian Theocracy, Neofascism, Neonazism, Race War, Genocide. These words and the concepts behind them are woven throughout books such as Roads to Dominion by Diamond and White Lies – White Power by Novick, despite their disparate perspectives. They give us the vocabulary and vision we need to block the right-wing backlash and begin rebuilding a truly progressive movement for peace, economic fairness, and social justice. Liberal demonization of all conservative Christian evangelicals as Bible-thumping stormtroopers, and all members of the armed militia movement as neonazi terrorists makes a serious public discussion of fascist potentials in these movements difficult. Overtly genocidal racist and antisemitic hate groups, neonazi organizations, remnants of the splintered Ku Klux Klan, and other such groups with fascistic tendencies are unlikely sources of large-scale proto-fascist mass movements, although they can be aggressive and murderous on an individual level. Acts of terrorism from the far right are more likely to cause state repression than a fascist mass movement.

The best defense against fascism is a truly democratic alternative to the status quo. Human rights organizers working for social and economic justice need to encourage forms of mass political participation, including democratic forms of populism, while simultaneously opposing scapegoating and conspiracism that often accompanies right-wing populism.

References   [ + ]

1. Some of these ideas first appeared in Third Force magazine, and in “Following the Threads.” In Unraveling the Right: The New Conservatism in American Thought and Politics, ed. Amy E. Ansell. (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1998).
Chip Berlet is a former senior analyst at Political Research Associates. He authored Eyes Right! and Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (with Matthew N. Lyons) and is a frequent contributor to Talk2Action and Huffington Post.