Right-wing leaders often appropriate progressive themes by calling for rule by “the people,” equal opportunity, and “equality” feminism. Their rhetoric has convinced many voters that the Right offers a more fair and direct form of democratic representation than that offered by liberals and progressives.1 But an accurate analysis of the Right’s agenda reveals that, while it embraces the rhetoric of democracy, it promotes a constricted, shrunken version of democracy. It’s a version that resembles the United States political landscape before the New Deal reforms of the 1930s and 1940s. By defining democracy in its narrowest sense, the contemporary Right claims the mantle of democracy, even though, since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, its campaigns, policies, and initiatives have attacked democratic principles and undermined democratic practices.
Progressives have a gut-level understanding that the Right is anti-democratic, so when we fight the Right’s agenda, we often say we are “defending democracy.” But what exactly do we mean by that? How do progressives define the “democracy” that we are defending? What definition of democracy does the Right use? What change does the Right intend to bring to society as a whole? What is its overarching vision, and how does that vision alter democracy as progressives define it?
What is Democracy?
Democracy has no single definition. It is a fluid concept that can describe a political system in which very few hold power and each person is responsible for his or her own welfare, or an egalitarian and inclusive political system in which decision-making is broad-based and the members’ needs are met. The Right has historically promoted the former version of democracy and progressives the latter. In its most narrow definition, democracy simply offers citizens the right to vote. Unfortunately, this narrow definition is used widely, by political commentators, the State Department and school textbooks. So when another country does not offer people the opportunity to vote, or doesn’t offer choices among different political parties, the U.S. declares that it is not “a democracy.” If that country does offer even the semblance of a plebiscite, its classification changes and journalists and government officials are inclined to celebrate the arrival of democracy.
Progressives fully understand that the vote can be a sham because many people don’t vote and others are illegitimately denied the right to vote. The U.S. Constitution was intended not to establish democratic self-government, but to perpetuate the power of property-owning white men. Even for those who had the vote, direct representation was mediated through the Electoral College and two very differently-composed Houses of Congress.2 The Constitution is a flawed document that is, to this day, being corrected and expanded to include basic rights and guarantees. Progressives remain critical of the many real breaches of individual rights that persist in the U.S.
Despite the United States’ blatant shortcomings – from institutional racism to systematic government violations of civil liberties – certain characteristics are now widely accepted in the consciousness of much of the U.S. public as constituting “our system of democracy.” These characteristics include: the right to vote and have that vote counted; the right to hold and express individual opinions; an independent judiciary; and freedom of religion. Each characteristic has seldom been a reality. Nevertheless, they remain the popular image of U.S. democracy. Progressives often appeal to each of these standards in order to defend individual rights and liberties from governmental abuses.3
But in a truly inspiring vision of democracy, a democratic society provides equal protection under the law, equal access to economic opportunities, and equal access to individual rights. For those less able to compete for a good life, government provides a social safety net, paid for by all the members of the society. Full membership in society is open to all. There is no “fence” around the society to legitimize those within and allow them to forget and ignore those outside. White male property owners are not more deserving than mothers who receive welfare or children with physical disabilities. Government does more than simply represent and carry out the will of the voting public; its role extends to supporting people as they strive for better lives. 4 Social justice activists consistently work to push U.S. society to reach this democratic potential by efforts to expand rights and protections for everyone, not just the privileged, demanding that government uphold the individual liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, and fighting for a meaningful social safety net.
While the Right (including the New Right, the Christian Right, and the secular right wing of the Republican Party) opposes every assumption and program promoted by liberals and progressives, it supports “democracy” – the most rosy, popular view of U.S. democracy. This view is often taught in schools, where students learn that our democracy is the best system in the world, a system of self-governance in which the citizens are, first and foremost, free from unnecessary government interference in their lives. Freedom, the key ingredient, is freedom from constraints on individual liberty. This version of democracy is a matter of form rather than substance. That is, so long as the vote is in place and representative political bodies are present, it is acceptable for elites to dominate decision-making and for gross inequalities of power and wealth, lack of mass participation, and inadequate protection of minority groups to exist.5
The Right, using this version of democracy, declares its ideology and agenda to be “for the average working person.” The Right’s leaders use rhetoric such as “returning power to the people” or “taking our country back” to emphasize their “democratic” credentials.
But this is a dodge that intentionally misleads the public. Rightist leaders borrow and coopt the language of an expansive, progressive vision of democracy, while pursuing a constricted and reactionary version of democracy. Only occasionally does a marginal figure such as Pat Buchanan confess his doubts about democracy and his suspicions of “the people.”6
What Can People Expect From Democracy Today?
An expansive view of democracy grew in popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, as activists pressed demands on the government for services, protections and relief in economic, social, and political areas. Many white voters, educated by the civil rights movement, began to imagine a more inclusive version of democracy in which members of the society were not placed “outside the fence” because of their race. Many people began to see de facto racial segregation, slum housing conditions, unemployment, and widespread hunger and malnutrition as affronts to democracy. All three branches of government – the Congress, the Executive branch, and the Judiciary – responded to popular pressure by taking some responsibility for the poverty and the other forms of oppression in which a large portion of people in this country lived.
Precedent existed for government to assist those living in poverty: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s. In many cases during the Roosevelt’s Administrations, government acknowledged such needs and then a joint force of government, the non-profit sector, and occasionally business tried to address them. The backlash was immediate and vicious. Roosevelt and his New Deal policies came under sustained and sometimes vicious attacks from the Right of the 1930s and 1940s – the Old Right. Its principal weapon was the accusation that an expanded government was socialistic and that liberal government programs were the work of “domestic communists.” But, despite the Right’s attacks, FDR was re-elected three times, finally dying in office.
The Old Right’s opposition to “government interference” remained strong in the 1950s, when the National Review magazine played a leading role in critiquing government programs. Wisconsin’s Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy promoted the Old Right’s anti-communist paranoia with his Senate Internal Security Committee Hearings, creating a climate of fear and red-baiting that ruined hundreds of lives. But the popular movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which mobilized large numbers of people to exert demands on government, lessened the Old Right’s effectiveness. Liberal reformers who were elected to Congress refined New Deal programs. The civil rights and the anti-Vietnam war movement mounted serious challenges to the status quo. The women’s movement soon joined that challenge and the movement for the liberation of lesbians and gay men caused still more people to demand government action. Liberation movements generated a drumbeat of demands for expanded rights, as they mobilized to bring more people “inside the fence” of democracy, and leave fewer and fewer people disenfranchised, marginalized, and “outside the fence.” The John Birch Society actively opposed the liberation movements, but was not able to block them. In the 1960s and 1970s, many people’s expectations of their government were perhaps higher even than during the New Deal.
In the 1970s, young, ambitious leaders of the Right responded by abandoning the Old Right’s identity and fashioning a new style and a new name – the New Right.7Continuing its attack on the legitimacy of any federal government program that addressed social justice issues, the New Right dropped the explicit promotion of racial bigotry. It attacked liberalism as a tax-and-spend ideology that created inefficient government programs that were causing, not ameliorating, the country’s problems. Using high-tech methods, simplistic language, and outrageous accusations, it demonstrated its muscle by defeating six of seven sitting liberal Democratic Senators in the 1980 election. Under the protection of Ronald Reagan, its charismatic standard-bearer, the New Right took control of the Republican Party, while simultaneously courting conservative evangelical Christians with a program of “family values” and minimal government.
How the Right Portrays Itself As Democratic
In the 1970s the New Right set out its ideology with shameless clarity. Calling itself a “revolutionary” movement, its leaders declared that they were going to take the country back from the liberals, feminists, and secular humanists who “controlled” the national agenda. In a book that could serve as the manifesto of the New Right, The New Right: We’re Ready to Lead!, Richard Viguerie states, “Conservatives are fighting for …basic rights not merely for ourselves but for all Americans. One of the biggest lies of 20th century American politics is that liberals care about people and conservatives don’t. This is a bum rap put on us by liberals. I suggest it’s conservatives who, by their actions, show real love and compassion for their fellow men.” 8 The New Right repackaged the agenda of the Old Right, while denying that the movement was racist. The New Right’s leaders sought to leave behind the Old Right’s tainted association with the KKK, White Citizens’ Councils, neo-nazi anti-Semites, and even the John Birch Society, while simultaneously positioning themselves well to the right of traditional Republican conservatives.9
To become a mass-based social and political movement, however, the New Right needed to attract a following outside of the Republican Party. Republicans have for decades had a reputation as the party of white country club members and big business. But at various times it has successfully painted itself as the party of “the common man,” especially during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. Another instance was the courtship by President Richard Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, of “the silent majority.” Agnew claimed that most inactive voters were conservative and were best represented by conservative Republicans. Two constituencies were available for the New Right’s recruitment: voters who had supported the presidential candidacy of George Wallace, the white supremacist Democratic governor of Alabama who is sometimes called the father of the conservative movement, and conservative Christian evangelicals across the country.
In recruiting these new constituencies, the New Right’s leaders struck an aggressively populist tone, despite an agenda that served the interests of business and the wealthy. As Chip Berlet describes in his book, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, “…[T]he grievances of many White middle- and working-class people-both a legitimate sense of injury and angry scapegoating generated by the erosion of traditional privileges-could be harnessed to benefit wealthy elites and intensify disempowerment and inequality for millions of people.” 10 As is so often true of right-wing populism, rhetoric about “the people” masks the interests of the ruling class.
The changes the Right pursued in the tax code throughout the 1980s and 1990s served the standard Republican constituency of corporate leaders, captains of finance, and businessmen. Additionally, they served the interests of venture capitalists, the economic sector most directly represented by the New Right in the 1970s and 1980s and later by right-wing Congressional leaders such as Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay. But, by presenting themselves as anti-elite defenders of average people, the leaders of the New Right camouflaged the movement’s actual class interests. By pursuing strategies such as tax protests, citizen-initiated ballot referenda, and Congressional term limits, which appear to favor “average people” over elites, the Right has cloaked itself in the mantle of populism. It thereby claims to be more democratic than its liberal opposition.
The Realities of Right-Wing Populism
The New Right launched itself as a movement with California’s Proposition 13, an anti-tax crusade. Tax cutting as an issue has had long political legs. It continues as a central plank in the Right’s agenda. Proposition 13 illustrates how the Right spins its activism to give it a populist appearance while it actually aims to shrink government’s ability to meet people’s needs. A 1978 tax reduction ballot initiative, it capped property tax rates and severely limited the state’s revenues. Its right-wing backers promoted it as “direct democracy” (ballot initiatives) challenging “runaway government” (taxes for government programs).
No U.S. political movement has made greater use of the “populist” political options of state-level ballot initiatives and referenda than has the contemporary Right. If ballot initiatives were indeed a populist means of passing legislation (implying a more direct form of democratic expression), the Right would have a legitimate claim. But, contrary to popular belief, ballot initiatives are no more “pure” as an expression of public opinion than the average law passed by a state legislature or by Congress. In both cases, interest groups line up to influence the formulation of the proposed law, to aggressively sell it to the voting public, and to benefit from the outcome. Referenda are formulated by a small number of people who have the opportunity to manipulate language to make their initiative look more broadly appealing than its actual content warrants. They use their political skill and connections to mobilize the “initiative campaign industry” – money, the media, direct mail, negative advertising, paid signature gathering, and PR firms – to reach various like-minded groups and individuals.11 All this is similar to the process used by legislators.
The wording of the initiative can confuse (and thereby manipulate) voters. Indeed, many people do not vote for the initiatives because of their complexity or, in some states such as California, their excessive number. Research suggests that, despite (often purposefully) confusing language, voters exercise their choices fairly competently over a wide range of ballot propositions. They seek out available information and vote on the basis of ideology, cues from their political party, and their own self-interest.12 But law made by ballot initiative is not more democratic than that made by legislators.
In the case of initiatives to limit taxes, the Right benefits from the fact that, in the American imagination, tax resistance is often tied to democratic self-governance. It is associated with the Boston Tea Party’s defiance of British “taxation without representation” and captures popular approval because it is always presented as righteous indignation over “tax robbery” and the misuse of public funds.
Howard Jarvis, the architect of Proposition 13, presented his ballot initiative as “a people’s movement.” Nothing could sound more democratic. The use of the political tool of initiatives and referenda at the state level was a progressive reform won in the 1980s by progressive activists who explicitly designed it to give average citizens a way to circumvent intransigent state legislatures that were unresponsive to the popular will. But the way the Right promoted Proposition 13 and its effect are anything but democratic. Proposition 13 and many similar initiatives in other states have proved to be a power play by the joint interests of small business, large corporations and wealthy individuals.
Proposition 13 was built on widespread dissatisfaction in California in the mid-1970s, when an unresponsive state legislature seemed unwilling to counter a trend of rising property taxes. Most journalists and scholars who studied the success of Proposition 13 have concluded that it was the result of a grassroots effort- an expression of popular will that was not underwritten by special interests.13 But in his 1998 reassessment of three tax revolt initiatives, Daniel A. Smith comes to a very different conclusion. He presents convincing evidence that the forces behind Proposition 13 were not grassroots citizens, but right-wing “populist entrepreneur” Howard Jarvis, the business community, and real estate interests.14
Proposition 13 is just one example of the many state-level ballot initiatives that the Right has sponsored in the last 20 years. A wide array of groups – not just right-wing groups – uses ballot initiatives and referenda to advance their cause or agenda. But some are explicitly anti-democratic, in that they specifically deprive a minority group of its rights.15 In these cases, for the Right to claim to be speaking for “the people,” “the people” would be people not categorized as “minority” or those not demonized by the Right – that is, white, heterosexual males who are “upstanding citizens.” Examples of right-wing referenda directed against those “outside the fence” include initiatives that attack prisoners’ rights, bilingual education, lesbian and gay rights, affirmative action, and immigrant rights.
Other right-wing referenda, such as those that attack women’s right to abortion and support the death penalty, reflect long-standing right-wing causes that violate individual rights. Some ultraconservative groups, such as the National Rifle Association, have sponsored initiatives that support a contested individual right – the right to bear arms. Some conservative-sponsored initiatives are ambiguous, such as term limits. But in the majority of the Right’s referenda successes, the victory has caused a so-called minority (often small in number and relatively less powerful) to lose political ground at the hands of the self-styled majority (often more powerful, though not necessarily a numerical majority).
Further, the Right often uses deception to woo the voters to its initiatives. Slogans such as “No Special Rights” used to promote anti-gay initiatives, or the use of “civil rights” in the title of referenda that overturn affirmative action programs, or the message that “English is the key to opportunity” to promote propositions eliminating bilingual education all illustrate the Right’s co-optation of the language of equality in its campaigns to undo gains minorities have made. Clearly, the Right’s use of deceptive rhetoric violates the spirit of democracy, if not the letter of election laws.
Campaign Finance Reform — Heading for the Hills
When presented with an opportunity to take political action that could actually promote a more accountable and open democracy, the Right abandons its populist rhetoric and digs in its heels. The most common and widely accepted critique of contemporary U.S. democracy is that money and “special interests” play too large a role in influencing elections and legislation. Volumes have been written about how money corrupts the “will of the people.” When it is to the Right’s advantage, such as when Al Gore engaged in questionable fundraising policies during his Vice-Presidential tenure, the Right’s leadership is vocal in its criticism of the role of money in politics. When it comes to an actual solution, such as campaign finance reform, the Right is firmly opposed.
Because the public is increasingly aware of the role of money in politics, it was heartening, but not surprising, that Senator John McCain (R-AZ) struck a popular chord when he centered his 2000 presidential primary campaign on the theme of campaign finance reform. But McCain hit a brick wall of resistance from the Republican Party, which had already made a bargain with George W. Bush for the 2000 Presidential nomination. Along with McCain’s candidacy, the Republican leadership rejected his message of campaign finance reform. This was not a new rejection. Led by the Party’s right wing, Republicans at the federal and state level have effectively stonewalled on the subject of campaign finance reform for over twenty years and still oppose many of the reforms suggested by its advocates.
Politicians in both parties have long accepted money and worked for the interests of the donors. Democrats and Republicans alike are beholden to individual and corporate donations to finance the campaigns that allow them to stay in office or run for office. But the right wing of the Republican Party has resisted, and blocked, the reform of the system that makes politicians dependent on private money, and, thus, the resulting need for politicians to deliver favorable legislation to those who make major donations.
Micah Sifry of Public Campaign, a Washington D.C. think tank that promotes clean-election laws at the state level, has called the current electoral system of privately financed campaigns “an operating system that shapes who can run for office, what issues get raised, and which interests get served.”16 Without private money, candidates cannot mount a campaign, resist the “bribery of special interest donations,” or forcefully represent the interests of those who don’t have access to the resources to form Political Action Committees (PACs) that collect and funnel money to a candidate or legislator. Extraction industries, such as mining and timber, make large donations to politicians who head committees dealing with the environment. Tobacco and alcohol interests pour money into the coffers of the Republican Party in the form of “soft” money donations, which are not limited by federal laws, and thereby buy assurance that Republicans will defend them in Congress.17 And, although campaign finance reform alone will not ensure an open democratic political system, without it, those with money will certainly continue to exercise disproportionate power.
Clearly the ability of business interests, corporations, and wealthy individuals to obtain special government access and influence is patently anti-democratic. Following the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, Congress passed a clean-elections law, the Federal Election Campaign Act, which covers both candidates and political parties. covers only candidates, not political parties, It limits individual donations to $1,000 for any one candidate and provides matching funds for presidential parties that receive 5% of the popular vote in the previous election.18
Because Republican and Democratic politicians at the federal level thwarted further efforts in the 1980s, activists began to work for clean-elections laws at the state level. If a candidate consents to private fundraising restrictions, public funding of campaign races is now available in Maine (1996), Vermont (1997), Arizona (1998) and Massachusetts (1998), and activists are pursuing this reform in six other states. Thus, campaign finance reform activists have put the issue on the table for public debate and have raised the public’s awareness of the role of money in undermining democratic principles and practices. But campaign finance reform laws can be nullified if the state legislature refuses to grant the funds to underwrite them, as it has in Massachusetts, or are voluntary, as is usually true. Even in their weak forms, nearly all Republicans and many Democrats have fought campaign finance reform laws at every step. For instance, 38 of 50 Republican Senators and three of 50 Democrats opposed the campaign finance reform bill, passed in the Senate in early 2001 with a vote of 59-41.
The Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for America, and other conservative groups regularly publish materials, raise money and contribute to campaigns that promote their positions, specifying elected officials’ voting records and candidates’ campaign positions. According to Beverly LaHaye, Chairman of Concerned Women for America, campaign finance bills limit this activity and would “criminalize the educational work of public policy groups, including CWA.” Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation does not support campaign finance reform because he insists it would restrict his constitutional right to freely express his political views. By usurping the language of democratically held values, such spokespeople insist they are individuals with constitutionally guaranteed liberties, not the corrupt special interest groups that these laws are intended to control.
Narrowing Rights for Some of “The People”
At every step, the Right – both the Old Right and the contemporary Right – has opposed across the board democratic guarantees of equal treatment for all, without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. While claiming to speak for “the people,” the Right’s leaders have for decades supported full rights of some people and opposed full rights for others. An early example is the New Right’s opposition to a guarantee of equal legal, political, and economic rights for women when it opposed the Equal Rights Amendment (the ERA). Passed during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the amendment went to the states for ratification. In 1984 it failed to obtain the 2/3 state ratification needed for passage of a Constitutional Amendment when Phyllis Schlafly, right-wing leader of the anti-feminist women’s group, the Eagle Forum, mounted a crusade to defeat it. Arguing that the ERA would guarantee that women would serve in combat, eliminate single-sex bathrooms, and forbid preferential treatment for women in the workplace, Schlafly’s crusade paid off when the ERA fell three states short of approval. During her crusade, President Reagan announced that he supported women’s rights but opposed the ERA on the grounds that it should not be a Constitutional Amendment.19 This anti-ERA position was characteristic of the Right’s historical opposition to civil rights and women’s rights; in fact, the rights of many, such as lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender people, Native Americans, and immigrants.
For decades, the Right has argued that the Constitution supports “states’ rights”-the idea that the federal government has very limited authority vis-Ã -vis the states and that most decisions should (constitutionally) stay at the state level. Journalist Michael Lind identifies two conservative arguments for states’ rights: that individual liberty is best protected in a system of strong states and weak central government, and that states serve as excellent incubators of creative ideas – “laboratories for democracy.”20Critics of the Right have often noted that rightists suspend these arguments when they argue for a federal ban on abortion or a constitutional amendment to ban the burning of the U.S. flag, to impose mandatory annual standardized tests in all public schools, or most recently, to overturn the decision of the Florida Supreme Court to recount votes in the 2000 presidential election.
Altogether, the “states’ rights” slogan has an ignoble history. White segregationists raised it time and time again in the South during the 1960s to justify opposing desegregation. At that point, many who led the states’ rights opposition were Southern Democrats. Resisting desegregation of Southern schools, Old Rightist George Wallace stood blocking the steps to a schoolhouse door in Macon County in 1963, defying federal marshals in the name of states’ rights. At his 1963 inauguration as Alabama’s Governor, Wallace declared “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” “States’ rights” was widely used as code for “white rights” and Southern politicians invoked it when the states’ white power structures opposed federal anti-racist policies.
State legislatures are most often more conservative than is Congress. When, under the banner of states’ rights, power is passed from the federal government to the states, the result is usually a more conservative exercise of that power. So, when the protection of the rights of unpopular groups is handed to the states, the states are likely to follow their own more conservative social and political attitudes. Providing rights to groups that are out of favor can become virtually voluntary. For instance, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are unevenly protected across states. When block grants pass decision-making on the use and availability of federal funds to the states, the rights of welfare recipients and prisoners are unevenly protected. Each state determines its own level of “tolerance.” In this case, as in many others, states’ rights allow states to preserve their “right” to discriminate.
The New Right’s leadership seldom met a civil rights gain it didn’t attempt to roll back, understanding that many white Americans tired of policies and programs that explicitly challenged racism. So the New Right retained the Old Right’s use of the states’ rights argument to oppose any broadening of rights and protections for people of color, thus courting those white Republicans who had changed party affiliation from Democratic to Republican when they perceived the Democratic Party to have moved leftward. Much of that perception stemmed from the Democratic Party’s pro-civil rights stands. The defection of large number of Democrats ended the Democratic Party’s dominance in the South, while the Right’s policy agenda from the 1970s to the present time reflects a camouflaged white supremacism that belies its claim to have shed the racism of the Old Right.
The “Colorblind” Paradigm
The New Right’s leadership crafted a rationale for its “benign neglect” of civil rights enforcement and its trust in the states to police civil rights enforcement. This rationale, adopted and promoted by the Reagan Administration, differed from the Old Right’s white supremacist position and provided a new analysis of race in America. In books and speeches throughout the 1980s, the leaders and ideologues of the New Right “embraced” the civil rights movement, claiming that, thanks to the civil rights movement, legal segregation was now overturned. This was in keeping with a widespread acceptance among whites that segregation’s time had passed and it should not be restored. Asserting that the civil rights movement had accomplished its goals, the New Right opposed programs developed in the course of that correction as irrelevant and, in most cases, unfair to white people in the present “post-civil rights” period in which there is “no longer racial discrimination.” The only fair current policies, therefore, are “colorblind” ones that do not unfairly discriminate against whites.
The Right’s claim that racial discrimination is a thing of the past serves as a sleight of hand that masks its attack on civil rights. Republican rightists in the House and Senate resisted the reauthorization of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by claiming that it was no longer needed. Similarly, rightists during the Reagan Administration popularized the argument that affirmative action resulted in the unfair treatment of whites. Nathan Glazer and other neoconservative rightists argued that, because affirmative action was “discriminatory,” it was contrary to the goals of the civil rights movement.21 By claiming that racial discrimination was a thing of the past, Glazer turned the civil rights argument for fairness and equality on its head – a common right-wing strategy. To this day, the attack on affirmative action is mounted on the basis of “colorblind fairness.”22
Opposing Civil Rights
But the actions and non-actions of the Reagan Administration demonstrate a far deeper anti-civil rights agenda. Reagan was lukewarm to the idea of a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday; he signed a bill in 1983 only after much public pressure and two major civil rights marches. His foreign policy initiatives in U.S, relations with South Africa reflected a soft approach to apartheid, pressuring for “constructive engagement” instead of a strategy of stronger economic sanctions to oppose it. For five years Reagan resisted sanctions legislation. Even when a sanctions bill finally passed in 1986, he vetoed it, only to have Congress override his veto. These are just some of the negative, stonewalling policies that the Reagan-era New Right pursued in the area of civil rights.
New Rightists filled the bureaucracy of the Reagan Administration and gutted the federal government’s bastions of equal protection-the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Justice Department’s Division of Civil Rights, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Under the leadership of Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, the Civil Rights Division abandoned its practice of entertaining charges of systemic discrimination. At the EEOC, Chairman Clarence Thomas failed to pursue 1,700 complaints of race and gender discrimination and did not pursue class action suits. Reagan appointee Linda Chavez, who recently withdrew as George W. Bush’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, headed the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights from 1983 to 1985. Chavez reversed the Commission’s gains dramatically, decreased its productivity, and marched lockstep with Reagan’s anti-civil rights agenda. In 1982, presidential advisor Edwin Meese III led a drive within the Administration to restore tax-exempt status to racially segregated schools and colleges that resulted in an official announcement that tax-exemption would be granted. The furious objection of civil rights leaders forced the Administration to reverse this decision. 23
In addition to blocking civil rights enforcement, the Right has used the “colorblind” rationale to justify a number of proactive anti-civil rights initiatives. For example, the Republican right wing has targeted civil rights and anti-poverty programs for annihilation. Often the Right calls the attack a “reform,” such as the Right’s “welfare reform” campaign. In this case, the Right mobilized public anger against the expenditure of (white) taxpayer money to support the poor by stereotyping welfare recipients as “welfare queens” who were described as lazy, sexually promiscuous, immoral, and cheating the taxpayers who fed them.24 Right-wing welfare opponents nearly always depicted the stereotyped “welfare queen” as a Black woman, although African American women were 37% of welfare recipients. 25
Rightist Senators and Representatives have relied on a number of books to justify cuts that shredded the poverty programs, including: George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty (1981); Charles Murray’s Losing Ground (1984); Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism (1995); and the late Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994). Funded by conservative backers and aggressively marketed to conservative audiences as scholarly research, these books received wide attention from the mainstream press. Gilder and Murray developed the right-wing argument that poverty programs do more harm than good in poor communities (read “communities of color”) by fostering dependency and a sense of victimization. The Bell Curve made the case for the far right message of white superiority.
The success of these right-wing ideologues is due not to their scholarship, which has been systematically discredited, but to the timeliness of their publications. Theirs are politically expedient, not objectively researched, works that appeared when needed to support and justify the successful campaigns mounted by rightist Republicans and conservative Democrats to dismantle affirmative action, compensatory education and public welfare programs. Their analysis allows whites to focus on liberal policies and on the poor themselves as the sources of social problems, rather than on racism, redlining, the relocation of jobs to the suburbs, and on substandard housing, poor educational facilities, or other institutional causes of poverty.
Opposing Immigrant Rights
In several other areas, the New Right and the Reagan Administration attacked the civil rights gains of people of color while claiming not to be racist and to speak for “the people.” The Right both spawned and supported a number of anti-immigrant groups such as the American Immigration Control Foundation (AICF), The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Carrying Capacity Network, Americans for Border Control (ABC), and The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). Using images of immigrants of color as a code to communicate racist messages, these well-financed organizations have been effective in increasing anti-immigrant prejudices by promoting scapegoating and stereotyping of immigrants of color. Their messages include: immigrants are not assimilating; they are often criminals; and they have too many children, and so harm the environment and disproportionately use social services, paid for by white Americans.26
In 1994 Alan Nelson, a former Director under Reagan of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), authored California’s Proposition 187, mandating that teachers, doctors, social workers, and police check the immigration status of all persons seeking access to publicly funded education and health services and deny services to undocumented immigrants. The Proposition passed, with backing from a local organization called Save Our State (SOS). The campaign for Proposition 187 was closely tied to the reelection campaign of conservative Republican Governor Pete Wilson.
The Right’s anti-immigrant sentiment swept into Congress in 1994 with the arrival of a Republican majority headed by Representative Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and his “Contract With America.” In 1996, a “new Republican”-controlled Congress enacted three laws that directly affected immigrants, 85% of whom are people of color: the Illegal Immigration Control and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA or the “Welfare Reform Act”), and the Anti-Terrorist and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). In each case, legal as well as undocumented immigrants were stripped of individual rights and benefits. PRWORA eliminated Social Security and food stamps for all immigrantlegal permanent residents. The law further authorized states to deny Medicaid, Title XX Social Services, and any state-funded aid to legal permanent residents.
IIRIRA reiterated the authority of the INS to deport longtime legal immigrants for minor crimes, committed before the Act had passed and for which they had already served time. It also denied immigrants access to the federal courts to have their cases heard before a federal immigration judge, thus denying them their right to due process. And AEDPA imposed mandatory detention and deportation of any long-term permanent legal resident immigrants who had been convicted of, or had served time for, any drug offense, including past offenses. The government may apply these punishments on the basis of evidence labeled as “classified,” that neither immigrants nor their attorneys are permitted to examine. As with IIRIRA, the right to judicial review is eliminated.
Immigrants’ rights groups have organized the “Fix ’96” campaign to reverse some of the three 1996 Acts’ most outrageous measures. The Agriculture Research Act of 1998 has restored food stamp benefits to roughly 250,000 low-income children, and elderly and disabled immigrants. In October 1998, Congress restored SSI and Medicaid eligibility to about 12,000 elderly and disabled immigrants. No other bills, designed to restore full benefits to affected immigrants, have yet been enacted.27
The anti-immigrant rights groups mentioned here work closely with other right-wing groups, such as U.S. English and English First, which work to promote English as the only official U.S. language. Legislation has been passed in 26 states declaring English to be the official state language. Often these laws are largely symbolic. However, California millionaire activist Ron Unz has provided exceptional leadership and money in promoting opposition to bilingual education. His support was crucial in California to the 1998 passage of Proposition 227, virtually outlawing bilingual education, by providing that all children shall be taught in English, with sheltered immersion to last no longer than one year. In 2000, a second proposition banning bilingual education was passed in Arizona. Titled “English for the Children,” Proposition 203 was 99% funded by Ron Unz.28
The Right has mounted other attacks on those it wants to exclude from society, especially “criminals.” Beginning with the Reagan Administration, the Right has pursued, and won, support for a policy of rolling back individual protections in the criminal justice system. First under the banner of “law and order,” then under the banner of “the war on drugs” rightists have promoted policies that erode the rights of criminal defendants, impose mandatory sentences such as “three strikes and you’re out” laws, and, most recently, attempt to reverse the mandatory requirement of Miranda warnings. Although all of these policies disproportionately harm people of color, the Right asserts that they have nothing to do with race. An example is the imposition of the death penalty, which the Right has encouraged at every turn, despite compelling evidence that it is administered in a racially biased way.29
Over time, opponents of civil rights legislation have whittled away at attempts to correct voting inequities. The 1982 Voting Rights Act required the creation of new congressional districts to enable more racial minorities to elect candidates of their choice. These “majority-minority” districts made it possible for 17 new Black Representatives to be elected to the U.S. Congress in 1992, mostly from the South. Almost immediately, opponents to the creation of these new districts began to file suits in federal court, and by 1996, the courts had declared many of these district boundaries unconstitutional, which threatened election schedules and confused and angered Black voters. When many incumbent Blacks succeeded in getting re-elected in their new, white-majority districts, rightist critics made the spurious claim that this meant “majority-minority” districts were unnecessary. Despite these attempts, a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision declared such redistricting was allowable if done for political, not racial, motives, and the redistricting stands.30
Reining In the Independent Judiciary
One of the most insidious of the Right’s campaigns has been its support for the appointment and election of federal and state judges who support its conservative “colorblind” agenda. The Right attacks judges who hand down decisions that it opposes, using the code phrase “judicial activism” to smear judicial opinions it deems too liberal. Opponents of “judicial activism” include Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation. Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition is equally active in opposing appointments of candidates based on their political beliefs. The Eagle Forum called Bonnie Campbell of Iowa, “rabidly pro-abortion, feminist and anti-Christian.” John Nowacki of the Free Congress Foundation accused Marsha Berzon, Justice William Brennan’s first female clerk, of being a “self-described believer in the labor movement.” Then- Senator John Ashcroft successfully blocked African-American Ronnie White’s confirmation, misrepresenting his views on capital punishment by labeling White “pro-criminal.” 31
On the other hand, The Christian Coalition has promoted the election of judges who are anti-abortion and pro-Christian. The Alabama Christian Coalition supported the appointment, as a circuit judge in Alabama, of Roy Moore, who made headlines by displaying a redwood tablet of the Ten Commandments behind his bench. In 2000, the Alabama Christian Coalition again promoted him in his successful bid for election as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
When narrow political litmus tests are applied in judicial appointments, the judiciary’s decisions begin to reflect the opinions and attitudes of those who hold the power of appointment, rather than reflecting careful and considered judgments of the legal issues at hand. We have recently witnessed the consequence of ultraconservative appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, when the Court handed down a 5-4 decision in the case of Bush v. Gore (the presidential election vote-count decision), a decision that was criticized as politically motivated by many legal scholars and by Justice Stevens in his dissent.
As part of the Right’s campaign to shape and control the judiciary’s ideology, right-wing Senators systematically blocked the confirmation of President Bill Clinton’s judicial appointments, and thereby created a severe shortage of judges. Ralph G. Neas, President of The People for the American Way Foundation, has noted that the Right has disproportionately blocked nominations of white women and people of color to the judiciary; these appointments often languished for years without even getting a hearing. “Senator Jesse Helms,” Neas notes, “has blocked a series of African American nominees to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has never had a non-white judge.” 32
In 1995 the Right led an attack on the independence of the federal courts by successfully shepherding through Congress the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which placed limits on the discretion of the federal courts in their role as overseer of prisoners’ rights. In many prisoners’ rights cases, prisoners are seeking redress for violations involving rape and sexual abuse, physical abuse, squalid conditions, and lack of medical care in prison. Here again, when the ACLU challenged this provision before the Supreme Court, the Court’s conservative majority upheld it.33And, as mentioned above, Congress disallowed federal immigration judges from considering deportation cases under the Illegal Immigration Control and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA).
Perhaps the most egregious example of judicial interference are the “three strikes and you’re out” laws. Supplementing the little-used federal three strikes law, the Right has promoted the far more dangerous state-level three strikes laws now on the books in 26 states. In California, where the law is most indiscriminate, a prison term of 25 years to life is mandatory for any third crime after convictions for two felonies. Many crimes, including petty theft and assault, can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies, giving prosecutors, not judges, discretion in sentencing in these cases. Trial judges are thus required to impose unjust punishments that violate common sense and their own judicial judgment.
As is true of much of the judicial and prison systems, the three strikes laws disproportionately harm people of color. A recent study of the effects of California’s three-strikes law noted that African Americans account for half of all three-strikes sentences, although they represent only about 12 percent of the population.34
Redistributing Wealth – Upward
For most Americans, and internationally, “democracy” suggests a large middle class, created and sustained by a system of equal economic opportunity. The middle class outnumbers both the working poor and the very wealthy, but also dominates the cultural life of U.S. television, radio and print media, where middle class Americans tend to have relatively stable jobs and own their own homes or apartments, as well as a television, car and other symbols of economic security.
In many ways, this snapshot of the middle class has become a myth, as many “middle class” people must now work two or more jobs to maintain their lifestyle. They may lack health insurance, daycare for their children, or the means to send their children to college. They may live on credit card debt and have little or no savings. But the predominance of the myth of the middle class has given U.S. democracy a somewhat undeserved reputation as a place with, unlike many other countries, a relatively equal distribution of wealth. The U.S. is “democratic” because, though some are poor and some are very wealthy, the vast majority of people are middle class.
Here again, the Right has a consistent record of opposing the relative economic equality associated with democracy by promoting policies that increase the gap between the rich and the poor and favor the wealthy and business/industrial/corporate interests. The Reagan Administration devoted nearly two of its eight years in office to restructuring the tax code. By lowering the taxes of the wealthy and drastically reducing most corporate taxes, it made taxes far less progressive than they had been under President Jimmy Carter. Breaks for poor people, introduced by Democratic administrations to help moderate the economic gap between the poor and the middle class – such as federally subsidized housing and general relief welfare programs – came under attack from the Right and were, for the most part, eliminated.
The Reagan Administration implemented the famous “trickle-down” theory, which asserted that if businesses, corporations, and upper-income people prosper, the prosperity will “trickle down” to the middle class and the working poor through better jobs and higher wages. The Administration used the theory to justify its tax breaks for the rich and corporations, who allegedly would spend their new-found money in ways that would stimulate the economy and benefit all. The actual result defied the theory. The federal debt nearly tripled, creating a sucker punch aimed at the poor and the working poor. The huge deficits created by the tax cuts made it “necessary” to cut existing social programs intended to address those most in need, and to decrease the economic gap between rich and poor. Instead that gap dramatically increased.
The Right’s leaders argue that its policies created the 1990’s economic boom and that, as a movement, it is responsible for freeing the economy from government control and allowing the market to do a far better job of regulating the economy and creating prosperity than any government intervention could do. But privatization and deregulation disproportionately benefit owners and severely curtail the government’s ability to monitor private economic activity for its negative effect on non-owners. The result is to give free rein to private-sector pursuit of corporate profits.
Promoting Privatization and Deregulation
Privatization and deregulation have been among the Right’s most anti-democratic legacies, and have been largely accomplished with the complicity of centrists and even liberal Democrats. An excellent example of the Right’s attack on the federal government’s power to look after the greater public welfare is the 1996 Telecommunications Act, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton. The bill’s stated intent was to support competition by suspending government regulation in the telephone and broadcasting industries. The causal link between suspending government regulation and unleashing competition rests on the bogus idea that deregulation is anti-monopolistic and creates increased competition; it thereby ultimately lowers prices and benefits the consumer. But, as most often results from deregulation, a spate of buyouts and mergers occurred, creating in 2001 less competition and higher telephone and cable rates.
The airwaves were, until recently, considered to belong to the public. Because they were in the “public domain,” the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulated them with an eye to the public good. So, in 1982, when advocacy groups for people of color pointed out that only a minuscule number of people of color are awarded licenses (giving access to the airwaves), the FCC was able to respond with regulations making access to the airwaves easier for owners who were people of color who were serving their communities. However, in the earliest days of the George W. Bush Administration, Michael Powell, Chairman of the FCC, announced his plans for the agency. Michael Powell is General Colin Powell’s son and in his job oversees the public airwaves, including radio and television and also telephone and cable services. In keeping with the Right’s advocacy of unfettered free market capitalism, Michael Powell announced a policy of still further deregulation, asserting that the free market is the best regulator and that he, as Chairman, wants to “remove uncertainty from the marketplace” by reviewing more quickly big mergers and other matters. He has abandoned all efforts to promote diverse programming and any efforts to promote competition by requiring that cable systems remain open to use by competitors.35
The Right rationalizes its commitment to eliminating any government role in the free market by asserting that the free market is more democratic than are democratically elected governments. And, by the early 21st century, this has become centrist economic orthodoxy. Milton Friedman, the grandfather of free market libertarianism and, for decades, the country’s leading right-wing economist, is now arguably the country’s most influential economist. Calling this dominant economic ideology “economic populism,” author Thomas Frank describes in detail how the extreme capitalism of the Right has become accepted as democratic, when in fact it represents the end of economic democracy.36
Several myths now dominate public consciousness and promote the illusion that the capitalist free market is democratic. Most often-repeated is the notion that stock ownership has become so widespread as to be almost universal and that, because of its rise during the 1990s, it has accomplished a redistribution of wealth that has been far more efficient than any monetary program the federal government could have implemented. By asserting that the average wage-earner, even when suffering from stagnant wages, has benefited from the escalating stock market, the Right claims that spreading the wealth through stockownership represents economic democracy through investing. The facts, however, belie such assertions. The richest 10% in the U.S. now own nearly 80% of all stocks, mutual funds and retirement accounts. And since this same group owns over 70% of the net worth in this country, one could hardly argue that stock ownership has made a dent in the unequal distribution of wealth.37 Nevertheless, Conservative media commentators and Republican policy strategists tout stock options as the “best” employment benefits, noting that, while job security may be shaky, the stock market is trustworthy and will continue to deliver profits.
A complement to the idea that stocks are now so widely owned that a rising market benefits most workers is the idea that unions, which “force” workers to contribute to no-option pension systems, are, by contrast, anti-democratic. Rightist commentators assert that in the stock market one has complete freedom and is master of one’s own fate, whereas in unions the workers must give up freedom by conforming to the majority’s will, and paying for the privilege to boot. According to the Right, it is not the union that will provide protection through militancy and collective worker solidarity, but the free market and the corporations that, by their profits, are the best means to protect the individual from exploitation.
But the truth about our just-ended economic boom tells another story. The growing economic gap between the haves and have-nots in the U.S. is indisputable. Between 1977 and 1999, the family after-tax income for the top 1% grew by 115%, while the bottom 20% watched their incomes decline by 9%. Between 1990 and 1998, the average weekly earnings of production workers in the U.S. rose 6% above inflation, while the pay for CEOs rose 420%.38
An economy with such multiple indicators of vast inequality does not resemble the myth of American democracy as a system that fosters economic equality. The Right favors the notion of “equal opportunity” within a free market system, asserting that the free market is the great economic equalizer. But the right-wing view of the free market as the great equalizer is almost entirely mythical. When there is no safety net and human service programs are cut to the bone, “equal opportunity” becomes a sham. When each individual is entirely responsible for his or her own fortunes, the economic system becomes one in which the most able, well-connected, and ruthless prosper. It is a formula for survival of the most powerful. Relying on the free market as the only method of the distribution of wealth harms economic democracy.
Individual Liberties – For Some
Shortly after the states adopted the Constitution, its first ten amendments were ratified by a 2/3 majority of the states in 1791. This Bill of Rights was inspired and supported by Thomas Jefferson and written by James Madison. The language of the Bill of Rights guarantees protection for individuals from a number of possible abuses of power by the federal government. It represents was both a reaction to the authority exercised by the British government over the colonists and the vision of the Constitution’s early writers, who wanted to avoid creating a governmental authority that could act without the “consent of the people.” The Bill of Rights, unlike the Constitution, spells out what the government cannot do.
The Bill of Rights guarantees protection from unreasonable searches and seizures; it guarantees the right to religious freedom, as well as other freedoms such as freedom of speech and the press, freedom to assemble, and protection from being tried twice for the same crime. It also guarantees rights, such as the right to a speedy public trial and to a lawyer.39 The Second Amendment also provides “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”40 The value of these freedoms is obvious for those, especially white, middle- and upper-class people, who enjoy in everyday life the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. But not all Americans benefit equally from the Bill of Rights. Social justice activists are constantly fighting against the curtailment of the rights of marginalized and less powerful people. They work to expand democracy so that it stretches to provide protection and guaranteed rights to everyone.
In a number of different ways, the Right has chipped away at those freedoms during its two decades of political success. Two examples of the erosion of individual freedoms and rights are especially noteworthy: its campaign to severely limit the right of individuals to sue for redress of grievances, euphemistically known as “tort reform;” and the widespread denial of the right of ex-prisoners to vote.
“Tort reform” is a concept promoted by the Right in response to what its leaders maintain is an “explosion” of litigation filed by consumers to redress grievances against private businesses and corporations. In response, tort reform legislation has tilted civil courts from a focus on protecting the rights of consumers to protecting the profits of business and industry. In a review of tort reform legislation published in Trial Magazine in August, 2000, Roselyn Bonanti discusses six areas in which business and industry have been granted protection from civil suits by consumers: laws that shield the gun industry from liability (passed in 19 states and pending in 25 more); laws that allow insurance companies to shield their internal audits from public disclosure (passed in three states and pending in 20 more); laws that deny full access to the courts for uninsured drivers involved in automobile accidents, no matter who was at fault (passed in five states and pending in seven more); and laws that protect tobacco companies from being required to post a bond in suits filed against them in a state other than their home state¾ called “foreign punitive judgments legislation” (passed in five states).41Rightist organizations have put time, energy, and money into this kind of tort reform, funded to a large extent by right-wing funder James Leininger from Texas.
Public outcry has been muted, partly because the issues under debate in tort reform laws are often technical and unclear to the average person; and partly because people have been falsely convinced that there is a “blizzard” of civil suits based on unfounded charges resulting in huge, undeserved monetary settlements. But in cases where a company’s culpability is clear, the public has demanded accountability. For example, an increasing number of laws now ensure accountability from HMOs and PPOs by protecting the right of consumers to sue for malpractice (passed in nine states and pending in 26 others).
Felony Convictions and Voting Rights
Another example of the Right’s anti-democratic campaigns to limit the rights of individuals (in this case, voting rights) are their efforts to establish “law and order” legislation and to legislate a “war on drugs.” These dual efforts have resulted in a record number of felony convictions, many of them for relatively minor drug offenses. And, arrest rates for drug offenses are six times higher for African Americans than for whites, even though their drug use rates are virtually the same.42 In 14 states a felony conviction deprives ex-prisoners or parolees of the right to vote during their entire lifetime, the rate of Black voter disenfranchisement is seven times the national average. Almost three-quarters of the felons who are thus disenfranchised are either on probation or have completed their sentences. Here the Right has won support with a “tough on crime” message that has consequences both for individual rights and for racial justice.
In a recent study conducted jointly by Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, the authors conclude,
[T]he restrictions on voting by ex-felons clash with longstanding notions of justice -f that once offenders have paid their debt to society, they are free to resume a normal life in the community. Even denying the right to vote to prisoners is problematic. No other country bars ex-offenders from voting for life or has such a significant percentage of its citizens who cannot vote as a result of felony convictions.43
Separation of Church and State
The Right has long opposed these guarantees of separation of church and state contained in the First Amendment. This Amendment has two parts: it guarantees the freedom to practice any religion (the free exercise clause) and offers protection against enforcement of any state religion (the establishment clause). The Christian Right, whose political clout dramatically increased in the 1980s and 1990s, has demanded that an array of Christian religious expressions be permitted in public spaces, such as: prayer in schools; federal aid for private Christian schools and colleges; prohibition of teaching about evolution and comprehensive sexuality in schools; religious manifestations in public places, such as the hanging of the Ten Commandments or the display of a nativity scene at Christmas; and retaining references to God in state mottos. Going even further, it has promoted the slogan “America is a Christian country.”
The Christian Right has organized and mobilized public ire over the prohibition of prayer in public schools, which dates to a 1962 decision, Engel v. Natale, in which the Supreme Court declared school prayer in public schools to be unconstitutional. Along with opposition to abortion, school prayer has been a centerpiece of the Right’s agenda. In both instances, the Right’s organizers have camouflaged the Christian religious basis of the campaigns. By arguing for a “moment of silence” in the classroom, Christian Right strategists claim that such an observation does not constitute a public expression of religion. In a similar view, anti-abortion activists now discuss abortion in terms of taking a life rather than as a religious prohibition.
In many instances, Congressional Democrats and moderate Republicans have thwarted the Right in its efforts to violate First Amendment guarantees regarding the separation of church and state. The proposal to pass a school prayer amendment to the Constitution has never gained substantial support. But with the election of George W. Bush and his appointment of Christian Right activist John Ashcroft as Attorney General, a Republican majority in the House, and the establishment of a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the Right is preparing to mount a new and more subtle challenge to the separation of church and state. President Bush has long stated his support for government support of faith-based groups working in the private sector. Titled “Charitable Choice,” this program has already been sanctioned on a small scale by Congressional legislation, and will likely become a major focus of the Bush Administration’s human services funding. It will open the floodgates of federal funding for religiously-affiliated charitable programs and would represent a major boon to some religious organizations. The threat to the separation of church and state arises not from the funding itself, but from the possibility that faith-based organizations may be allowed to discriminate while using those funds. This is a concern to conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christian charities, who fear being forced to violate their religious prohibitions on supporting gay and lesbian people or women who seek an abortion by the non-discrimination requirements of government funding. Suspending non-discrimination rules in the case of these faith-based government grants would represent an important erosion of the wall of separation between church and state.44
Current Strains on Democracy
The resurgence of a powerful right wing has had an enormous impact on what government does for people and what people can rightfully expect from our government. But other factors are also stressing U.S. democracy and its ability to serve all of us. Struggling with old and new prejudices, our culture continues to suffer from persistent racism, sexism and homophobia. The increasing globalization of our economic system and the technologies that support it put strains on how we think about doing business, and, indeed, challenge the very notion of a sovereign state. As we move towards a monopoly media, we lose the benefits of lively, accessible debate that are so essential to a successful democracy. The inability of centrist, liberal, and progressive forces to command widespread support and to say clearly what their core values and vision really are also contribute to a lack of real alternatives for the voting public. While the Right did not invent these phenomena, it has certainly learned how to capitalize on them.
One damaging outcome of the right’s political dominance has been the increasing acceptance of private profit as a measure of virtue and worth. The current emphasis on consumerism and the accumulation of wealth is a direct result of the Right’s libertarian message that any person can “make it” in U.S. society, and that those who do not lack individual responsibility and self-discipline. By exalting the private accumulation of money and things and downplaying the public sector and public service, the Right spreads its central theme that the most desirable and fair system is the capitalist system of free market, private property rights, and a weak government.
Looking at these instances of the Right’s recent choices of issues and tactics we have seen clearly that the Right is anti-democratic. Its agenda is to shrink democracy by severely limiting government’s ability to provide social services, by allowing big monied interests to control elections and influence our representatives, by rolling back the gains of a range of human rights movements, and by undermining judicial independence. The Right seeks to weaken the separation of church and state and to limit individuals’ rights to seek redress for grievances. As the George W. Bush Administration completes and surpasses the agenda of the Reagan Administration, we will see a further contraction of democracy and more and more people placed “outside the fence.”
This should not come as a surprise. The Right’s leadership has openly advertised its vision for the future of the country for over twenty years. The examples listed here are only some of the ways in which the Right is challenging democratic principles and practice. There are, unfortunately, many more. The Right is moving ahead on many fronts simultaneously, and this assault affects us everywhere, in our city halls, schools, courts, homes, and wallets. While it is valuable to acknowledge our separate situations, it is also useful to recognize the connections across the issues that concern us, remembering the adage that an attack on one is an attack on all. Often we do see how each aspect of prejudice unchecked interferes with liberation for everyone. The Right understands this, and strategically connects its campaigns addressing race, gender and sexual orientation under the umbrella of promoting “traditional family values.” This strategy allows for an attack on one group to spill over and affect other groups.
Today’s right wing is firmly embedded in the center of the Republican Party, welcomed in by the language of “a better future for the average person” and wrapped in the colors of the flag. If we continue to uncover the anti-democratic trends of the Right, we can see that although the rhetoric and tactics of the Old Right have changed, much of its legacy remains, and not just in the militant cries from the far right. We need to see the Right’s agenda very clearly, identify its anti-democratic core, and challenge its campaigns as they appear. That way, we will be able to reassert the vision of an expanded democracy that reflects a commitment to meet the needs of us all.
Jean Hardisty would like to thank Pam Chamberlain and Betty Furdon for research assistance; and for editing assistance, Elly Bulkin, Nikhil Aziz, Denise Bergman, Kate Cloud, Ruth Hubbard, Rosario Morales, Mitra Rastegar, and Sunny Robinson.
- Because the Right has demonized these terms, we need to define them for ourselves again. Here we use the term “liberal” to refer to those who favor the reform of social and economic inequities and “progressive” to describe those who once called themselves leftists, those who seek more radical change. Using these definitions, a progressive perspective informs this article.
- Over two hundred years later, reforms to the Constitution, beginning with the Bill of Rights, have expanded suffrage and created, in theory, additional protections and guarantees for most citizens. This expansion of rights has required numerous amendments, including: the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1865), prohibiting slavery in the United States; the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), guaranteeing the right to vote to all men, without regard to race, color, or previous condition of servitude; the Nineteenth Amendment (1920), extending the right to vote to women; and the Twenty-Fourth Amendment (1964), forbidding poll taxes that were used primarily to prevent African Americans from voting.
- In the United States, the understanding of the theory of democracy stems from the writings of Benedict de Spinoza, a 17thcentury Dutch theorist of democracy; John Locke, a British philosopher who wrote about democratic self-government as a political ideal; and John Stuart Mill, 19th century English economist and political theorist who expanded Locke’s ideas to include individual freedoms. See: Benedict de Spinoza, A Political Treatise (1677); John Locke, Two Treatises on Government (1690); and John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859). Modern democratic theorists have updated the work of these thinkers and have identified race and gender as illegitimate criteria for excluding a person from his or her democratic rights.
- For a discussion of this expanded view of democracy, see: Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty” in Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969).
- This view of democracy was described in detail (and approvingly) by Robert Dahl in his book, Polyarchy. The working definition of polyarchy is: officials, chosen fairly through elections, make policy decisions on behalf of citizens they represent. This view of democracy is widely accepted throughout academia and in the State Department’s classification of third world countries as “democracies.”
- “If the people are corrupt, the more democracy, the worse the government.” Patrick Buchanan, Washington Inquirer, January 18, 1991.
- Though most of the New Right’s leaders were young Republicans who had been burned by the failed candidacy of Barry Goldwater, oldtimer William F. Buckley, Jr. played a central role in crafting a “fusion” politics that united several conservative ideologies.
- Richard Viguerie, The New Right: We’re Ready to Lead! (Falls Church, VA: The Viguerie Company, 1980), 214.
- Paul Weyrich, one of the most prominent New Right leaders, wrote in March 1984, “Conservative in the black community means racist and that is understandable. The leadership on the right, however, bears no resemblance to the reactionary Southern icons of the past…. I am sure there are people who call themselves conservatives who are prejudiced. But the leaders are far from it.” Paul Weyrich, “It Would Help If They Really Knew Us.” Conservative Digest, vol. 10, no. 3 (March, 1984), 44.
- Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford Press, 2000), 227.
- David S. Broder, Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money (New York: Harcourt Brace, 2000), 1-21.
- Shaun Bowler and Todd Donovan, Demanding Choices: Opinion, Voting, and Direct Democracy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 165-73.
- Jack Citrin, “Who’s the Boss? Direct Democracy and Popular Control of Government,” in: Stephen Craig, ed., Broken Contract/ Changing Relationships Between Americans and Their Government (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), 268-93; and Clarence Lo, Small Property Versus Big Government (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), xi, xiv.
- Daniel A. Smith, Tax Crusaders (New York: Routledge, 1998).
- Between 1981 and 1999 about ¼ of all ballot initiatives were explicitly conservative, with 12 specifically rights-depriving initiatives mounted during that time. Compiled from information available at: www.iandrininstitute.org, accessed on 8/25/00.
- Micah L. Sifry, “How Money in Politics Hurts You,” Dollars and Sense, no. 230 (July/August, 2000), 17-20.
- Soft money is unregulated contributions not intended to support individual candidates but to promote “party building” and other general campaign activities. It can be given in unlimited amounts.
- Primaries and final elections differ. Individual candidates receive matching funds in federal primary elections if they raise $5000 in each of 20 states. Political parties receive matching funds if they make a showing of 5% or better in the previous presidential election.
- George Gallup, “ERA Draws Increasing Support,” Washington Post, August 9, 1981.
- Michael Lind, Up From Conservatism: Why The Right is Wrong for America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 215.
- Nathan Glazer, Affirmative Discrimination (New York: Basic Books, 1975).
- In 1998 Glazer entered the public debate again, with his book We Are All Multiculturalists Now (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), defending affirmative action with the very arguments he had rejected and disdained in Affirmative Discrimination.
- Martin Schram and Charles R. Babcock, “Reagan Advisors Missed School Case Sensitivity; White House Saw Legalistics, Not Sensitivity of School Policy.” Washington Post, January 17, 1982, A1. For coverage of the Supreme Court decision overturning the policy, see: Juan Williams, “Administration and the Tax Exemption Ruling: Decision Giving IRS the Power to Set Status Has ‘Ominous’ Implications, Reynolds Says.” Washington Post, May 30, 1983, p. A3.
- The chronology of the development and marketing of this stereotype by right wing organizations is documented in Lucy Williams, “Decades of Distortion: The Right’s 30 Year Assault on Welfare.” Somerville, MA: Political Research Associates, 1997. Also see: Gwendolyn Mink, ed., Whose Welfare? (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).
- Staff of House Committee on Ways and Means, 104th Cong., 2nd Session., “Background Material and Data on Programs Within the Jurisdiction of the Comm. On Ways and Means,”1996, 474.
- Doug Brugge, “Pulling Up The Ladder: The Anti-Immigrant Backlash.” The Public Eye (vol. IX, no. 2, Summer, 199), 1-10.
- Refugee Reports, vol. 20, no. 11 (1999).
- James Crawford, “Bilingual Education: Strike Two” Rethinking Schools, vol. 15, no. 2 (Winter 2000/2001), 3,8. Also see: Crawford, Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory and Practice (Bilingual Education Services, 4th ed., 1999); and Crawford,At War With Diversity: U.S. Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety (Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2000).
- One classic article is David C. Baldus, Charles Pulaski, and George Woodworth, “Comparative Review of Death Sentences: An Empirical Study of the Georgia Experience,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 74 (fall 1983): 661-753.
- Hunt v. Cromatie, US 99-1894, decided April 18, 2001, slip opinion.
- “The Imperial President Bequeaths America an Imperial Judiciary,” Court Alert, March 19, 2001,www.eagleforum.org/court_watch/alerts/2001/3-19-01; “Senate Confirms Controversial Judicial Nominees,” Free Congress Commentary, March 10, 2000, www.freecongress.org/press/offpress /000310jnfcc.htm; “Judicial Nominations Recent Actions,”Civil Rights Monitor, Vol.11, no. 3, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights,www.civilrights.org/crlibrary/monitor/vol11_no3/art4p1.html. Accessed May 25, 2001.
- Speech by Ralph Neas before the American Trial Lawyers Association, August 1, 2000, titled: “Race, Civil Rights and the United States Supreme Court in the New Millennium.” Available at www.pfaw.org/about/neas-civil rights-court-000801.
- See the court decision U.S. v French et al., consolidated with Miller v. French et al., Nos. 99-224 and 99-582 respectively. Available online at http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/99-224.ZS.html.
- Mark Riley, “Tough Approach Strikes Out in U.S.,” Sidney Morning Herald, Feb. 18, 2000.
- Stephen Labaton, “New F.C.C. Chief Would Curb Agency Reach,” New York Times, 2/7/01, C1. Also see: Paul Davidson, “Is Telecom Act ‘a complete failure’?”, USA Today, February 8, 2001, 3B.
- Thomas Frank, One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy (New York: Doubleday, 2000).
- Chuck Collins, Chris Hartman and Holly Sklar, “Divided Decade: Economic Disparity at the Century’s Turn,” (Boston:United for a Fair Economy, 1999), 2-4.
- Collins et. al., op cit., 8.
- This and other guarantees are applied unequally. For instance, in a 2000 case before the 5th Circuit court, the court held that a lawyer who fell asleep during his client’s death penalty trial provided adequate legal counsel. Burdine v. Johnson 99-210324.
- This is perhaps the most highly contested Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Proponents of gun control argue that, when read in context, it applies to an entirely different society than the one we now have and that, in the present time, the right to bear arms can be constitutionally limited. Opponents of gun control (including the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America) argue that the Amendment speaks for itself and should be taken at face value.
- Roselyn Bonanti, “The Status of State Tort “Reform” Legislation,” Trial Magazine, August, 2000, 28-34.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse,” www. samusa.gov. Accessed May 25, 2001. The rate of drug use for whites is 6.6%; for African Americans: 7.7%.
- Marc Mauer and Jamie Fellner, “Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States” (Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, October, 1998). Also see: Tamar Lewin, “Crime Costs Many Black Men the Vote,” New York Times, October 23, 1998, A12.
- See: “From Promise to Policy: A Discussion of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.” A press briefing sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, National Press Club, January 30, 2001. Available online at www.pewforum.org.