Last month, a nationally influential group of community builders and advocates for social, economic, and environmental justice gathered in rural Washington to address what we believe to be a critical turning point in American politics. In tribute to the great activist-philosopher, Grace Lee Boggs, we asked ourselves the question that she would often start meetings with: What time is it on the clock of the world?
Broadly speaking, the consensus is that we’re in a time of great instability, revolt, and possibility. History teaches us that in times like these, we need to be both bold and vigilant. Authoritarian, chauvinistic, and bigoted movements assert themselves most aggressively when people feel socially and economically threatened. We know the drill. We’ve lived it again and again.
But this time is different. This time, traditional sources of stability and leadership are being rejected on all sides, and people are seeking radical, or at least non-establishment, solutions. Our fear is that the Right Wing may be better positioned than we are to capitalize on this moment amongst white people – including white voters – and better positioned than ever before.
The presidential primary season makes the case that rebellion is afoot. Bernie Sanders’ strong showing seems to signal the rise of a progressive, post-Occupy electoral rebellion, especially among younger voters. Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s lock on the GOP presidential nomination seems to indicate an equal opposite of sorts. The primary election results speak to a broader, multi-dimensional rebellion against elites that threatens both major parties. That rebellion is causing old norms to fall, opening the door for a major fight over which sector will define the new normal in U.S. politics.
What Trump and Sanders supporters share is a passionate anti-elitism and deep frustration with an “establishment” viewed as having failed American workers. These competing forces appear to have the most political momentum, if not yet the numbers or resources necessary, to directly define the “middle” of national electoral politics.
Not yet is the operative term here. Beating right-wing forces to the punch will require us to bring the fight to elites and the institutions of power that they dominate, and to blunt the progress of those on the Right who are competing with us for influence over those institutions.
Eight Conditions That Make the Right Especially Dangerous Now
First, in a time when people on both ends of the political spectrum are rejecting the middle, and what many on both sides refer to as the establishment, the best organized and most compelling radical force is likely to exercise the most direct and profound influence.
We believe the Right has put itself in this position. Most right-wing groups, the Tea Parties being an especially good example, talk like conservatives, citing the “original construction and intent of the Constitution” as the template for their political agendas. But, the reality is that they’re subverting the Constitution and other symbols of middle-Americanism – everything from cowboy boots and three-cornered hats, to the founding fathers, the American Dream, and key tenets of liberalism, like liberty and individual freedom – to use as talismans in service to radically repressive, exclusionary, anti-democratic, and authoritarian agendas.
It is also notable that Bernie Sanders’ advocacy of progressive policies heretofore considered completely unviable to most establishment liberals has both directly influenced the Clinton campaign and made an opening for progressive legislators like Elizabeth Warren to expand their influence. Of course, Clinton’s candidacy represents the establishment elite, while Trump appeals to those who would reject the middle. Moreover, Trump’s advocacy of unconstitutional and anti-democratic measures is making a hard Right legislator like Ted Cruz appear almost reasonable by comparison.
Second, the Right’s immediate projected base - economically insecure, socially conservative whites - are simultaneously feeling the pinch of racial demographic change, which many view as a threat to the meaning of “American,” and bearing witness to the collapse of the middle class. The Right has popularized the idea that there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between the two. The resulting rising tide of fear and rage among many whites is lifting the hopes of white nationalist groups, some of which have “by any means necessary” approaches to political struggle.
Third, right-wing groups - ranging from those whose tactics are mainly confined to public policy and elections like the Tea Parties, to paramilitary groups who are attempting to take control of local governments through intimidation and direct action, such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters - are reading Trump’s rise as a sign that this may be their time. For some, Trump’s success is creating the impression that a European-style fascist movement such as we saw in the WWII era is viable in the United States.
The danger that right-wing paramilitary groups pose is especially serious in rural parts of the country where a collapse of investment in public infrastructure, including traditional law enforcement, is preventing local governments from providing adequate first responder services. This creates an opening for armed militias to compete for power in settings where, increasingly, whoever has the most guns has a distinct advantage. Those who jokingly dubbed the Bundy militia - which recently seized and occupied a federal bird sanctuary in Harney County, Oregon - “Vanilla ISIS” aren’t too far off the mark.
Fourth, there is less standing in the way of the Right today than in the past. By many measures of political capacity including mass organizations like unions, mainline Protestant churches, and mass movements, key sectors of the Left have not recovered from the defeats dating back to the Reagan “revolution.”
There are certainly vibrant, innovative progressive movements including Black Lives Matter, alt labor, climate justice, and Not1More. Each of these movements is having powerful positive social and cultural impacts, transforming debates on critical issues in the U.S. and around the world, and creating the potential for urgently needed political changes.
However, today’s movements don’t have the institutional infrastructure and concentrated power that traditional New Deal/Great Society/Left groupings had prior to the Reagan ’80s. And – critically – the liberal/progressive/Left has fewer institutions that regularly and meaningfully engage the people being organized into right-wing populist movements. At a time when the Right is quickly building its base, we are in a weaker position to out-organize them among those they are targeting for recruitment: white working-class people.
Fifth, we now have a much denser concentration of right-wing populists predisposed to support authoritarianism within one of the two major political parties: the GOP.
In order to shed the elitist image that the GOP developed in the wake of the Great Depression and throughout the Democrat-led economic recovery of the last century, the GOP created what is now widely known as the Southern Strategy. They believed that white Southern voters would reject the Democratic Party, which was once the party of white supremacy, if they could reframe them as the party of Blacks and civil rights. They accomplished this in several ways: by deploying a combination of coded and more overt racism to scapegoat people of color, particularly Blacks, for the declining economic and social status of white workers; by inciting fear of foreign enemies threatening us internationally; and by demonizing “anti-American” elements on the Left as threatening us domestically. All of this served to justify a hawkish foreign policy, and a punitive law-and-order domestic policy.
The Southern Strategy didn’t just exploit right-wing movements in order to build the GOP’s base; it popularized authoritarian, anti-democratic, and bigoted ideas that pushed the whole political spectrum to the Right. Perhaps most influential among these ideas are:
- That the private sector is inherently more efficient and cost-effective than government (think Trump, the deal maker), and
- That government, especially national government, is controlled by elites who are wrongly expropriating the material and social capital of real, productive Americans (“makers”) to redistribute as patronage to the sinful, lazy, and dangerous classes (“takers”) in exchange for political support.
Among the “takers” that most drive the rage machine are Black people, immigrants of color, and poor people of color – especially poor single mothers of color, who they claim live in a dysfunctional culture of dependency that can only be cured through austerity. The Right was so successful at popularizing these ideas that they would be articulated through the public policy agenda of a Democratic Presidential administration (Bill Clinton’s) by the 1990s.
By positioning itself as the party of traditional values and law and order, the GOP has consolidated a previously bipartisan right-wing populist constituency large enough to buck its own party establishment and select their own candidate. (They just did.)
Sixth, the racial demography of the U.S. is rapidly changing. In 1980, more than 85% of the American electorate was white. Today, the electorate is only 67% white, and that percentage is rapidly falling. White voters are losing their ability to define and hold the middle of American culture and politics and this is contributing to the rage and fear that drove white support for regressive welfare reform, tough-on-crime policies and the prison buildup, repressive national security measures, and a wildly expensive and punitive deportation regime targeting undocumented immigrants of color.
Political scientist Jean V. Hardisty was among the first to demonstrate how sophisticated conservative organizers learned to cultivate and mobilize resentment over the erosion of white privilege. As the erosion of the status, privilege, and political influence associated with being white in the United States escalates, that resentment is building.
Seventh, the cruelty of the free-market ideology of “neoliberalism” is driving financial deregulation, austerity, privatization (resulting, in part, in increasingly underfunded and unresponsive government), falling wages for most, and a stagnant or shrinking economy for the bottom 90 percent of Americans.
The Democratic Party responded to the neoliberal “Reagan revolution” by opting to forge relationships with social issue liberals (LGBT, traditional race-based civil rights organizations, etc.) and neoliberal business elites. By doing so, they contributed to the widespread and increasingly popular right-wing trope that whites suffer more discrimination and have less influence on “liberal” government and media than Black people.
Altogether, these changes have opened space for right-wing populist appeals for cross-class white racial solidarity as a response to economic hardship – with the implicit message that bigotry can bring prosperity.
Eighth, social scientists have found that many people – including those who might otherwise support basic social fairness – are driven to support authoritarian figures and approaches by perceived physical threats or by destabilizing social change. Given the wide array of real and perceived threats to social stability in contemporary society, this raises the danger of what we might call “disaster authoritarianism.”
Multiple crises could drive a populist demand to consolidate power in the executive branch of government. We have seen evidence of this in the fear-driven post-9/11 push to limit civil liberties and to rush to war. Climate change, infectious disease outbreaks, the rise of violent stateless totalitarian movements, extreme economic instability, same-sex marriage and other disruptions of traditional gender roles, racial demographic change – these and other trends could activate dormant support for demagogic leadership.
More immediately, could a San Bernadino-type attack or a series of crises in the months or weeks before the general election propel a law-and-order authoritarian candidate into the White House and/or consolidate support for further suspensions of civil liberties? Maybe. But what is certain is the increasing pressure and insecurity will put steel in the arguments of those who advocate for strongman solutions.
But Is It Fascism, Yet?
All of the conditions described here don’t necessarily add up to fascism, nor predict that a totalitarian movement will eventually seize our government. But, that doesn’t mean that nativist, white nationalist, and other right-wing movements can’t do great damage even while losing.
Here’s an example. In 1964, GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater lost the general election to Lyndon Johnson while taking only 38.5% of the vote. But, Goldwater’s direct appeals to xenophobia and racism won the South and flipped a significant number of white Southern Democrats into Republicans. Goldwater’s run was the template for the GOP Southern Strategy we referenced earlier. Moreover, right-wing leaders mined the donor lists of the Goldwater campaign, and the campaigns for president of an even more unpopular presidential candidate, former segregationist Alabama Governor, George Wallace, for direct-mail marketing campaigns. Those campaigns provided a big part of the original money used to build key right-wing organizations that we are still battling today.
The Call To Action: Join the Three-Way Fight
We need to wage a three-way fight. On one side, we need to fight with institutions of power that perpetuate injustice. On the other, we need to fight with those who are competing with us for influence over those same institutions. These two sides of the struggle are equally critical in the struggle for progressive change.
This may seem like a big ask, but we’re already involved in three-way fights on critical issues. The Right is already in the three-way fight, and their ability to exercise influence is dependent on beating us up.
Here’s an example. On the issue of immigration reform, right-wing anti-immigrant groups have used racism to vilify undocumented immigrants and to justify increasingly repressive immigration controls. They’ve turned a national policy debate over how to achieve a just resolution for undocumented workers into a fight over whether it is practical to deport more than 11 million people whom they have branded as a criminal class, and via Trump, as “rapists” and “drug dealers.” This reframing has forced many who support humane reform to reframe their arguments to back what is seen as the only viable reform proposal in Congress. That proposal would impose a more than 11-year path to citizenship on undocumented immigrants and institute what amounts to being forced into a highly exploitative guest worker program on undocumented workers, all while continuing to detain and deport growing ranks of criminalized immigrants.
Here’s another. On the issue of abortion access, the Right responded to Roe v. Wade by reframing the reproductive freedoms that it institutionalized as a struggle over religious freedom and the rights to life of “unborn children.” Advocates of equitable access to safe and legal abortions have been forced to respond to the Right’s framing of the issue and to a new and increasingly effective states’ rights strategy. In much of the debate, this minimizes advocacy for women’s self-determination and centers instead the most extreme cases where the life of the “mother” (suggesting that the fetus is a baby) is at risk. Meanwhile, access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare for poor women is evaporating, and we are now at pre-Roe v. Wade levels of abortion access.
Each time we enter into a political fight, whether it is about public education, income supports, trade, foreign policy, national security, labor, or even the U.S. Postal Service, the Right is there, reframing the issues and driving discussion away from practical, broadly beneficial solutions and toward exclusionary and regressive non-solutions and punishment. By doing so, they are effectively moving the goal post in our fights with institutions of power, requiring us to repeatedly change our playbooks, and making us less and less coherent to those on the downside of unjust power relations.
How Do We Fight the Three-Sided Fight?
First, we need to get better at fighting the Right. In order to do that, we need to incorporate strategies to Disrupt, Defuse, and Compete.
We disrupt the Right by separating right-wing leaders from their bases of support, a task often best accomplished in two ways: 1) by exposing the elitist interests behind right-wing leaders’ all-style-no-substance populism, and 2) by identifying and exploiting internal divisions within right-wing coalitions and organizations.
We defuse the tensions that the Right both drives and thrives on by defeating the bigotry and fear underlying those tensions. This means doing effective anti-bigotry work, while building coalitions broad enough to include populations that the Right is targeting. But, anti-bigotry efforts can’t just focus on the harm that bigotry does to those who are targeted, they must address the destructive force of bigotry on the kind of political culture necessary to support democracy and win meaningful political participation for all, and the broad negative effects of public policies that bigotry tends to drive.
We compete by going up against the Right and vying directly for the loyalty of those who make up the immediate projected base of their support: white working-class people. Most right-wing groups’ core support is drawn from the white middle class, but right-wing movements don’t stop there. They traditionally organize “down” the economic ladder and reach for working-class whites, whose numbers are vital to their success. Successfully competing will require us to authentically express empathy and compassion to white poor people and to those who fear falling into poverty, and to do so while marrying economic justice to racial and social equity. Doing this blunts the effectiveness of the Right’s scapegoating strategies. It provides better, more solutions-oriented explanations to those susceptible to right-wing recruitment.
White anti-racist activists are critical to successfully competing with the Right for the attention of those vulnerable to their appeals. We should also remember that white nationalist movements are identity movements. We must take seriously the sense among a growing number of whites that white identity is under attack. That older white voters seem to feel this threat most acutely could be a reflection of generationally bound values, but it is also very likely an indication of the vulnerability that many feel as they age.
Good organizing meets people where they are, and not where we wish they were. Moreover, good organizing focuses on the egos of those being organized, and not on the egos of the organizers. This isn’t a pissing contest over who gets “it.” It’s a fight for economic and social justice for everyone.
In consideration of these trends, justice-minded people and movements should consciously pivot our work in order to disrupt, defuse, and – critically – compete with the bigoted Right for its projected base of support. To do otherwise risks giving white nationalism room to consolidate as a national political force.