"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Orwell-- The US is probably moving toward becoming a heavily controlled Rightist state. This blog is an effort to document how that happened.

Friday, April 29, 2005

The New Right in Historical Context

The right-wing populism of the New Right shares many characteristics with the right-wing populism in Europe and right-wing populism in the American past. Among the commonalities are a sense of victimhood, intense nationalism, fear of cultural pluralism, and the potential for acceptance of conspiracy theories and authoritarianism.

In 1984 ,the French National Front became the first European right-populist party to escape marginalization at the polls by combining nationalist xenophobia with ant-government establishment nationalism. The combination of these issues represented a successful "master frame"– as the European scholars call it, which was soon copied by emerging similar parties in Europe. They were also partially successful in overcoming the stigma of anti-democratic policies, authoritarianism, and biological racism that they inherited from similar movements earlier in the Twentieth Century. These parties attracted largely working class voters, people who generally would have stayed with left and socialist parties had then shown any inclination to address the economic threats posed by postindustrial society.

Once convinced that their old parties could not or would not deal with the problems growing out of the global economy, these voters looked to express their concerns about declining social status and threats to their cultural values. Biological racism is no longer acceptable in Europe, so these new parties adopt what some call "culturalracism," but they claim not to go beyond pointing out that new subcultures are incompatible with the European heritage. The claim that the new subcultures would bring about the extinction of the older European tradition caused great fear and rage, emotions likely to cement political affiliations and mobilize voters. Anti-political establishment populism was very attractive to them because they were convinced that the liberals and socialists in power no longer cared about them and richly deserved punishment. Leaders of the new right-populist parties portrayed themselves as being outside the political class. People who have lost faith in government and their old political party are more likely to form new cognitive routes to interpret reality.

It is difficult to establish how much racism attends right-wing populism in the United States. It is rarely an overt element, and appeals to it are masked at as calls for law and order and criticisms of people who are alleged to lack the work ethic. Right-wing populism in both Europe and the United States is marked by intense nationalism, fear of cultural pluralism, and contempt for much of the heritage of the Enlightenment.

Some believe that right wing populism is an ante-room to fascism, but worries about this cannot be entertained until Republican populists have serious violated constitutionalism and deprived others of basic rights. The New Right has demonstrated strong authoritarian tendencies by drastically limiting the rights of the minority in the House of Representatives and threatening to strip the Senate minority of certain filibuster rights. There is also an on-going effort to muzzle progressive professors. The Right has consistently attempted to intimidate the media into providing coverage it considers suitable. However, none of this represents clear violations of law, and intemperate rhetoric is not an acid acid test for fascism.

Polish writer Adam Michnik suggested that populism always contains an element of envy and employs demagoguery. When mixed with intense nationalism, it can produce fascism. After 9/11 intense nationalism was wed to right- wing populism , producing an irresistible political force Populist nationalists have learned that extreme nationalist and aggressive policies can forge powerful political majorities, and they have been unable to refrain from regular use of this very effective political ploy. Provoking hatred of foreign enemies as well as fellow Americans who happen to disagree is too effective a tool not to deploy whenever necessary. Republicans used it to tar opponents as allies of terrorists and Saddam Hussein, increasing their majorities in the House and Senate and reelecting their warrior-hero George W. Bush.

The traditional conservative thinker John Lukacs wrote, "when...temperance is weak, or unenforced, or unpopular, then democracy is nothing else than populism. More precisely : then it is nationalist populism....the fundamental problem of the future." Right-wing populism easily morphed into nationalist populism. Anyone objecting to any policy claimed to be part of the war on terrorism was likely to have her patriotism questioned. Jim Gibbons, a Republican Congressman from Nebraska, was to say it was "too damn bad we didn’t buy {critics of the Iraq war} tickets to become human shields there. He also said those who complained about corporate contributions to President Bush were "communists. " Such outbursts are relatively rare because they tend to spook independent voters, but his remarks accurately reflect the spirit of nationalist populism. There were many other ways to say the same thing without alarming independents and moderates.

So far the union of right-wing populism and extreme nationalism has not produced fascism, but it has clearly threatened the health of our democratic polity. John Lukacs believes the new populism could almost destroy democracy because it so easily degenerates into the tyranny of the majority. 'Nationalism is a very low and cheap common denominator that unites people,'' Lukacs says. ''It is hatred that unites people. People take satisfaction from the idea that we are good because our enemies are evil. This is a very American syndrome, but it is also universally true of mankind.'' Lukacs was one of the few conservative intellectuals to object to Senator Joseph McCarthy; it is likely that he will have even less company this time around.

Previous manifestations of American right-wing populism have had the quality of a Roman candle. They burned brightly but fairly briefly. There were the anti-Semitic followers of Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Communist crusaders led by Senator Joseph McCarthy who also the American WASP establishment, and the anti-black backlash populists of George C. Wallace. In many ways ,Wallace pioneered in developing many of the arguments employed by the today’s New Right. Those three movements were short lived because their extremism quickly became obvious. This lesson has been learned by right-wing populist strategist here and abroad.

Especially in the United States, the movement has continued to grow over three decades because its extremist tendencies have been somewhat contained and masked. The New Right constitutes a serious threat to democracy, and will probably result in drastically remodeling how the Congress and Executive Branch do business. Popular pressure will probably further mute the mainstream press, but in the short term official assaults on individual rights may not exceed what was accomplished in the Patriot Act. The drift toward authoritarianism will most likely be contained because rapid progress in that direction could alarm a large portion of the electorate.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The New Right, Right-Wing Populism, and Displaced Economic Anxiety

Historically, movements for social change have often been instruments of status groups that felt an intense need to assert and legitimize their identities. Right wing populism, here in the form of the New Right and abroad, usually is fed by the bitterness and frustration of people facing status loss. These people do not want to be like people in the so-called "blue" states; they are simply intent upon expressing their identity as "decent" people and their anger over being mistreated because of that decency. Their status group anger has been framed in terms of authenticity. They are the real Americans as opposed to the phoneys.

Economic stagnation and the breakdown of welfare capitalism in the United States disoriented millions of people, who sought answers and affirmation of their identities. One might expect them to drift into a political movement that clearly and directly addressed their situation. However, cultural arguments touch people more deeply, and they were to accept an ideology that somewhat tangentially offered them some economic relief. Economic historian Alexander Cershenkron noted that even nations with long democratic traditions can become democracies without democrats. It is not so difficult to have a generous view of fellow citizens when living standards are rising. Economic growth makes the expansion of democracy possible. When people's ecopnomic prospects are declining, it is so much easier to be less inclusive, less trusting, and more inclined to accept views that place blame on a nation's woes on others.

The 2004 US election provides clear evidence of the extent to which anxiety rooted in economic concerns was displaced to
cultural matters. Sixty one percent of white voters refused to support John Kerry. In 1991, Stanley Greenberg wrote that "unless thre are some limits to the [ Democratic] party's moral agnosticism," it will not win over the averagfe family.

In Europe, those who lost their jobs, faced great insecurity or had to accept less income and benefits are loosely called the "abandoned workers." In the United States, there is a very broad definition of middle class, and the New Right here is considered a middle class phenomenon. Among the recruits to
right-wing populism were many Reagan Democrats, who faced great economic insecurity but also believed their cultural and religious values were under assault.

What has emerged in the last thirty years, is a self-conscious status group in the United States, the members of which would not object to the descriptive term "Middle America." Over time, this vast status group became desperate and anxious, believing their social and economic positions were slipping or in danger of slipping.. These middle class Americans developed a sub-culture or collective consciousness made up of orientations that guide their actions, particularly at election time. These orientations represent a form of conservative populism. Invariably, conservative populists identified their own fates with that of the nation, which also faced very grave threats. They, like their nation, were virtuous and deserved primacy among other people and nations. Their opponents were not just somewhat wrong, they were "evil."

Max Weber argued that there is a strong need for psychic comfort or a feeling of established worthiness. He thought that class consciousness was essentially "psychological thoughts of men about their lives. " In this instance, we are not dealing with a class. Status groups also a very similar form of consciousness, and in the late Twentieth Century marketing and other techniques that make it possible to frame information and arguments in such a way as to shape the content of that consciousness. Weber believed the most compelling ideologies developed when a powerful set of ideas were taken up by the disadvantaged. That is why it was so important to persuade a vast slice of middle Americans, regardless of their economic status, that they are somehow disadvantaged.

Today, the party of the right-wing populists controls every branch of the national government state governments. Nevertheless, the anger of the right-wing populists has not abated because they believe that the media, press, universities, and entertainment are still dominated by liberals who are committed to destroying American culture. To some degree the belief that they are conspired against victims is a tonic and confers upon them special identities. They cannot congratulate themselves on their political success or the fact that the press largely has been intimidated into soft-pedalling or ignoring stories that would offend conservatives. Their radio and television shockmeisters continually remind them that they are not safe as long as there is a Hillary Clinton or Ted Kennedy in the Senate or as long as The New York Times or Washington Post remain in print.

Cultural crusades have been powered by anxiety rooted in economic and status tensions. Concern over economic and status questions is redirected to cultural quests where the chances of success seem greater. At work is an historical process that somehow displaced feelings of deep economic anxieties, which reappeared as cultural resentments. The "somehow" means we cannot explain how or why it happened other than to note that these occurrences from Roman times forward can best be seen as examples of the irrational and unconscious in history. What can be called psycho-cultural climates exist in history, as the great Lucien Febvre suggested, but the followers of Clio have made little progress in deciphering t hem. Intense stress and fear that one was losing control of ones destiny generates the emotional energy that drives these psycho-historical situations. Going back even farther than the Romans, we find examples of oppressed peoples becoming somehow "Gods’s elect." Arguably this occurred in the case of the ancient Jews. Historians have developed the formula "oppressed people, elect people." Elect, of course, meant chosen. In the modern American setting, the word "elect" is both an adjective and a verb.

The rise of the New Right had some of the characteristics of a half-political, half-religious revival. A psychohistorian would say that revivalism is sometimes "a symptom of incipient regression in a life of a community under conditions of stress." The revival need not always take a religious form, for example contemporary Rumania seems to be going through a period of great anxiety that is producing a revival of old songs, ballads, and dances, and interest in imaginary heroes of the past. In the contemporary American case, the religious revivals of the 19th Century are being reenacted in modern form and the laissez faire economics of the robber baron heroes are recast as the essentials of American tradition. Of course, the United States is very different from Romania. Yet both have entered periods when radical cultural reorganization, when the corporate spirit has declined and many have not quite figured out how to cope with the fre4edom and individualism that came with it. Some experience an intense need to belong which adherence to the New Right satisfies. ( In fourth century BCE Athens, a similar period of anxiety and transition occurred and many reacted by joining the new mystery cults while others embraced a greater degree of secularism.)

In the case of contemporary America, economic anxiety occurred after a period of great abundance and what seemed to be the promise of continued affluence– fulfillment of the American Dream. It occurred simultaneously with the emergence of postmodern culture, which brought in its wake ambiguity and contradiction in respect to values. A great majority of the same people experiencing economic anxiety were also troubled by new threats to their values. Perhaps some found the new mental freedom an invitation to inner anarchy, as Adorno noted half a century ago. In any event, they lacked the mental structures to address the cultural disorientation of the period and its potential threats in matters of conscience. Some probably found that their central cultural and religious beliefs were not as strong as they had though and that they craved a consistent and rigorous way of thinking. They were unprepared for a pluralistic culture and moral ambiguities. The crusade of the New Right seemed to resolve these inner conflicts and allowed them to cope with the anxieties of these times.

Sunday, April 17, 2005


After the 2004 defeat of John Kerry, many concluded that it was how one spoke about cultural issues that made the difference, and that George W. Bush’s appeal to conservative religious people explained what had happened. In fact, a more powerful and complex force was at work in establishing Republican dominance in the United States, right-wing populism as embodied in the New Right. At work was much more than many people responding to several hot button, values-laden issues. The Democrats were up against a complex, powerful social movement that took decades to build and a mind-set that will prove very difficult to change. True, the outlook of the Christian right lends itself to right-wing populism, but they are two different but closely related phenomena. Today’s incarnation of Right-wing populism is equated with evangelical religion, but it could stand alone as it frequently does in Europe. Right-wing populism is at the heart of the New Right’s identity and is largely a reaction against social change and comes wrapped as ultra-Americanism and assertive nationalism, which got a great boost from the terrible events of September 11, 2001.

Failing to fully understand what they were up against, some Democrats slightly toned down their support for all forms of abortion, and many of them acquired a book on cognitive linguistics that correctly showed that Republicans were very skilled at recasting unpopular policies in favorable langage and at "branding" Democrats as very undesirable political products. The reading will do them some good, but it is necessary for them to learn much more about right-wing populism.

The main elements of populism are celebrating "the people" and battling elites. American right-wing populists believe the country is dominated by an elitist coalition of big government bureaucrats, old money aristocrats, and the so-called "New Class" of academicians, intellectuals, media people, and technocrats. The belief that the elite looks down on other Americans gives right-wing populism its great force which is expressed in anger, resentment, and determination to go to the polls and strike a blow against their enemies. The elitists are accused of trying to destroy American culture, and the New Right sees a nation divided by two starkly different cultures, one good and one evil. The term "liberal" has been redefined to mean people who are trying to overturn traditional American culture by supporting moral relativism, permissiveness, softness on crime, pornography, abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, and stem cell research. It is a simplistic black and white picture that bears little resemblance to reality but, with the help of a small army of propagandists, pundits and preachers, it has become the core frame of reference for the New Right. Growing belief that liberals are conspiring to undermine American culture and are contemptuous of ordinary Americans has generated paranoia and rage which has activated the New Right and enabled it to grow steadily as a political force over three decades. The fear and loathing of so-called elitists and their alleged plans to destroy American culture is far more important in motivating political action than particular issues like abortion or gay marriage.

American right-wing populism’s four main characteristics are majoritarianism– even in defiance of constitutional government, anti-elitism, intense nationalism, and anti-intellectualism. Historically, populism has led to anti-Semitism and racism. Polish writer Adam Michnik suggested that populism always contains an element of envy and employs demagoguery. When mixed with intense nationalism, it can produce fascism. However, it is likely that right populism would lose some of its charm in the United States if it were to spawn overt and excessive authoritarianism and obvious anti-Semitism or racism.

In the past, forms of populism in the United States have burned themselves out fairly quickly because they soon were manifesting more than a little bizarre and outrageous behavior. This latest incarnation has steadily grown over three decades, and zealous followers have been kept on somewhat acceptable paths by an army of radio talk show hosts, pundits, and very adept political managers. It has been no small accomplishment.

American right-wing populism it is very attractive to small entrepreneurs and ordinary Americans, often members of the white working class. In both Europe and America white males from the working class were particularly attracted to populism. They faced job insecurity and declining standards of living, and, especially in the United States, they resented the loss of privileges that had traditionally flowed from their status as white males. Yearning for the restoration of their roles as defenders and providers, some American men even joined militias, extremist organizations that display the repressive dimensions of right-wing populism when carried too far.

In the United States, however, right-wing populism appealed to an element that was not so important in Europe–evangelical, fundamentalist, and traditional Christianity. What has developed is, in the words of Italian writer Emilio Gentile defined "political religion, " defined as the use of religion , its language and symbols for political combat. The Christian adherents of the new right-wing populism have been called the Religious or Christian Right. Forty-two percent of American voters describe themselves as born-again, and about 75% of them have come to support the Republican party. In time the majority of traditionalist Catholics joined them on the religious right. It was unified by opposition to abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, and homosexual practice. Some members of the Christian Right differ from non-religious right-wing populists in that they are interested in eroding the wall separating church and state, and they are even more opposed to an open society. A few on the Christian Right adhere to "dominionism," the belief that true Christians must acquire political power and lead the nation by carrying our their biblical principles.

The Christian Right took shape in the 1970, and were helped come into being by conservative operatives and strategists Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, E.E. McAteer, and Howard Phillips. Their strategy proved to be so effective that one would expect it to have been hatched by several brilliant sociologists. In an 1976 interview, Viguerie said they were busy building support among evangelicals and getting "preachers into politics." They focused on ministers like Reverend Jerry Falwell, who believed America was being ruled by the "wicked." Christian Voice, an important evangelical group, was then saying that America was being attacked by "Satanist forces." This kind of black and white thinking did not invite dialogue, only fear, anger, and determination to seize power. By 2005, members of the Christian Right were announcing that those who opposed efforts to strip Democratic Senators of the right to filibuster against Republican judicial nominees were enemies of God. Republican Congressman Christopher Shays admitted that his party had been transformed into the "party of theocracy." Former Senator John Danforth, an Episcopal priest, observed that his party had been transformed "into the political arm of conservative Christians."

In most respects, there was a meshing of views and attitudes between the evangelicals and the right-wing populists. Even many members of the evangelical Churches, while usually voting for Republicans, were much more inclined to agree with their ministers on the evils of feminism or abortion than on other questions. Perhaps they were acting at the polls more as right-wing populists than as evangelicals, but certainly the appeals to the Religious Right helped activate their populism. Whether as evangelicals or as populists, they were equally disposed to demand that the United States take a more assertive role in world affairs, and they were frustrated when foreign countries failed to heed the leadership of this virtuous nation. Both were likely to see the Vietnam War a noble venture. For decades, this burning nationalism or what scholars call "foreign policy fundamentalism" bad been firmly suppressed by a bipartisan foreign policy establishment. With the election of George W. Bush, those favoring a far more aggressive and assertive foreign policy took power, and public outrage over the terrible events of September 11, 2001 made it possible for them to implement their policies. For some on the Christian Right, the invasion of Iraq was predicted in the Book of Revelation and should be seem as a large step toward the events of end times when one third of humankind is slain and millions of sinners are sent to eternal hellfire and torment.

It is unclear how far and how fast right-wing populism can continue to spread across a population. It is growing by leaps in bounds in Islamic countries, where conditions are more than ripe for its spread. Experience in the United States has demonstrated its steady growth, and the continual spread of evangelical Christianity seems to prepare its way for still more New Right growth. In the 1950s, people who held views similar to those of the New right were considered part of the so-called lunatic fringe. By the 1980s, there were many more of these people, but their views were not considered mainstream. Today, the New Right dominates the nation’s most powerful political party and has reason to claim that its outlook is becoming that of mainstream America.

Blog Archive

About Me

Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. It discusses elements in the Republican coalition, their ideologies, strategies, informational and financial resources, and election shenanigans. Abuses of power by the Reagan and G. W. Bush administration and the Republican Congresses are detailed. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go to http://www.publishamerica.com/shopping. It can also be obtained through the on-line operations of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Do not consider purchasing it if you are looking for something that mirrors the mainstream media!