The American populist tradition appeared to have reversed itself; populism now openly supported giving more to the wealthy and battling economic regulations. In fact, a distinction should be made between right-wing populism, which emphasizes cultural questions, and left-leaning populism, which focuses on economics. A few people, like Fred Harris in the seventies, and Molly Ivins, advocated left-populism, but it was right-wing populism that often was to carry the day. Some traditional conservatives have objected to referring to New Right thought as populism and prefer to call it “corporate populism” because it is so much the result of affluent sponsorship. Right-sing populism emerged before there was gridlock in government, but the appearance of gridlock seems to have brought more frustrated voters under the banner of the New Right. This movement to the right was fed by a growing preoccupation with the decline in traditional values, impatience with dissent and pluralism, which appeared as grave threats for longed-for unity, and uneasiness with some traditional elites. By the early years of the Twenty-First Century, the growth of the right was further enhanced by belief in redemptive violence--this time in support of warfare in the name of combating terrorism.
Right-wing populism is very close to the fundamentalism that Jimmy Carter has identified as an ascendant force in society and religion. Andrew Sullivan spoke of the “fundamentalist psyche” which seeks absolute truths and all encompassing ideologies, leaves no room for discussion or debate, and stifles individual thought. 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, 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 a misguided notion of authenticity. They believe they are the real Americans as opposed to the phonies. The essential element is the populist belief that good decent people are being conspired against by some sort of elite. Left wing populists worry about an economic elite; right wing populists are concerned about what they think is a cultural elite. In many respects, right wing populism is a classical mass movement. Many of its members become true believers, who are dogmatic, intolerant, and often-angry believers in a soul-stirring ideology. They believe they have the absolute truth and often become fanatically devoted to their movement and its leaders. Membership in the movement rather than individual liberty is what is important to them. Perhaps this explains why these people have shown no concern about the rapid erosion of individual liberties since 9/11.
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 accepted 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 economic 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 U.S 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 there are some limits to the [ Democratic] Party's moral agnosticism," it will not win over the average 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 shaped by a very similar form of consciousness. 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 group 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 often 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.
Inevitably, complaints about the opinions of these so-called elites evolved into efforts to censure and punish them. Actors who voiced unpopular opinions faced boycotts of their TV programs and films, and state legislators concocted ways to discipline unpopular professors. In Florida, Representative Dennis Baxley recently introduced a bill enabling college students to sue professors who strayed from “mainstream beliefs” and turned their classrooms into a “totalitarian niche.” His main example was claiming that evolution was a fact.
To some degree the belief that they are conspired against gives victims 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-peddling 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 by clever conservative information specialists 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 could 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 them. Intense stress and fear of losing control of one’s destiny generates the emotional energy that drives these psycho-historical situations. Some experience an intense need to belong, which adherence to the New Right satisfies. Economic anxiety occurred after a period of great abundance and what seemed to be the promise of continued affluence, or 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 was 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 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.
An event in March 2005, seemed to demonstrate that there may be limits to how far political capitalizing on popular cultural concerns can go. Congress rushed to facilitate moving of the case of Terri Schiavo, a woman in a persistent vegetative state, from the Florida Courts to the federal courts. The issue was reattaching her feeding tube. ABC News turned up a Republican internal memo that suggested that this was a political bonanza and offering talked points. Surprisingly, over 60% of the public rejected this blatant politicization of a family tragedy. This suggests that even some Evangelicals Protestants and traditional Catholics were not on board, and it might also suggest that growing right wing populism might become more difficult in future.
The behavior of the Right suggests that conservative leaders though the New Right must take advantage of situations like this to be sure that its followers remain sufficiently inflamed to assure the GOP election victories. The episode, and the GOP’s response to it, probably insured that the most reliable portion of its base would turn out in record numbers in 2006. Far from having overreached, the GOP deepened the commitment of evangelical voters to the party and planted the thought among the elderly that the GOP was there to prevent the ending of their life support. Reverend Louis Sheldon, founder of the Traditional Values Coalition, implied as much when he said, “That is what I see as the blessing of dear Terri’s life, “ providing” the conservative Christian movement in America” a cause with which to galvanize itself.
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. For many on the Christian Right, it was not a matter of language. They were convinced that God had made Bush president of the United States Pat Robertson called Bush a “prophet,” and Ralph Reed said God picked Bush to become president. Bush consistently encouraged this belief and told a group of Amish in 2004 that “I trust God speaks through me.” 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 although 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. It comes wrapped as ultra-Americanism and assertive nationalism, which got a great boost from the terrible events of September 11, 2001.
Failing to understand fully 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 language 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 an elitist coalition of big government bureaucrats, old money aristocrats, and the so-called “New Class” of academicians, intellectuals, media people, and technocrats dominate the country. 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 This view emerged as part of Richard Nixon’s effort to blame the lack of success in Vietnam on dissenters. It was a version of the old right wing “stab in the back” position, and was preceded by the claim that Eastern Europe was sold out at Yalta and that Truman liberals prevented MacArthur from winning in Korea.
The New Left of the 1960s unwittingly made it very easy to develop the New Class argument and apply it to liberals and Democrats, both of whom the New Left despised by the late sixties. Though deeply committed to creating a republic based on peace, love and brotherhood, the young radicals were unwilling to acknowledge the common humanity of those who opposed them. Indeed the New Left was extremely intolerant and made it clear that those who disagreed with them were greedy, stupid and evil. They seemed particularly angry with ordinary Americans because they did not respond to calls to leave factories and fall behind the banners of the New Left. Although the leadership of the Democratic Party feared and disliked the New Left, Republican publicists successfully identified liberals and Democrats with the New Left, calling them the New Class. Many ordinary Americans bought the argument and came to despise those who allegedly despised them. Occasionally in coming years Democratic intellectuals, who generally did not share the outlook of the New Left, foolishly expressed their befuddlement at why so many working class Americans identified so strongly with policies that all but guaranteed that prosperity would not trickle down to them. Their unguarded remarks revealed an ignorance of the emotional and spiritual needs of other Americans and were grist for the propaganda mill devoted to showing that all Democrats were elitists who had contempt for ordinary Americans. The New Class argument was a brilliant political ploy and would eventually play a big role in guaranteeing that Republicans would almost always control both houses of Congress after 1994.
White House speechwriter William Safire crafted Vice President Spiro Agnew’s attack on “an effete corps of impudent snobs, who characterize themselves as intellectuals,” but the word Agnew really had in mind was “fags.” It was as though Nixon had been present at the creation of politics; he had a genius for “ looking beneath social surfaces to see and exploit subterranean anxieties...” in the words of Rick Perlstein. Decades later, as the cultural war got much rougher, there was constant talk about the “gay agenda” of the left. The culture war argument became the main theme of right wing rhetoric. And it was never more powerful than when coupled with promoting a war. Kevin Baker was probably wrong when he suggested that “The whole purpose of the war in Iraq -- and the war on terrorism seems to have been to foment divisions and to win elections....” But he was right in noting that the cultural argument in a war context was so powerful that most Americans reluctantly accepted torturing foreigners and easily came to terms with the executive’s new claims to power, including spying on American citizens and even imprisoning a few without the protections of due process.
Christopher Lasch has suggested that the “New Class” argument has been persuasive because liberals, unable to persuade the masses to accept some democratic reforms have relied upon the courts to accomplish them--essentially using undemocratic means to achieve democratic ends. Moreover, they have lost the popular touch, labeling working class fears about programs to establish economic injustice “working-class authoritarianism.” In social science terms, what is occurring may be negative deference on the part of people who consider themselves in society’s periphery toward those who they think illegitimately occupy the center.
The so-called 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. For the New Right the word “liberal” meant this snooty and destructive cultural elite and its adherents. In addition, conservative Christian propagandists continually told Godly people that they were under siege by immoral secularists. People came to see themselves as a despised and put-down minority, and they yearned to even the score and demonstrate that they were worthy of respect. In creating the mental structures of this growing subculture, conservative publicists linked threats to traditional culture with policies that damaged free enterprise and weakened the U.S. position in the Cold War. All this contributed to a mindset in which scapegoating and acceptance of simplistic explanations for a variety of phenomena became common. Conservative spokesmen are able to blame almost all the moral evils they find on liberalism, usually because of its advocacy of permissiveness.
Yet the New Right blamed the corporate scandals of 2000-2001 on just a few people, thus precluding thorough efforts to prevent more abuses. This “bad apple theory” has been seen as a form of New Right permissiveness. The same “Bad Apple” theory has been used to explain the abuses of prisoners by American soldiers and private contractors. It was much easier to blame all manner of difficulties on a liberal cultural elite and to blame other problems on the poor below them, who were considered sinful and lazy and bent on living off others. Even worse, in the eyes of some, was the fact that many of the poor were black. The great danger is that their behavior would contaminate society and that other Americans would emulate them. The objects of their fear and loathing included homosexuals, feminists, immigrants, welfare mothers, and criminals. A certain amount of bullying of other unpopular minorities, such as homosexuals and Muslims, was also to be expected, but so far the New Right’s founders and leaders have managed to prevent the kinds of excesses that would permanently alarm middle class America.
Right wing populist worldview 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.
There seems no accurate way to determine how far and how fast right-wing populism can continue to spread across a population. Right wing populism 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.
As late as 2002, Republicans continually played on the twin themes of a liberal conspiracy to damage America and their own victimization. In February 2002, Republicans who attended the annual meeting of the Conservative Action Conference were in high spirits. A poll in April 2002 demonstrated that 52% of voters believed George W. Bush was either a liberal or a moderate--- this despite a clearly conservative record on domestic issues except for a moderate approach to education in his first year and his reluctantly and almost stealthily signing the Campaign Reform Act in his second. Polls were showing that President Bush’s towering popularity was being translated into much greater public support for Republicans on a broad range of domestic issues. Most speakers agreed with Bush strategist Karl Rove that the voters would reward Republicans for Bush’s handling of the war. Polster Kellyanne Conway rejoiced,” George Bush has been more Reagan than Bush.” Even though the press was handling the president with kid gloves, some felt it necessary ritualistically to repeat GOP complaints about a biased press. Governor Marc Racicot lamented that it was so hard “to get a conservative message across” because to the heavy liberal bias of the media and because it requires a “higher level of incisive analysis.”
Despite their success in nearly destroying the Clinton presidency, others complained that Democrats are better political street fighters than Republicans. Although Republicans had good reason to expect to come out of the November elections with workable majorities in both houses of Congress, they seemed to need to continue to see themselves as a beleaguered, put-upon minority. It was as though some realized that these beliefs produce cohesiveness and empowerment. A few expressed some concern about the growth of federal power that the events of September 11 had brought about, but none blamed the Bush administration. On January 8, 2006, US Senator John Cornyn of Texas appeared on Meet the Press and managed to answer each question by calling liberals “outsiders.” He could not have deployed this winning GOP strategy more obviously.
Sherman has written African American Baseball: A brief History, which can be acquired from LuLu Publishing on line.http://www.lulu.com/browse/search.php?search_forum
"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.
- Sherman De Brosse
- 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!