by Matthew N. Lyons
The following is the slightly revised text of a talk I gave at a political study retreat in Monroe, New York, on 5 June 2011.
I’m going to try to give you an overview of right-wing movements in the U.S. and how they’ve developed over the past several decades. This is not going to be comprehensive. Instead, I’ll focus on a few examples of specific movements and some of the kinds of issues and dynamics that I think are important for an overall understanding of the right. But before that, let me make a few general points about the right and how I approach it.
Rightward shift since the 1970s
The United States has seen a major upsurge of right-wing movements more or less continuously since the late 1970s — from the so-called New Right and the Reagan Revolution of thirty years ago to the Tea Party and the anti-immigrant movement of today. Part of the impact of this upsurge is that it’s helped to bring about a whole rightward shift in what people consider mainstream political discourse.
To help put this in perspective, here’s a little exercise: Imagine a president who expands affirmative action, actively promotes school desegregation, enacts important new laws in social welfare, environmental protection, occupational health and safety, and consumer protection, supports comprehensive health insurance and a system of guaranteed income for all citizens, and whose Justice Department opposes the RICO Act on the grounds that it gives the government powers that are much too broad and sweeping for prosecuting criminals. In 2011, such a president would be considered far to left of Barack Obama and far to the left of almost everyone in Congress. Forty years ago, such a president was called Richard Nixon. That’s the shift I’m talking about.
I’d also like to touch on some of the major factors that have contributed to this right-wing upsurge. First and foremost, the right of recent decades represents a backlash against “the sixties” — the Black liberation movement and all of the social change movements it helped to inform and inspire (really starting in the 1950s and continuing into the 1970s and later) and all the political, cultural, economic, and other changes that these movements helped to bring about. These changes included the partial erosion of traditional social hierarchies and systems of privilege based on race, gender, and so on. They also included a big expansion of the federal government’s role in society, in terms of protecting civil rights, expanding social programs, and expanding the regulation of business.
Other factors that have fueled the rightist upsurge include the relative decline of U.S. hegemony in the world — with the Vietnam War and other revolutionary struggles in various parts of the world, as well as the growing economic power of Europe, Japan, and other countries. So while the United States is still very powerful, it no longer dominates the capitalist world the way it did forty years ago. Connected with that, starting in the 1970s you had the end of the long economic boom that followed World War II, and the beginnings of capital flight and other economic restructurings that we now associate with globalization. Lastly, starting in the 1970s you had a major rightward shift in the business community, which meant that a lot more money and power was suddenly available for right-wing political groups.
Dynamics of right-wing movements
I also want to say a few things about how I approach the study of right-wing movements. One of my starting points is that right-wing movements are movements of regular human beings. The people who join these movements are not especially crazy or irrational or stupid or fanatical or mindless puppets — although unfortunately these are all common stereotypes. Right-wing movements attract and keep supporters because they speak to people’s hopes, fears, grievances, and human struggles. They may do that in a twisted and ugly way, but they do it — or they don’t last.
Another starting point is that it’s too simple to see political struggle as a binary conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed. It’s certainly true that many rightist movements represent ruling-class interests to an important degree, but many rightist movements also have a degree of autonomy from — or even conflict with — the ruling class. A major reason for this is that a lot of these movements offer people a two-part package. On one hand they offer people a way to defend the relative social privileges and power that they enjoy over oppressed groups, but on the other hand they also address people’s sense of disempowerment and being downtrodden by groups above them in the social hierarchy, by offering some form of anti-elitism that’s usually either simplistic or complete scapegoating. The classic version of this that comes up again and again in U.S. history is a movement that offers middle- or working-class whites a way to bolster their racial privilege over communities of color, while also attacking some group people identify with elites, such as big government, liberal intellectuals, the Trilateral Commission, Jewish bankers, global corporations, etc. This right-wing anti-elitism presents evil elites as a subjective, alien force, rather than an integral part of an entire system of power.
One of the implications of this kind of double-edged dynamic is that rightist movements can represent different types of threats. The most obvious one is the threat of intensifying oppression, exploitation, repression, and human misery, as well as directly attacking movements for human liberation. But there is also the threat that rightist movements can infect the left with right-wing ideas, for example by repackaging anti-elite conspiracy theories in ways that sound radical and get picked up by leftists in place of systemic or structural analyses of power. There is even the threat that rightists could supplant the left as the main opposition force, at least to a degree. I always come back to Tom Metzger, one of the key neonazi leaders in the 1980s, who urged his followers to “take the game away from the left.” What he meant was, the left is fighting the U.S. empire, but so are we, and we can do a better job than they can. It would be a big mistake to think that right-wingers who say this are just being hypocritical — or to assume that the left can do a better job than they can at offering people a radical alternative.
Sakai has a great quote about this in his essay “The Shock of Recognition,” which is in the book Confronting Fascism. He is talking about German Nazism as a radical movement, and he says, “We forget…that many youth in 1930s Germany viewed the Nazis as liberatory. As opposed to the German social democrats, for example, who preached the dutiful authority of parents over children, the Hitler Youth gave rebellious children the power to keep their own hours, have an active sex and political life, smoke, drink and have groups of their own.” (The quote is from page 104.) This may seem like a small example, but it’s the kind of thing that can have a big impact on where people choose to give their political loyalty.
During the rest of my presentation I’m going to discuss four examples of recent right-wing movements. The first movement I’m going to talk about, the paleoconservatives, is an example of what Keith Preston has called the “permanent opposition right.” A lot of rightist activism rises and falls depending on whether the Democrats or the Republicans are in power, but the permanent opposition right doesn’t do that — it’s seriously opposed to both major parties. The other three movements I’m going to talk about are all examples of mass movements: the Christian right, the Tea Party, and the Patriot movement.
The paleoconservatives are a relatively small network of intellectuals that took shape in the 1980s. Their roots go back to the America First tradition of conservatives who opposed U.S. entry into World War II. This “Old Right” current was backed by an outsider faction of the business community based in the Midwest and later the Sunbelt, which was hostile to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism and the Eastern elite/internationalist wing of big business that supported Roosevelt. To varying degrees, many of the America Firsters were sympathetic to fascism and fascist claims of a Jewish-British conspiracy.
During the Cold War, the American First/anti-New Deal right was largely submerged in the broader conservative movement and the anticommunist consensus that joined everyone from liberals to former Nazis in defining the Soviet Union as the main enemy. But when the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1989-1991, this anticommunist consensus unraveled, and there was a big split in the conservative movement. The two main opposing poles in this split were the neoconservatives and the paleoconservatives, and I need to explain this briefly because it’s affected a lot of what’s happened since then.
The first neoconservatives were anticommunist liberals who moved to the right as a reaction against the “excesses” of the 1960s. They were predominantly Jewish and Catholic, which put them outside the ranks of old guard conservatism. Neocons glorify American capitalism and loudly promote the idea that the United States has a mission to spread democracy and freedom throughout the world — by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary. Along with supporting an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy, the neocons are also strongly pro-Zionist and want the U.S. to stay closely aligned with an aggressive, expansionist Israel. At the same time, the neocons tend to be relatively moderate on a number of other issues such as immigration, ethnic diversity, abortion, and to some extent the welfare state. The neocons have attracted lots of capitalist support and have played major political roles under both Reagan and George W. Bush.
In contrast to the neocons, the paleoconservatives have always been wary of “foreign entanglements.” They are generally hostile to interventionism, free trade, and globalization, and they’re also critical of the Israeli state — partly for geopolitical reasons, partly because of antisemitism. Paleocons tend to be unapologetic champions of white Christian culture, and they take a harder line on the culture wars and opposing social welfare programs than the neocons do. The paleocons have attracted little capitalist support and have mostly been frozen out of political power. But they have attracted significant popular support, as evidenced by Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns in the 1990s. They also played key roles in building the neo-Confederate and anti-immigrant movements, and to some extent paleocons have converged with more hardline white supremacists in building a broader white nationalist movement.
What’s interesting about the paleocons is that while they’re horrible on many domestic issues, on foreign policy the paleocons often sound very reasonable and sometimes even leftist. For example, after the September 11th attacks, neocons started talking about the War on Terror as a transcendent struggle between Good and Evil, and claiming that al Qaeda and its allies “hate us for our freedoms” The paleocons said, “That’s nonsense. They don’t hate us for our freedoms. They hate us because we’ve bombed their countries, because we have troops in Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Holy Land.” They were saying that we have to treat al Qaeda as rational political actors, not demonize them as the neocons were doing.
Another important thing about the paleocons is that they’re not dying out. They’re continuing to attract new people, evolve politically, and participate in wider intellectual discussions. The web publication AlternativeRight.com is an example of this. Here we see paleocons interchanging with other rightist currents such as the European New Right, which is a smarmy, sophisticated offshoot of traditional fascism, and with right-wing anarchists such as the National-Anarchists and Keith Preston of AttackTheSystem.com. (Preston even argues that the “alternative right” represents an evolution beyond paleoconservatism to something younger and more radical. It’s something to watch.)
The three mass movements I’m going to discuss are the Christian Right, the Tea Party movement, and the Patriot movement. Each of these movements has helped to revitalize the right by mobilizing new constituencies, creating new organizations, and introducing new political themes and strategies. Each has a membership and support base that is predominantly but not exclusively white. Each of these movements also encompasses a significant amount of ideological diversity and, in particular, has been fueled by a dynamic interplay between hardline and moderate wings.
The Christian right came together in its modern form in the 1970s and 1980s as a backlash against feminism, the LGBT movement, and broader secularization trends in society, such as the court ban on prayer in schools, which happened in the 1960s. The Christian right’s central focus is on reasserting male dominance and compulsory heterosexuality in the framework of the so-called traditional family (which isn’t really that traditional). The movement’s strongest base of support is among Sunbelt suburbanites, but it has white middle-class support in all regions. The movement includes Christians of many different denominations — not just Protestant fundamentalists but also other types of conservative evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Catholics. This inclusiveness is a major achievement given how powerful sectarian conflict among Christians has been historically. The movement has built an extensive infrastructure ranging from national lobbying groups to local prayer circles, and it has significant global reach in the form of international media empires as well as foreign missionary work designed to promote a rightist agenda, such as building up homophobic campaigns in Uganda and other African countries.
The Christian right has strong connections with the capitalist elite. In particular, they have received a lot of support from an ultraconservative faction within the business community that’s based in the Sunbelt and is centered in oil (independent oil — not the big companies like Exxon-Mobil or Chevron), real estate, financial services, and some other industries. And as I said, some Christian right media companies have become major national or even international business enterprises in their own right.
The majority of Christian rightists and the movement’s most powerful organizations form a relatively moderate wing that wants to take power within the existing political system, primarily through the Republican party. But there is also a hardline faction that wants to overthrow the existing state and establish some kind of theocratic dictatorship. The hardliners are particularly strong in the terrorist wing of the anti-abortion movement — the people who carry out the assassinations and other targeted acts of violence. Many of the hardliners believe in a doctrine called Christian Reconstructionism, which is an offshoot of Presbyterianism that wants to impose a version of biblical law, complete with slavery, death by stoning, etc. The hardliners are a minority within the Christian right, but they’ve influenced the movement as a whole through a “softer” theocratic doctrine known as Dominion Theology, which says that Christian men have a responsibility to take charge of society. Most Christian right groups endorse some version of Dominion Theology.
The majority wing of the Christian right has been closely allied with the neoconservatives on foreign policy, and generally supports an aggressive military interventionism. This is partly about projecting U.S. power abroad and spreading the gospel of free enterprise, and partly about promoting their own political/media/religious reach internationally. Like the neocons, most of the Christian right advocates a close alliance with Israel — but their reasons are very different. In standard Christian right theology, the ingathering of Jews to the Holy Land is one of things that’s needed to set the stage for Christ’s return. This doctrine also says that all Jews who don’t convert to Christianity will be killed, so it’s pro-Zionist but antisemitic, a combination that’s a lot more common than many people realize. (Note that some hardline Christian rightists are closer to a paleoconservative position on foreign policy — much more anti-interventionist and critical of Israel — but they are definitely in the minority.)
The Christian right promotes a strong cultural ethnocentrism, which means they glorify Western Civilization and European culture and regard other religions (with the partial exception of Judaism) as essentially evil. At the same time, most of the movement repudiates explicit racism and seems to be seriously interested in recruiting, or at least building alliances with, conservative Christians of color. For years, many evangelicals have promoted what they call “racial reconciliation,” which includes apologizing for the sin of segregation. And contrary to stereotype, major Christian right groups have not been particularly keen on scapegoating or excluding immigrants. They’d rather recruit them — especially Latino evangelicals, who are one of the fastest growing religious groups in the U.S.
The Tea Party is a much younger movement than the Christian right. It started in early 2009, as a direct reaction to Barack Obama’s election as president. It is organizationally decentralized and still taking shape as a movement. The Tea Party’s stated focus is on opposing big government and wasteful or intrusive government programs, but the movement also has strong racist and ethnocentric tendencies. Many Tea Party groups are strongly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. Many Tea Partiers also claim that Obama was not born in the United States and therefore is not eligible to be president. Consciously or unconsciously, this is clearly a coded way of saying that we shouldn’t have a black man in the White House.
The Tea Party is mainly based among white middle-class and to lesser extent working-class people. There are more men than women in the movement, and the average age is older than for the overall population. Ideologically, the movement is pretty diverse. It includes conventional Republican types, libertarians, Christian rightists, anti-immigrant activists, Patriot movement supporters, and a few people involved in more hardcore far right groups.
Representatives of the Republican/corporate establishment have played a big role in shaping the Tea Party movement from the beginning. Best known are the Koch brothers and Dick Armey, but there are others as well. It’s an exaggeration to say that the Tea Party is an astroturf or fake grassroots movement, because it has tapped into real, broad-based political resentments, and corporate establishment forces don’t control the movement by any means. But I do think it’s fair to say that they represent the strongest and best organized political pole within a diverse, decentralized movement, so they are in the best position of anyone to shape the movement’s overall direction. One result of this is that taken as a whole, the Tea Party does not pose a radical challenge to the established political order. On the other hand, there are groups within the Tea Party whose politics are much more radical, especially some of the anti-immigrant and Patriot-oriented chapters. These forces have contributed to the movement’s insurgent style and have helped to give the movement an energy and dynamism that it would not have if Dick Armey were simply calling the shots.
The Patriot movement is more starkly oppositional than either the Christian right or the Tea Party. The Patriot movement exploded in the mid-1990s based on fears that globalist elites were plotting to overthrow the U.S. constitution and impose a dictatorship. This sounds nutty but it was a response to specific, real acts of state repression, such as the federal assault on the Branch Davidians’ compound in Waco, Texas, which killed over 80 people. Many Patriot movement activists formed armed “citizen militias” to oppose the crackdown, or formed so-called common law courts that claimed legal authority in place of the existing court system. This was a defensive strategy, not a revolutionary strategy, but it involved building dual power institutions, which a lot of leftists only dream about doing.
Patriot movement ideology borrows heavily from the John Birch Society, which has circulated conspiracy theories about globalist elites for half a century, and from Posse Comitatus, which is a white supremacist group that developed in the 1970s. Posse Comitatus means “power of the county,” and the group rejects all government authority above the county level. There has also been some overlap between Patriot/militia forces and the Christian right’s hardline wing, including advocates of anti-abortion terrorism such as Matt Trewhella of the group Missionaries to the Preborn.
The Patriot movement’s base is more working class and more rural than either the Christian right or the Tea Party. All three movements are strong in the West and South, but the Patriot movement is probably strongest in the Midwest, which is unusual for a right-wing movement today. The movement has been on a roller coaster ride over the past fifteen years. The number of Patriot movement groups hit a peak of over 850 in 1996, then crashed partly because of a government crackdown. The movement was flat all through George W. Bush’s presidency, but then right after Obama’s election it took off again, and now there are almost as many Patriot groups as there were in 1996. This resurgence hasn’t received nearly as much media coverage as the movement did fifteen years ago, although some specific Patriot groups have gotten attention, such as Oath Keepers, which is geared toward military service people and law enforcement officers.
During the 1990s, there was a whole debate among critics of the right about the role of fascists in the Patriot movement. Some people treated the movement essentially as a front for neo-nazis, while other people said the nazi members were atypical. To my mind, it was a mistake to treat this as an either-or question. The key point — one of the most important things about the Patriot movement — was that it was the first U.S. political movement since World War II where fascists and non-fascists worked together on a mass scale. This doesn’t mean that most Patriot activists were won over to fascist politics, but fascist ideas and groups found a hearing and a measure of legitimacy among much wider circles than they had found in a long time. As far as I can tell, this is still true today.
At the same time, the Patriot movement’s race politics is more complicated than many people assume. Some of the conspiracy theories that have circulated in the movement have antisemitic roots, and some activists subscribe to doctrines that are based in white supremacist ideology, such as the idea that African Americans hold a different and inferior kind of citizenship than whites Americans do. But the movement has succeeded in attracting a few people of color and Jews, and some Patriot groups and leaders have made a sincere effort to exclude or challenge open bigotry.
Unlike the Christian right or the Tea Party, the Patriot movement has attracted very little elite support. It is openly hostile to the dominant wing of the ruling class and its visible representatives such as multinational corporations, the Federal Reserve, the Bilderbergers, etc. Patriot groups tend toward strongly isolationist politics, and tend to regard the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank as all part of the globalist conspiracy. However, Patriot movement politics do tie in with ruling class strategy in certain ways. For example, many Patriot groups are militantly opposed to government regulation of land use, which certainly meshes well with a lot of capitalist interests. As a very different example, the original idea for armed citizen militias is partly an offshoot of U.S.-sponsored counterinsurgency operations. Larry Pratt, who heads the ultraconservative group Gun Owners of America, proposed forming citizen militias at a meeting in 1992 based on his experience working with paramilitary death squad “citizen militias” in Guatemala and the Philippines. His idea was to take the same organizational form but instead of using it against communist guerrillas abroad, use it against a repressive government at home. This is an example of how anticommunist initiatives sometimes got repurposed after the end of the Cold War in ways that the U.S. empire definitely did not control. (Al Qaeda is another, more famous example.)
To sum up, I’d like to highlight a few major themes that we should watch for in the right in the years ahead. First, most right-wing movements will continue to have a complex — or even a contradictory — relationship with the established order, defending it in some ways, challenging it in others. In many movements, this plays out partly through a push-pull dynamic between hardline and moderate wings. I’ve referred to this in relation to the Christian right and the Tea Party, and we could also discuss it in relation to the white nationalist movement and other examples. Too many commentators try to reduce right-wing movements to either an extremist fringe or an astroturf creation of conservative elites. We should be very skeptical of both explanations.
Second, I expect that we will see right-wing movements taking a range of positions on race. There will still be a hard core of white supremacists promoting biological determinism, but the real growth will be among forces that take a more sophisticated approach, including active coalition-building with between whites and people of color. Demographic trends say that white people are going to become a minority in the U.S. in about 40 years, and we should assume that there are right-wing leaders who are planning for this, not just railing against the trend. There are significant right-wing nationalist currents within communities of color, ranging from the Nation of Islam to supporters of India’s Hindu nationalist movement, and growing class divisions among people of color could fuel the growth of the right.
Third and maybe most important, we should expect newness. Right-wing forces are not going to stand still — they will continue to grow and change, and if we’re not prepared for this, we will be in trouble. The Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher commented once that after World War I, many German leftists thought the main danger from the right was going to be efforts to restore the monarchy. They were blindsided when it turned out that the main danger was a movement that had no interest in restoring the monarchy, but instead carried a red flag and put both “Socialist” and “Workers” in the name of their organization. Whether or not we face a threat on the scale of Nazism, if we don’t pay attention we will be fighting the wrong battles.