Chip Berlet is senior analyst with Political Research Associates, the Somerville, Massachusetts-based organization. PRA monitors and reports on the political right wing. His articles appear in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Progressive magazine. He is the editor of Eyes Right: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash. He’s co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America.
I’m going to talk about a relatively horrible subject, which is how the other side took power. I really think that it’s important to understand how they did it, because that helps us understand that we can undo it. And it’s really important to start with a very basic premise: Why now? What is it that’s happening now that has allowed the political right wing to become institutionalized? And that’s what happened. It’s really important to understand that when a social movement and a political movement become institutionalized in the state apparatus, and in the culture, and in the economy, that it is much harder to dislodge.
I’m going to start out by saying it’s probably just as bad as you think, if not worse. The longest period of reactionary backlash in American history followed the Civil War, with the Redemption crushing of Reconstruction. We are now five years longer than that period, so we are in the longest sustained reactionary backlash movement in American history since the founding of the nation. But, hey, you know, it’s a challenge, right? So we’re going to have to figure out what to do.
The basic thing to start with is why now? Jean Hardisty, who is the founder of Political Research Associates, came up with the concept of mobilizing resentment to explain how otherwise average, intelligent people could consistently vote against their own self-interest in terms of the political economy. The answer is that they don’t think they are. And they’re not stupid and they’re not crazy. They see the world in a certain way that leads them to believe that voting for George Bush is in fact in their best interest. But there are historical reasons why that’s true, and Jean laid them out. All of these are things that have happened throughout U.S. history before, but what hasn’t happened is that they happened all at the same time. They lined up kind of like a horrific reactionary eclipse.
Religious revitalization and apocalyptic fervor. Throughout American history, the Christian movements, theologically speaking, have gone through revitalizations. It’s a concept that comes out of anthropology and religion and political science by a guy named Wallace. And he points out that periodically there are these revitalization movements. In fact, these revitalization movements can be progressive; they can lead to the abolition movement, they can lead to a whole range of Christian evangelical activity which is, in fact, progressive, or at least is relatively progressive for the time that it’s happening. But this is a conservative religious revitalization.
And we’ll get back to how this is similar to things that are happening around the world. Plus apocalyptic fervor, which really came to the fore around the year 2000 but started quite a few years ago when some Christian evangelical conservatives decided that the state of Israel being founded was a sign that Christ was coming back any day now. And I’m going to explain why they think that. And I still don’t think they’re crazy, because this is a deeply embedded belief structure that’s rooted in biblical prophecy. But when you have both a religious revitalization with apocalyptic fervor, there is a lot of energy, and there is a lot of determination to do something.
The second reason is economic contraction, restructuring, and redistribution. We’re obviously going through an economic crisis that, although it comes and goes in terms of its severity, is a fairly sustained economic crisis. And economic crises, along with social and cultural and political crises, cause turmoil and create movements that seek to restore some, usually idealized, status quo.
The third reason is race resentment and bigotry. America is founded on racism. It is settler nation that started out by eradicating the people who were here first and then went into slavery. We have yet to recover from that. And it is easy to mobilize white people in America by playing the race card. A lot of politicians have figured out how to do that by dealing from under the deck, by not using the overt language of bigotry but by using coded language. But it’s still race resentment and bigotry.
Backlash and social stress. Backlash against all of the social liberation movements. Just think about being someone who is a social conservative and seeing the civil rights movement and the student rights movement and the women’s rights movement and the gay and lesbian rights movement and the environmental movement. And God knows, now people aren’t eating meat. And it’s bad enough women want to be on top. They want to be on top of each other. The world is coming to an end. They simply can’t cope. And you have to understand that this is a deeply felt sense of moral outrage. You can say, Get over it, but, folks, they don’t, okay. And it’s important to understand that this outrage is then focused on political activism.
Finally, a well-funded network of institutions. It’s important to see the right as a network of institutions and movements. It’s largely a social movement that also has an attached political movement, but there is also a whole range of institutions, such as think tanks, media outlets, celebrities, cultural workers. The whole range of things that every social movement needs to be successful the right systematically started to build in the 1970s. They had built them before, but in the 1970s they really decided to put a serious amount of investment into accomplishing that.
The right wing has a grievance. Us. And they have a shared vision of the future. America without us. So it’s a pretty simple kind of dynamic to understand: We are not Americans, they are Americans. And if you doubt that, they sometimes come right out and say that. They say, We are the real America, and you, meaning us, are not the real America.
There are different sectors of the right. There are all these different sectors of the right, and they come to the table, this coalition they’ve built, with a different set of reasons for coming there, and then they sit there, doesn’t this sound like a great idea for building a coalition? They decide that on this particular tactical moment we’re going to set aside these differences and we’re all going to get on the same page and push for this. And it doesn’t mean that they all agree on everything, it doesn’t mean they even like each other. And sometimes, when they are not developing a common tactical plan, they’re actually writing long polemics. About how the Libertarians say the neoconservatives are a bunch of aristocrats, and the Christian right complains that the corporate business people are too materialist and not spiritual enough. They get into these fights. But they can then agree on a tactical plan, and they put that forward. So understand that the way that the right institutionalized was not as a monolith but as a series of overlapping social and political movements that make deals with each other to make steps forward. And if they can’t agree on it, it gets put on the back burner, and they just keep moving on to the next issue, the next issue, and the next issue, building consensus and deciding what they’re going to roll back next.
In a large sense, there are three social movements that have received a lot of attention. I’m going to really focus on the more mainstream movements, but it is important to know that along with traditional conservatism there is the Christian right, and their major bugaboo is gender, policing gender. Whether it’s antifeminist or anti-gay/lesbian, it doesn’t matter. They are concerned with policing the boundaries of gender and making sure that patriarchy is considered the norm.
The patriot militia movement has some overlap with the Christian right, but not a lot. And the patriot militia movement is concerned with the government, and they have a very conspiratorial view of what the government represents. The government is ruled by secret elites, it’s planning to impose tyranny any day now. That becomes, actually, more believable with each Ashcroft moment. But they construct it in a way that really denies the root of their fear, which is that they believe that the U.N. is going to land in black helicopters and take away everyone’s guns and set up a one-world government. I’ll get back to why they think that in a moment.
And then with the extreme right, by which I mean neo-Nazis, white supremacists, race hate groups, their major bugaboo is race. They are completely concerned with the idea that nation is race, and they want to police the bloodlines, the boundaries of blood, and basically the idea that nation and culture are embedded in biological, determinant, essentialist bloodlines, which is pretty creepy.
So where did some of these ideas come from? Let’s go way back to, oh, say, ancient Babylon and the Zoroastrians. For me to finish this speech in 40 minutes, to go from the Zoroastrians to, say, Bush and Ashcroft, I’m going to have to make some leaps. So bear with me. There was this sect of Jews that decided that their leader, who had been killed, came back. And they began to collect the writings about this guy, and by “this guy,” Jesus of Nazareth, and they decided he was the messiah, which was part of Jewish tradition. So they collected a lot of this material after the fact and put together this book called the Bible, which at the time seemed like a really good idea.
There was one little problem. There was this guy John. John wrote the Gospels, was one of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. And they found this document by this guy named John, and they really thought that that was the same John. And this was the Book of Revelation. And the problem was, it wasn’t really the same John. It was this other guy named John who actually lived a little bit later and lived in a cave and sort of had visions and weird dreams, and he wrote them down. And they said, Okay, it’s by John, it’s part of the Bible.
Zoom forward six, seven, eight, twelve, fifteen centuries. And we have a group of people now who read the Book of Revelation not as an interesting metaphor and set of myths, not as an interesting cultural artifact; they read it as a script. And the script tells you that at a certain point in history, as a Christian, there is going to be this battle called the End Times, and you have a special role in this battle, because Christians in the End Times have to fight the Antichrist. The Antichrist is sent by the devil back to the world, the real world here, and he decides to build a one-world government, or new world order. So if you’re, like, looking for signs of the End Times, you need go no further than your wallet, because on the back of the dollar bill we have novus ordo seclorum, new world order, if you actually can’t read Latin, because that’s not really what it says, but it’s close enough.
And so the new world order is everywhere you look. You see it in the U.N., you see it in the European parliament, you see it in Muslims trying to take over the world and create a one-world religion. Why is that significant? Antichrist has a sidekick, the False Prophet. And so while the Antichrist is building the new world order, the False Prophet is building a one-world religion. Why are they doing this? Easy. Bored? Nothing better to do but to take over the world? No. It’s to stop Christ from coming back, which if you’re a Christian and you expect Christ to come back soon because you see the signs of the End Times, this is, like, annoying. So you read the Book of Revelation for clues about the End Times. And there are all these clues: there are wars and rumors of war, there is disease, and every time you look around there are natural disasters. There is this whole list of things.
If you believe this to be true, and reasonably intelligent, thoughtful, devout Christians, probably 25% of the population believes this to be true in a generic sense, probably 10 or 15 million people believe it in the sense that they’re planning for it as it’s going to occur in their lifetime. The problem is so many people believe this now, but this apocalyptic thinking has become a metaphor throughout Western history. So if you look back through the centuries, repeatedly people have seen the signs of the End Times. Martin Luther thought the Pope was the Antichrist. He thought a lot of people were the Antichrist; he was a little bit of a noodge. But there were different times that different people were the Antichrist. And there is Robert Fuller, who has written a whole book called Naming the Antichrist. It’s just about how many times in U.S. history people have discovered who the Antichrist is. In the last century alone, the Antichrist was the Bolshevik Revolution, or Lenin, or Gorbachev. He had the mark of the beast on his forehead, right? The mark of the beast is the sign that you’ve accepted the devil and you’ve rejected Christ. And it was on his head. Didn’t you see it? How about supermarket bar codes? 666. That’s the mark of the beast. What if your license plate is a secret code of 666? Timothy McVeigh, maybe making a joke, said he worried about having a little microchip tucked in his ass that contained the code for 666. He might have been joking, but there are people who seriously think the government is running around sticking these microchips into you. So if you believe this, it sets a way of seeing the world. And you can look at this as a metaphor back thousand of years, back 2,000 years, actually further back, to the Zoroastrians. In different cultures there are actually similarities, but I actually don’t know enough about them.
But in fact, there is a certain way of seeing the world that is apocalyptic. And apocalyptic simply means that there is a coming battle that will change the world’s history. It’s between good and evil, and you have to prepare for it, and time is running out. That’s apocalypticism. And if you tie that with the idea of the millennial reign of Christ, it’s (now repeat after me) apocalyptic millennialism. So apocalypticism and millennialism are ideas that you need to become acquainted with, even if you can’t pronounce them, because if you see the world in this way, then every battle is a battle between good and evil.
We’re going to set that aside for a while, and we’re going to go someplace else. In 1805, jumping ahead, the Unitarians stole Harvard from the Calvinists. Why does that matter? Because there was a theological battle, and it was a battle about whether the nature of man — their term — whether or not the nature of man was good or evil. And the Calvinist concept was that man was evil, he was born in sin, and that he changed through punishment, shame, and discipline. Punishment, shame, and discipline. Fast forward, Contract on America. Fast forward, welfare reform. Just put that aside for a moment. So if, in fact, people are basically evil, it would be a waste of time to try and build a social safety net, because they’re just lazy, they’re stupid, they’re not trying. The Unitarians came along and said, This is a terrible way to think about humanity. Let’s come up with a different idea. What if people are basically good, and there are these structural reasons in society that force people into poverty? And maybe we could have things like public education, and maybe we could have things like the preliminary version of a social safety net. So this was a theological battle. Doctrinaire Calvinisms (and today there are a lot of people who are Calvinists who don’t think this way) is a particular theological point of view, which I have compressed greatly, and have been told so repeatedly by scholars of religion. But I think it’s still valid. So the Calvinists view the world a certain way, and the Unitarians view it another way.
So there develops in America two different basic views of how theology works in Christianity among Protestants. And we’re setting aside the Catholics, because at this point Catholics in the United States are pretty much seen as agents of the Antichrist. And there are whole books on that. And the Pope is digging a tunnel to come here and take over. And there are books written about how Catholics, because they follow the Pope, can’t be part of a democracy. And there is all this stuff. And if you actually read anti-immigrant literature from today, they’re looking at Mexican Catholics, and they’re repeating the same slanders about Catholicism that were prevalent in the 1800s. The Catholics don’t know how to be part of a democracy because they follow this godlike Pope and they worship and they do all these things and rituals. And there is this thing about the Madonna, and I don’t mean Madonna. Boy, I have to go back and read that Bible.
And what happened was this new idea that you could actually change society and produce a society in which people could thrive, and it would reduce sin and crime and poverty, and the government could play a role in all of this. That was actually like a widespread idea up until Reagan. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Now let’s talk about some divisions here. Evangelicals. You have Christianity. You have Catholicism, the one true church for a very long time. You have the Reformation. You have Protestants. There develops this thing called evangelicalism. And right now about 25% of the adult population think of themselves as either evangelical or born again. So that’s a lot of people, and a considerable number of them vote. There are a number of ways of looking at evangelicalism, but essentially it thinks about conversion. And this is the work of David Bebbington. They want to convert people. They think that Gospel activism is something you have to engage in. You have to spread the good news. The Bible is your guide, and Christ’s sacrifice is central to your view of how the world works. And this is in many ways a style of practicing Christianity. And in the broadest sense there are actually Catholic evangelicals and there are liberal and leftist evangelicals. Like the Sojourners movement in Washington would be a liberal or left progressive evangelical movement. So not all evangelicals are right wing.
Fundamentalists, however, were a faction that formed around 1910-1915. A whole series of volumes were written that said the modern Protestant church has sold out to science and business and modernity, and we have to get back to the fundamentals, thus fundamentalism. This is a word that’s been expanded to refer to a whole range of religious revitalization movements around the world. And there is a really amazing study by the University of Chicago under Martin Marty and a couple other people, who have looked at fundamentalism as a generic phenomenon around the world. And that’s worth noting, because fundamentalism often is a backlash reaction against rapid change and social stress. They wouldn’t say that, but I would. And one of the things that the fundamentalists did, they tried to take over the main-line Protestant churches, and they failed, but they got involved in prohibition and promoting traditional morality and Sunday blue laws, but they also urged that everyone stop teaching evolution, because science was conflicting with the Bible. Again, that’s that biblical centrism of evangelicalism that was applied in fundamentalism as saying that anything that conflicted with the Bible should not be taught in public schools.
So you get what we all know as the Scopes monkey trial in 1925. And the Scopes monkey trial is all about preventing the teaching of evolution, the theories of Darwin, you must teach the creation story in the Bible. Two things which people tend to forget: one, the fundamentalists won the case, so in Tennessee it was found that teaching evolution was against state law; however, less widely known is that through people like H. L. Mencken and a lot of other folks, fundamentalists were treated to a royal savaging in the mainstream media and the public sphere, and they really got their fingers burned.
And fundamentalists decided to retreat from American society, retreat from political life. No more of this prohibition stuff, no more of this trying to force people to reform into social traditionalism, force the main-line Protestant denominations to return to their original path. I note that all fundamentalist movements claim to be returning a religion to some earlier time, and no fundamentalist movement ever does that. Every fundamentalist says that they want to return to a point when the religion did A, B, C, and D. There is no point when the religion did A, B, C, and D. They’re basically using this historic romanticist reference to get people to actually adopt a different religion altogether. So fundamentalism is at the same time reactionary and it’s a revitalization movement that really is seeking change. And the other joke is very many fundamentalist movements use the tools of modernity to roll it back. So you find fundamentalists buying time on radio in the 1920s. Who knew? So there is this interesting contradiction there of fighting modernity with modernity’s tools.
Okay, you’re a fundamentalist, it’s 1929 or something, you’ve been thoroughly burned by the Scopes monkey trial. What do you do? Since everything is Bible-centered, you look at the Bible and you decide that you’ve overlooked a passage that says “Render unto Caesar.” If you’re a fundamentalist, you decide that there is a Christian evangelical fundamentalist sphere and there is a public sphere, and the more you get involved in the public sphere, the more likely you are to be a sinner. So a whole group of American voters leaves the political system, and they simply stop voting. And even the ones who do vote don’t look to their religion for their voting preferences; they vote their background demographics. So if they’re working people they vote Democratic; if they’re more upwardly mobile and wealthier, they vote Republican. So you can’t really look at evangelicals or fundamentalists and predict their voting pattern on the basis of their religious beliefs; you have to look at other demographics. So fundamentalists really pull out entirely. The evangelicals are simply doing their own thing in their religion but still politically participating, but not in a way that can be dramatically shown in any statistical sense governed by their religious beliefs. But there is a whole lot of people who have gotten out of voting.
And it’s around 1950 now, and we’ve got Billy Graham. But before we get to Billy Graham, keep Billy Graham up there, and communism and the fact that for America to be strong, everyone has to vote – who do you vote for? Well, there is this thing that’s happened in the meantime. And that’s FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He has brought socialism to America through communist labor unions. Well, that’s the story, if you read the right-wing press. And there is a whole lot of literature about Roosevelt, the socialist. If you get a little further out to the right, his name is really Rosenfeld, and he’s part of the Jewish banking conspiracy, but the more mainstream Republicans just say he’s a communist. And over in the corner somebody is saying, He’s a Jewish communist, but that’s not publicly acceptable. And what did FDR do? The first New Deal was 1933 to 1935. Collectivism, big government, meddling in the social relations in the country.
This set the stage for what was called fusionism. William F. Buckley, around 1955, started The National Review. The idea was to roll back New Deal and liberalism. What were the three groups he decided to put together to roll back the New Deal? Economic libertarianism, a whole range of economic theories that perhaps incorrectly trace back to a whole bunch of writers talking about laissez faire and the free hand of the market and ya-da ya-da ya-da, the invisible hand, whatever they think that it is that controls capitalism that I don’t understand how they do it, but they come up with a whole set of theories, economic libertarianism, social traditionalism, really rooted in a whole lot of Christian, Judeo-Christian ethics, but at this point Judeo is kind of an add-on, because they’re just getting over a lot of that naked anti-Semitism that was real popular among Republicans until World War II made it a little bit, you know — it’s not done.
Militant anticommunism. Militant anticommunism is wedded to a whole lot of critiques, including a group of Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists who see Godless communism as part of an apocalyptic arrangement. And so militant anticommunism is not just an economic critique, it’s not just a foreign policy critique, but it’s a religious critique as well. And there is a huge body of literature about the Christian perception of communism as part of the Antichrist system.
That brings us back to Billy Graham. Who do you vote for? Well, evangelicals are divided on that. There is this whole political movement trying to roll back the New Deal and liberalism, but they’re split on it. So the deal is, they decide to get people out to vote, and how they vote is left open. And there is a campaign, which, as a Cub Scout, I hung little cardboard bells on doorknobs, the Let Freedom Ring campaign, a little Liberty Bell, and it was a get-out-the-vote campaign. And we went around to people’s door knobs and we hung these things that said, “Go Vote. It’s America. Keep America Strong. Vote.” And it was an attempt to bring people back into the voting booth, who had become detached from the political participation which was being sought. But still there was not an attempt to wed a religious viewpoint to political partisanship. It was just get out the vote. And until the mid-1970s, again, you could not predict how even a conservative Christian evangelical theologically would vote, because it was the background demographics that controlled it.
Now, in 1964, Barry Goldwater ran for president. A lot of Christians get involved in that campaign, because they support a lot of his politics. You get people like Phyllis Schlafly, her first major political campaign. She writes a book, A Choice, Not An Echo, about Barry Goldwater. If you read that book, it’s really about a conspiracy of secret Republican elites who control the Republican Party, and Barry Goldwater will break up this secret belief group called – I can’t remember – the secret kingmakers, she called them. It was great. And a lot of Republican activists get involved in the Goldwater campaign in 1964. And, of course, Goldwater loses very badly.
So then you’ve lost. You’ve made your big attempt at asserting a political presence through the Goldwater campaign. You get burned. You go back and you say, What are we going to do? Well, you try a lot of things. In 1964, 1968, 1972, George Wallace runs on a right-wing populist campaign, which half of it sounds like social re-distributionism. And if you’re a white working man, it sounds almost like socialism. Unfortunately, if you’re black, it doesn’t work as well, although he changes his tune later on. Some of these political campaigns are really an attempt to say, “We believe in social re-distributionism for white men but not for black America.” And this attracts 10 million votes in 1968 for the American Independent Party. It’s 13.5% of the total. He carried five southern states.
This set the stage for Nixon’s Southern Strategy, we’re up to 1972 now, the Nixon Southern Strategy developed (and now apologized for) by Kevin Phillips. He says, This populist rhetoric works, and we’re going to have to adopt it. And what we have to do is really target this populist appeal to just change the way America is run, but we’re going to have to target Italians, we’re going to have to target white people. We’re going to have to forget blacks and Jews. And there is actually a memo that says this. A Nixon aide is having a conversation with Phillips, and he writes up this memo that says, basically, “Appeal to white people and write off the blacks and Jews.” That’s how the Republicans are going to win the election. And that was called the Southern Strategy. It’s not called White Supremacy in Action; it’s called the Southern Strategy. But you’re supposed to know what it means, right?
At the same time, all of these things are happening: the Christian evangelicals are waiting for Christ to come back, there is a get-out-the-vote campaign, the Republicans are trying to figure out how to get back after Goldwater. And then you have the McGovern campaign in 1972. And a whole lot of Democrats who are anticommunist and hawks decide that the left has gone too far, there is too much rioting in the streets, people are out of control, and it’s time for natural aristocracies to take back control. And that’s the birth of the neoconservative movement. Neoconservative, they’re newly conservative. They used to be liberals, now they just admit they’re conservatives. And they’re against the women’s movement because it’s gone too far, and they’re certainly against gay/lesbian rights. They haven’t even imagined bisexual, transgender people. And they basically think that we need to spend a lot on the military because Russia is about to come get us, and they develop a whole set of military ideas around the idea that Russia is building up a huge arms race.
At the same time — now there are all these threads going here — you have a tax revolt run by Libertarians. It starts in California with Prop 13. There is a very racist subtext to the tax revolt. The basic theme is that you’re paying taxes and a bunch of lazy, shiftless, black parasites are robbing you blind. Now, they don’t say that, because you can’t get elected in America saying stuff like that. They talk about welfare cheats or they talk about crime or they talk about the government coddling people. There is a tremendous racist subtext. A lot of America hears that and knows exactly who is being discussed.
So then you have this guy Richard Viguerie, and he decides computers are pretty neat. And he decides to enter the names from the Goldwater list and the Wallace list and to use that to raise money to build a new political operation. But there is a problem: How do you get people to vote for a party that stands for a tiny percentage of wealthy people who think you’re a shmuck and they don’t care about democracy? Can you build a campaign platform on the idea, “Hey, stupid, vote for me. I’m not going to pay any attention to you, and I’m going to rob you, I’m going to make you poor, I’m going to make me rich, and then I’m going to take over the world and bomb everybody I don’t like.” Now, unfortunately, there are some people who will vote for that. That’s a shame. But most people won’t. So how do you mobilize the resentment so that people vote for these kinds of people?
Well, you talk about race in a coded language, you create fear, you create scapegoats. You mobilize the resentment people have because they know they’re powerless, they know they’re being screwed, and rather than revolting against the revolting people who run the country, they decide to blame scapegoats. And the central way you mobilize resentment and get people to vote against their self-interest is to misdirect their attention and say, “Over there are a group of people who are out to get you.” And that can be lazy, shiftless parasites, the people upstairs, these liberal elites, or Jewish bankers, if you’re more out there. That there are parasites above and there are parasites below and heroic, straight, white, Christian men in the middle, who work hard and come home and are pushed around by the secret parasites up above and robbed blind by the secret parasites down below. The parasites up above are this conspiracy against you, the parasites down below are lazy, sinful, and subversive. And guess what? Throughout U.S. history, these have primarily been people of color. Isn’t that just an amazing coincidence? So the lazy parasites are first Indian people, then they are freed slaves, then they’re Italian immigrants or Russian immigrants. The Irish aren’t even white until the last century. And if you don’t think that’s true, go back and read stuff from the 1800s about how the Irish aren’t white. Noel Ignatiev has written a whole book about how the Irish became white. Why did the Irish have to become white? We were running out of white people. Suddenly, they are all white. And it works. Okay. So you need a lot of people to come vote for you, and you can mobilize resentment so far with political and secular people.
But what if you could get these Christian evangelicals to get involved and vote Republican? So what takes place? This guy Viguerie pulls together with Robert Billings and Ed McAteer and Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell, and they decide to take this political apparatus based on the Goldwater and the Wallace campaigns, which hates the New Deal and wants to roll back liberalism and thinks that social services just coddle those people who really need discipline, shame, and punishment to change because biologically they’re not capable of becoming successful in our society without discipline and punishment and shame. And so this Calvinist idea which we thought we had buried in 1805, with the seizure, the righteous seizure, of Harvard by the Unitarians, has come back into the political scene as a way of explaining why the people who already have too much power and privilege should have more. Because the people who are impoverished are lazy, shiftless, sinful, and subversive, and we need to treat them with punishment, shame, and discipline rather than actually giving them a job.
Moynihan, anyone? And it starts with Pat Moynihan and the idea that we really need to stop meddling in the black community and hope that they actually build a culture. Why this is not seen as naked racism escapes me, but it becomes the basis of a whole series of attempts to resuscitate essentialism and biological determinism, which reaches its high point, or low point, with The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, a fraudulent piece of research which represents the idea that black people and other people of color are genetically inferior so that there is no point in building a social safety net because they are just going to fall through it because they lack the basic building blocks of a person who can exist in a democracy. And if you read The Bell Curve, which I don’t recommend, because it is just a piece of dreck, you will see that this is in fact what they are saying. They are trying to gloss it over, but that’s what they’re saying.
You then have this coalition. And this coalition, then, has a lot of reasons for rolling back the New Deal and eliminating the social safety net and returning to the free market. But they all agree that the problem is big government and liberalism. And they all come to it from different places, but they can agree to build this new political movement called the New Right. And to get voters, they decide to recruit conservative Christian evangelicals, who up until 1976, did he say 1976? Yes, up until 1976 you couldn’t predict their voting patterns. But who, who was the first Democrat, the first presidential candidate, the first nuclear submarine commander to announce that he was born again while running for president? Jimmy Carter, from Plains, Georgia. And he was sincere. He said, I’m born again. It was part of this culture, Plains, Georgia. This is completely typical. It didn’t make him weird. For most Americans it was, in fact, a sign that he had a certain set of beliefs that they respected. So what happens? A whole lot of Christian evangelicals who had been voting Republican voted Democratic and a whole lot of fundamentalists who haven’t been voting vote for Jimmy Carter because he says he’s born again. So he gets a lot of votes, he gets elected.
Who notices this? Falwell, Weyrich, Viguerie, McAteer, Billings, Howard Phillips. They say, If he can do it, we can do it. And they create The Moral Majority. Jerry Falwell agrees to run it. They actually sit around and say, What are we going to call it? Let’s call it The Moral Majority. Why Falwell? He’s a televangelist. He has access to tens of millions of Christian evangelicals who think that he’s a serious person and needs to be obeyed as a religious leader. This is a man who just recently was still saying segregation was God’s plan. He got over that before he built The Moral Majority, but barely. Okay, Moral Majority.
What do you do? What do you stress? Gender issues, you stress government intervention. You point out to Christian evangelicals that the Supreme Court has taken prayer out of school, it’s allowed gays out of the closet, in terms of culture, in terms of a lot of court rulings that are coming down the pike. Just around that time – this is more after the 1980s, in the early 1980s, because that doesn’t really start until after 1979 as a political movement. But you focus on gender issues, you focus on the idea that the government is meddling with your ability to practice your faith. And you create this idea that there is a secular humanist conspiracy to destroy America that we’re part of. And this is part of the End Times plan. And depending on whether you’re Falwell or Pat Robertson, you either imply it in a vague way, like Falwell does, or with Pat Robertson, he just comes out and says it. This is the End Times plan. Watch for the signs of the End Times. God is coming back any moment. And vote against gay rights. And he really believes it. He really does believe it. You shouldn’t think that he’s either dumb or he’s just saying it. He actually does believe this; it’s a sincere belief.
So what happens? 1980, a lot of the Republicans who had voted for Carter shift back and vote for Reagan. And there are some new people coming to the polls, previously nonvoting, Republican-leaning fundamentalists and evangelicals who come back and vote for Reagan. And he sweeps into office. At this point there is not a shift in Democratic-voting Christian evangelicals. That happens in the next four years. And the wedge is abortion. And by focusing on abortion and by focusing on coded racism, white southern evangelicals and white evangelicals around the country around the issues of abortion and around the issues of coded racism are shifted from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party around these issues.
It actually happened in a series of steps. In 1976, 34% of the population described itself as born again; in the year 2000, 45%. It’s 10%, but it’s 10% that pushes things in a particular direction. Now, not all Christian evangelicals who are born again, or even fundamentalists, vote Republican; only a certain group does. But they are well organized. And that’s where we get into this network of institutions, because in fact the biggest voting bloc (for evangelicals who voted in the year 2000) was Bush, 37%; the second biggest voting bloc was don’t vote, 52%; the third biggest voting bloc was Gore, 11%.
See something that’s going on here? It’s not Christian evangelical fundamentalists, it’s conservative Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists who are part of a political machine that is organized both through the church and through parachurch ministries, which are just outside organizations like Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America with Bev LaHaye, or Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum or the Promise Keepers, all of these groups which are telling you that as a devout Christian, how they should vote and how to mobilize. It’s kind of interesting. Of evangelicals contacted by religious political groups about voting, of those who voted for Bush, 79% were contacted in a political campaign to get out the vote for Republicans. For Gore voters it was only 36%. So that there is a disparity in terms of who is mobilizing and how effectively they’re mobilizing.
Now, that’s how we have political power. Now we have people in power who see the world a certain way. Here’s one problem, and Matt Rothschild wrote an editorial about this in The Progressive. If you see the world in this apocalyptic metaphor, and although George Bush is a Methodist on paper, he sees himself as born again, he clearly has an apocalyptic viewpoint. Apocalypticism is a viewpoint now spread through religious and secular cultures. It’s a way of seeing the world. So when he says he’s against the evil axis and he’s demonizing, this has an aspect of apocalyptic thinking, because apocalyptic thinking breeds scapegoating and generates conspiracy theories, which say that our enemy is so sinful and so evil and so devious that we can use any means necessary to stop them, because God is on our side. So this relationship between apocalyptic demonization and conspiracist scapegoating is a very effective way to mobilize people as a political and social force and to vote. And it’s just narrative. There are stories about how bad we are and what we do and how we’re destroying America. And they’re told in these settings to get people to rise up and take back America for God and nationalism and American imperialism, which is obviously God’s plan.
For those of you who have studied political science and sociology, Hofstadter called this “the paranoid style,” and he saw it throughout the American political right wing. Damian Thompson, who is a student of apocalyptic thinking, says that what is seen as “the paranoid style” in the American political scene is in fact simply apocalypticism spread through all sorts of religious and secular culture. It explains “the paranoid style.” It’s not paranoid as in the sense that they are psychotic. It’s socially paranoid. It is a social construction of reality as a conspiracy theory to blame the other as completely evil, which, as Nietsche says, makes me the hero, makes me completely good, and therefore justifies me in doing anything to them because we’re us and they’re them and they’re the devil and we’re God, and if we crush them, we’re doing God’s work. Not a lot of room for civil discourse in that metaphor.
Starve the beast! Libertarianism. The day after the election, memo to rookie governors, Cut, cut, cut. The American Legislative Exchange Council. They already had a game plan. After winning one day, they’re already sending out people all over the country to cut state budgets and they’re already planning to cut the federal budget. All these commentators who have looked at the political scene lately and said they really look like they want to destroy the federal government and create chaos and use that to cut taxes, they’ve been saying that since 1955. This is not hot, flash news.
So how do people get up in the morning and say, I’m going to cut people off welfare so they starve? They don’t say that. They get up in the morning and say, I know that we’re in a battle between good and evil. I know that people are basically bad, I know that the most compassionate way to change them is through punishment, discipline, and shame. And therefore, cutting welfare is a blessing. Okay, but they say that. Because if they got up in the morning and said, I’m going to stomp on the neck of some poor woman with kids, unless they were in fact psychotic, they really couldn’t live with themselves. They would have some kind of major coping break. So they construct a story in which they’re the hero for doing what they’re doing. And they not only think that they’re the hero, but they congratulate themselves for their compassion. Compassionate conservatism. Compassionate conservatism is based on a doctrinaire form of Calvinism come back to haunt us and rooted in an apocalyptic metaphor in which God is on their side.
The concept, starve the beast, has a racist subtext, too, because so many of the people who, unfortunately, are lazy, shiftless, and sinful, are people of color. So we can justify pursuing a project of institutional white supremacy by saying, It’s not a system that’s impoverishing them and holding them back; it’s their own lack of initiative. So through punishment, shame, and discipline we can get them back into the work force, even though they’ll never really be our equals, because if we’ve read The Bell Curve, we know that people of color really are less intelligent and less motivated than white people. And so this becomes a reality.
What do we do? First we have to understand that corporate globalization creates racial and ethnoreligious nationalism as a backlash response. So just like it creates an antiglobalization movement that tries to stop corporate takeover of the world, it also creates reactionary backlash movements based on racial, religious, and ethnic nationalism, which is very happy to engage in demonization of an “other.”
It also creates reactionary religious fundamentalism around the world as a life raft in a sea of social and cultural chaos. Reactionary religious fundamentalism. And not all fundamentalists are necessarily reactionary. There are some fundamentalists who in fact are progressive. But around the world there is this tendency of reactionary religious fundamentalism, which is rooted in an apocalyptic world view.
And we tend to forget that Judaism created Christianity, and together they created Islam. And all three are rooted in this original Zoroastrian idea of the Manichean world, dualism. There is a confrontation coming between us and them. And in each religion, since the very founding of each religion, there are people who have struggled against apocalyptic demonization and there are people who have embraced it as God’s will. And in each religion this is a battle that starts at the very beginning and it continues down to today. And if we reject all of these religious people in Islam, in Judaism, in Christianity as our enemy, we are in fact undercutting the ability of those people standing up against apocalyptic demonization to reform their religions and make them see that evil is not located in a scapegoated group, evil is the will to oppress.
Wedges. One of the things we need to understand is that since this is a coalition, we can use wedges to break it up. We need to understand that the neocons hate the paleocons, the purists hate the pragmatists, the imperialists hate the isolationists. Great. Let’s just stir that pot and then get them bickering with each other and point out the contradictions.
Coalitions. Right now there are people fighting for civil liberties in Washington. It includes everybody from Communists to liberals to libertarians to militia people to Paul Weyrich. We need to be aware of the difference between a tactical and a strategic coalition. A tactical coalition says, Paul
Weyrich’s people are working around civil liberties, we’re working around civil liberties. You go right ahead. We won’t step on your toes. But I’m not going to appear at your meeting and sit on your dais with you and be on a panel which builds your attack against women and gay people and immigrants. If I’m Ralph Nader I will say, I oppose Pat Buchanan’s racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic philosophy even though I work in a coalition with him around NAFTA and global treaties, which he does. And he does refuse to condemn Buchanan’s theories, even though he knows he should, because he doesn’t understand the difference between a tactical coalition and a strategic coalition. You should never be in a strategic coalition where you’re sticking a knife in the back of your allies. What kind of person are you to build a coalition with someone who is reaching around to take a knife and plunge it in the back of your allies? Think about it. I don’t know. It just pisses me off. I don’t get it.
Progressives. We have to understand that there are a lot of legitimate complaints and there are a lot of illegitimate complaints. We need to encourage people to engage in legitimate complaints but expose scapegoating, expose racism, expose sexism, expose heterosexism, expose religious bigotry and the scapegoating and say that your grievances are misdirected towards scapegoats. We have to challenge this whole relationship between demonization and scapegoating and conspiracism that is rooted in the apocalyptic style. We have to provide clear analysis, strategies that offer real alternatives. And we have to draw in broad-based coalitions that build a social movement for change that puts people who are the most risk at the leadership, whoever they are at that moment. And in the current moment that means people of color and gays and lesbians and women and working people, who may be white, who are being oppressed as well. But you can’t have one group decide that because they’re so special they get to run things. The people who are most at risk at any given moment, in any situation are the people who should have the authority to be making the most substantial contributions to leadership and decision making.
If we understand that this is all happening at the same time, we have four fronts we have to fight on. We have to fight the raise of those reactionary populist and nativist and fascist movements, and especially rooted in chauvinism. Theocracy and other antidemocratic forms of fundamentalism is happening around the world. We need to oppose that. We have to oppose authoritarian state actions which are rolling back civil liberties and using aggressive militarism. And we have to oppose the antidemocratic neocorporatism of the multinational wealthy, who are trying to squeeze us into little boxes where we can reach out and pluck consumer items off a tree that they plant. Democracy is a process, it’s not a set of institutions. Democracy is a process. The majority of people over time, given enough accurate information and the ability to participate in a free and open debate, reach the right decisions, to preserve liberty, defend democracy, and extend equality. Thank you.
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