The Right’s New Dynamism

Against the Current, No. 58, September/October 1995

Christopher Phelps

NOT LONG AGO, scandal upon scandal seemed sure to destroy the political fortunes of the religious right. One after another, the great evangelical ministries of the eighties–Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jerry Falwell–fell victim to temptation. After Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign fell flat, the wind seemed to have left the sails of the religious right.

In 1989, however, Robertson used the names gathered during his campaign to create an organization of the faithful focused at the level of local politics and mobilized from on high by executive director Ralph Reed, a young, savvy political operative. Since then, the Christian Coalition has acquired 1.5 million members and a $20 million annual budget. It has disbursed tens of millions of dollars to right-wing candidates, turned out the vote of fundamentalist churchgoers, and made tremendous gains as a force within the Republican Party.

The Christian Coalition has been especially successful at “voter ID.” Local chapters select a target precinct, generally one that doesn’t go heavily Democratic; call all registered voters; weed out left-leaners with a few quick questions; find out what issues most excite remaining voters; and then, just before election day, send out slanted “voter guides” and topical mail aimed at each individual. In this way, right-wingers are brought to the polls in disproportionate numbers.

The success of the Christian Coalition traces to its discovery of the secret of disciplined mass organization. It represents a decisive advance over the Moral Majority’s 1970s combination of televangelism and direct mail, because in many states Christian Coalition members are the core activists of the Republican Party, the ones who take on responsibilities, run for party posts, are present at every meeting, seek elective office–often as “stealth candidates” whose loyalty to the Christian Coalition is unannounced.

The Christian Coalition apparently exists in flagrant violation of its tax-exempt status. It is not supposed to be involved in partisan politics, and its claim to be primarily educational and religious is undermined even by its own bragging.

In a 1991 fundraising letter, Pat Robertson wrote, “By the end of this decade, if we work and give and organize and train, the Christian Coalition will be the most powerful political organization in America.” Last September he declared, “We are seeing the Christian Coalition rise to where God intends it to be in this nation–as one of the most powerful political forces that’s ever been in the history of America.”

Nonetheless, the Christian Coalition’s tireless organization and activism has allowed it and its allies to wrest control of the Republican apparatus in many states. The religious right now completely controls the Republican apparatus in Texas, Minnesota, Oregon, Iowa, South Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana and other states–a total of eighteen, up from six in June of last year. The religious right has a very strong presence in thirteen other state Republican organizations and is vying for control of the national party.

Why the Republicans Don’t Disavow the Religious Right

The mass media has consistently underestimated the resilience and significance of the evangelical right. It prematurely proclaimed its demise after the spate of scandals in 1987-88 and, once again, after the 1992 Republican convention. That spectacle, in which Pat Buchanan declared a “religious and cultural war” for the soul of the country, led pundits to attribute Bush’s defeat to Houston. The Republicans, they said, would have to return to center if they ever sought to regain national power.

As 1994 proved, that judgment was mistaken. Of 177 Republican Senators, representatives and governors standing for re-election, not a single one was unseated. Republicans took control of eleven new gubernatorial offices and seized both houses of Congress. The 1994 election was not about “throwing the bums out.” It was a Republican sweep, propelled by the religious right.

The once-significant liberal wing of the Republican Party, symbolized by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s, is gone, defeated permanently by the rise of the New Right. Intra-party debate now takes place between differing conservative positions, chiefly between a censorious, moralistic religious right on the one hand and, on the other, budget cutters who hold mildly libertarian views on gay rights and abortion.

This line of division corresponds more or less to region and class: a Northeastern, urban, corporate elite lives in tension with an insurgent populist right that has a predominantly petty bourgeois or rural base in the West, South or Midwest.

The model figures for Republicans who would like to see the party combine commitment to abortion rights and reduced social spending are the governors of New Jersey and Massachusetts, Christine Todd Whitman and William Weld. (But an overly schematic sketch ought not be drawn: Pete Wilson and a good part of the California Republican leadership fall into this camp.)

The problem for that wing of the party, a yuppie-corporate elite, is that while the evangelical agenda often does alienate the broader public, the religious right is vital to the prospect of a permanent Republican ruling coalition.

As the Christian Coalition knows, it never needs to achieve a social majority in order to achieve political hegemony. It seeks only to provide the crucial margin of victory in the electoral fights it picks–a realistic ambition since elections are, as a rule, poorly attended. Less than half of registered voters participated in the 1994 “landslide,” for example.

The religious right was the irreducible core of the Republican bloc in 1992. Evangelicals were the least likely Republicans to defect to Perot and the most loyal voting group for the Republicans, despite their distaste for Bush and his betrayals of their cause. Outside of the Northeast, Republican candidates generally need the approval of Christian conservatives in order to win nominations and elections. In 1994, forty percent of the vote for Republicans came from self-described evangelical Christians.

The religious right is concentrating its own cadre heavily in local politics, where it can prepare future leaders and accomplish a good deal of its program without the glare of national attention.

The evangelical right has won majorities on 2,200 of the nation’s 16,000 school boards, where it has forced biology teachers to give equal time to the bogus doctrines of “creation science,” doctored up sex ed to promote chastity, censored school libraries, and restored monocultural curricula. The control of state Republican parties by the Christian Coalition, likewise, is part of a deliberate strategy that looks to a day when constitutional abortion protection is overturned and the issue is returned to the states.

The status of the Christian right as the single largest voting bloc for the Republicans explains the scandalous failure of Jewish neo-conservatives to denounce Robertson’s attachment to anti-Semitistic conspiracy theories and theocratic ambitions. (The fundamentalist right’s support for the Israeli right, even though it is based upon the bizarre prophesy of a mass conversion of Israel’s Jews to Christianity at the apocalyptic end time, is also a factor in the neo-con capitulation.)

The power of the Christian Coalition was further demonstrated in May when Ralph Reed unveiled his group’s “Contract with the American Family.” Reed was flanked by House Speaker Newt Gingrich; Sen. Trent Lott, the Republican whip; and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, a Republican presidential candidate who is slavishly trying to make up for lost time with the religious right.

Bob Dole’s attack on Time-Warner for hawking sex and violence also showed that old-line Republican conservatives know where their bread will be buttered in 1996. Far from repudiating the politics of the religious right, they are trying to co-opt, appease and milk as much of it as they can.

“Family” Politics

The first hundred days of the new Congress, devoted to fiscal cutbacks, left many on the religious right anxious to see their cultural and social issues addressed: abortion, school prayer, vouchers, gay rights, pornography. Other key players besides the Christian Coalition include Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, which claims to represent 31,000 churches; Gary Bauer, director of the Family Research Council; and Rev. James Dobson of Focus on the Family.

Though not as well known as the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family has a much larger annual budget of $150 million and 1,200 workers at its Colorado headquarters. It is a crucial force behind anti-gay and anti-abortion efforts nationally. Dobson, who joined forces in 1989 with Bauer, has a radio show heard on 1500 stations. Recently he began to make noise about launching a prolife party if the Republicans don’t take action soon. That in itself may guarantee Congressional passage of late-term abortion restrictions.

The religious right knows that “family values” talk didn’t suffice in 1992, but it still expects palpable results in return for its yeoman service in 1994. Therefore it is insisting on half of what it wants. The “Contract with the American Family” is framed for maximum effect with voters and to reassure the still-powerful corporate and neo-con upper crust of the Republican party. Its ten points conspicuously avoid restricting “special rights” for gays and lesbians, an issue Reed claims to wish to leave to the states, or a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, displaced by late-term restrictions as an immediate demand.

The Christian Coalition’s proposed constitutional amendment on school prayer, similarly, will be framed as “religious liberty.” It will not mention teacher-led prayer, the traditional pet cause of evangelicals.

It will pose as an expansion of religious freedom, not an authoritarian imposition, by permitting student-requested prayer at graduation ceremonies. Reed likes to mention Menorahs along with creches, rabbis as well as ministers, all to soften what will certainly mean the reinstallation of Protestant fundamentalism as the guiding light for public school ritual in most parts of the country.

The success of this strategy will depend in part on the ability of the Christian Coalition to keep Ralph Reed in front of the cameras and Pat Robertson away from them, since Reed is a shrewd negotiator of media minefields, while Robertson has a gift for the fantastic and absurd. The Christian Coalition can afford few gaffes such as Robertson’s claim in a 1992 fundraising letter that feminism “encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians,” or his assertion that the separation of church and state is a Soviet-inspired doctrine, not to mention his lumping of Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians together with “the anti-Christ.”

The religious right often couches its family program in terms of “rights”–the right to be a mother, the right to religious expression–rather than an obligatory moral code. It denies any aspiration to regulate or restrict personal life, and is wont to paint any criticism of its politics as bigotry against people of faith. But the underlying ambition of the “pro-family” agenda is to revive patriarchal authority. In the words of Pat Robertson, “The husband is the head of the wife, and that’s the way it is, period.”

The entire spectrum of the right, from Rush Limbaugh to the Liberty Lobby, is obsessed with women like Hillary Clinton, Janet Reno, Jocelyn Elders, Donna Shalala, Anita Hill, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg–not for their liberal politics or actions so much as their simple fault of being self-possessed women in positions of political or cultural authority.  These attacks have reached dizzying heights of irrationality and come from the top Republican brass as much as the religious right. Republican chairman Rich Bond, for example, predicted in 1992 that Clinton, if elected, would make Pat Schroeder Secretary of Defense, and that her first act would be “to stop referring to naval vessels as ‘she.'”

But the objectives of the “pro-family” movement most likely to pass are those that coincide with the current ruling class consensus for fiscal austerity. The Christian Coalition’s most readily obtainable aims, for example, include abolishing the Department of Education and wiping out federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Legal Services Corporation, and Planned Parenthood.

The Dynamic of the Right

The Christian right is partaking of a broader anti-statist dynamic that has lent the right its current appeal and apparent unity. While contradictory and even demagogic in its formulation, a generalized resentment of government and commitment to dismantle it is the right’s ideological glue, binding together different strands of thought, from the austerity drive of laissez-faire conservatives to the communitarian moralism of the religious right to the libertarianism of right-wing gun owners.

The whole of the right is captivated by the conviction that government shouldn’t be able to tell you what to do–stop your kids from praying in school, make you to treat gays fairly, impose racial requirements on your business, tax you to pay for welfare programs, or restrict your ranching for environmental reasons.

These ideological sentiments are gaining in popular appeal for material reasons. They represent a plausible shortterm response to real crises. Appeals to cut taxes and reduce spending, for example, speak to the needs not only of corporations and the upper middle class but also to better-off sections of the working class in a period of economic stagnation. Given the doldrums of trade unionism, workers who lack the power to confront capital hope to stave off the practical consequences of declining real wages by offsetting income loss through tax reduction.

The “profamily” religious right, likewise, positions itself as the voice of communities and their right to arrange their affairs according to their own values. The Christian right frames itself as the defender of communal solidarity, family and religion against state coercion. That position resonates appealingly in a time of deteriorating social life, when few institutions of democratic community remain intact and when competitiveness, alienation and uncertainty permeate everyday experience.

The opposition to federal regulation and agencies orchestrated by the gun lobby–and, farther to the right, the militia movement–is also connected to real needs and yearnings. A militant call to arms and defense of individual rights taps genuine feelings of powerlessness and political discontent in a period when an ever smaller proportion of the population controls an ever greater proportion of the country’s wealth and power and when the state that serves elite interests appears more remote than ever from the people it claims to represent.

The Republican Party, by draping itself in the inchoate but nonetheless effective program of economic freedom, moral community and individual liberties, has been able to capitalize upon the very different sentiments bringing people to the right. It does so by a process in which the most “mainstream” elements of the party (the Gingrich-Dole leadership) sanction the demands of right-wing movement organizations, above all the Christian Coalition but also the National Rifle Association, which in turn maintain links and relations with a more militant far right.

This is the source of the rightward drive in conventional politics: a top Republican leadership is supported by and, therefore, supports right-wing mass organizations (the Christian Coalition and NRA), which in turn are drawn into engagement with the extreme right, especially the militant antiabortionists and the militias. The relationship between these sectors is not seamless and the process is not without fissures, but the general pull is, without question, to the right.

Far Right and New Right

It used to be fairly easy to distinguish the far right—white supremacist, insurrectionist, conspiracy-mongering–from the New Right and evangelical right, but the line that separates the insurrectionary right from the Republican voter base is dissolving in many instances, in large part due to the militancy created by the right-wing ideology of anti-statism.

Energy and dynamism on the right create a dialectic of disappointment and momentum. As the right-wing base is activated and energized, its expectations rise. When disappointed by the pace of change, ultraconservatives are prone to even more militant action and far right ideas. The conservative mainstream–now shot through with bitter animosity toward liberal cultural elites and perceived government tyranny–legitimates and accommodates this far right momentum, absorbing its habits of thought instead of challenging them.

The convergence of New Right and far right is seen, for example, in Pat Robertson’s resort to conspiracy theories once held only by the racist far right.

In his book The New World Order (1991), which sold half a million copies, Robertson drew upon the work of anti-Semitic writers Eustace Mullins and Nesta H. Webster to construct a conspiracy theory of a globalist cabal dating back to a Bavarian occult group, the Illuminati, extending through Marx, the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers, and carried on today by the Federal Reserve System and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Even George Bush, according to Robertson, was a tool of the devil: “Indeed, it may well be that men of goodwill like Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush, who sincerely want a larger community of nations living at peace in our world, are in reality unknowingly and unwittingly carrying out the mission and mouthing the phrases of a tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under the domination of Luther and his followers.”

Such remarks would be easier to laugh away if Robertson were not the leader of the most disciplined organization within the Republican fold, or if he had not been defended against charges of anti-Semitism by prominent conservative intellectuals like Midge Decter, Irving Kristol, William Kristol, William F. Buckley, and William Bennett.

Nor is Robertson the only New Right leader to succumb to conspiratorial dementia. Many on the right, including Rush Limbaugh, now dabble in baseless speculation that White House staffer Vincent Foster was murdered. Jerry Falwell is selling videos that charge, without any evidence whatsoever, that Bill Clinton had his political opponents in Arkansas murdered. Such theories are only a few steps removed from zanier right-wing paranoia about computer chip implants and the Universal Product Code as the “mark of the Beast.”

The boundary between far right and New Right has also disintegrated in the anti-abortion movement, where many anti-choice activists have passed beyond verbal harassment and nonviolent obstruction of clinics to a permanent strategy of arson, bombing and murder aimed at abortion doctors and clinic workers. Slick anti-choice publications like Life Advocate urge personal harassment of clinic workers and doctors. A number of anti-abortion activists, including Life Advocate publisher Andrew Burnett, writer Paul deParrie, and Missionaries to the Pre-Born organizer Matthew Trewhella, have signed a statement that “use of lethal force” is justified when “carried out for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children.”

The only clear distinction remaining between the far right and New Right is the degree of their public racism.  White racism has been put on the defensive and cannot be reconstituted in its segregationist form. White supremacists have learned, therefore, to use terms like “white separatist” and “white pride” to cloak their desire for domination. Even those terms, however, are beyond what most of the religious right, which is open to membership from people of color and is not openly racist, will accept.

At the same time, the Republican right plays upon racist and retrograde fears by attacking immigration, affirmative action, and welfare–along with gay rights and avant-garde art–in terms that are clearly meant to excite the most vulgar prejudices and fears. “English first,” for example, a cause embraced by the entire New Right from Pat Buchanan to Newt Gingrich, has organizational and ideological origins in the ultraright. Larry Pratt, who heads the far right Gun Owners of America and has supported the militia movement, is the leader of English First.

Militias and Republicans

The dialectic of momentum and disappointment accounts in large part for the successful growth of the armed far right militia movement. Militia numbers continued to increase after the 1994 election, baffling mainstream commentators who thought the victory should have satisfied the ultraright that “the system works.” Even more perplexing to such commentators has been the mutual reinforcement of the militias and the Republicans since the Oklahoma City bombing.

Republican politicians were much more eager in the aftermath of Oklahoma City to pander to vulgar conservative disaffection than to repudiate the militias. As a Los Angeles Times reporter put it, Republicans “have been speaking out with increasing boldness to support positions taken by right-wing militia groups.”

In an article published in the June issue of Guns & Ammo, Texas Rep. Steve Stockman, a freshman Republican whose star is rising fast on the far right, suggests that the Clinton administration deliberately organized the 1993 raid at Waco in hopes of bolstering public support for gun control. (While the government bears responsibility for escalating the Waco conflict, tapes suggest Koresh and a small inner circle of supporters lit the fire, and despite the government’s gross negligence in holding up the fire trucks, officials were hardly driven by such far-fetched motives.)

Idaho–a hotbed of white supremacist and militia organizing—has several elected Republicans who serve as virtual mouthpieces for the militia.

Rep. Helen Chenoweth, for example, has introduced into Congress a bill requiring federal agents to get approval from local law enforcement officials before they can arrest someone or use their weapons in enforcing the law. “They shouldn’t be armed unless they’re deputized by the local sheriff,” she said.

Idaho Sen. Larry Craig has introduced legislation that would disarm the 7,000 federal officers who patrol the national forests, parks and wildlife refuges. “What I’m trying to express,” he said, “is a growing frustration in the West amongst the private citizens of the increasing presence of an armed federal entity in the states where you have these resource agencies.”

Republican officials are reluctant to disavow the militia movement, in part because of the power of the gun lobby within the party. The National Rifle Association is controlled by a hard right leadership that has been just as eager as the militias to exploit Ruby Ridge, Waco, the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban for its own purposes. Harry Thomas, NRA board member, posted the following message on the NRA’s electronic bulletin board: “And Miss Reno, I say to you: If you send your jackbooted, baby-burning, bushwackers to confiscate my guns, pack them a lunch–it will be a damned long day. The Branch Davidians were amateurs. I’m a professional.”

While former President George Bush resigned his NRA membership in protest of a fundraising letter referring to “jackbooted government thugs,” none of the aspiring Republican presidents did, because they know that out of the candidates the NRA supported in the 1994 elections (with $4 million in contributions), eighty percent won.

The future of the far right militia movement depends in good part upon its ability to retain its protected relationship with the Republican Party. Whether the tacit support of Republican officials will continue, whether the militia movement can expand from rural areas to the suburbs, whether paramilitary and electoral strategies can continue to complement each other without coming into open conflict, are uncertainties.

For the moment, however, far right ideology continues to seep into the Republican mainstream, a process accelerated rather than broken by the Oklahoma events.

Dilemma of the Left

The right’s dynamism poses in stark terms the problem the left faces today. Although in many ways it is ersatz and contradictory, the ideological stew of the right–with the apparent immediate economic gains offered to better off sections of the working class (often described as Reagan Democrats), communitarian and family appeals in a time of intensifying competitiveness and social atomization, and a combination of libertarianism and organization that enables people to respond to their powerlessness, even if in a distorted and ultimately ineffectual way–is a strong combination of political responses to real needs. It has not yet begun to run its course.

Of course those are needs to which the left has traditionally spoken, and there is no reason the left could not again reignite the popular imagination. In addition to the superiority of egalitarian, humanitarian and democratic social values over the meanspiritedness, bigotry and cultural authoritarianism of the right, the left has a tremendous potential advantage in its ability to appeal to the material interests of the same working-class and petty bourgeois constituencies that the right has mobilized.

The right’s achilles’ heel is its embrace of the unfettered market, an ideological commitment that subordinates mass political movements such as the Christian Coalition to the major corporations and capitalism. This is a matter not just of the influence of big money within conservative causes but of a political and intellectual deficit. The right is inherently incapable of admitting–or even understanding–the fact that capitalism and the corporations bear the primary responsibility for economic stagnation, community fragmentation, and political powerlessness, the very conditions the right claims to address.

Add to that the right’s inconsistent hostility to the repressive features of the state (inconsistent, because the right frequently favors capital punishment, more cops, more jails, even as it denounces taxes and the federal agencies that enforce gun and ecological regulations), and there are plenty of opportunities for the left to reconstitute itself on the same ground opened up by the right’s growth.

When economy and society, not just government, are brought into the discussion, the right’s “populism” seems superficial.

The left, however, still confronts the giant dilemma that it has faced for the entire century, a dilemma posed more sharply than ever by the rise of an aggressively anti-statist right. Progressive and left-wing programs, even when won by mass struggles, have ultimately been administered within the context of a capitalist welfare state which has distorted them and left them incomplete.

Fights for demands are necessary to all social movements from below, and victories are necessary to persuade people of the value of organization and struggle, but the fate of reforms under the welfare state has chiefly been to associate the left with bureaucracy and statism.

For the left to recast itself and recoup popular support, it must not only refocus popular attention on the class system and the corporate elite but also, somehow, transcend this paradox of reform. This is a serious and protracted challenge not given to easy answers. It will not yield to simple calls for revolution over reform or mass struggle instead of parliamentarism, even if revolutionary politics and mass action remain the starting point. The riddle of the right will only be solved by devising an effective strategy for radical transformation.

ATC 58, September-October 1995