How the Right Took Power, and How to Take it Back!

by Chip Berlet
January 2009 – Obama takes office.

When any group or movement loses an election or issue campaign there is always a certain amount of finger pointing and gnashing of teeth. The Obama campaign learned from decades of Democrats losing elections that with a strong infrastructure, lots of resources, a mass movement mobilization, and a clear vision, progressive campaigns can win. But as progressives who welcome an Obama Administration, we can’t rest on our laurels, because the nature of our democracy is a constant struggle over power. The Political Right in the United States has not vanished, they just lost one election. They are already planning their comeback.

The U.S. Human Rights Network observes, “human rights are protected through building social movements.” That has been the clear message of progressive social movements throughout U.S. history, and we should pause and recall some of our past victories and moments of strength:

  • The movement for the abolition of slavery in the 1800s
  • The struggle to gain the vote for women
  • The organized labor union movements of the early Twentieth Century
  • The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-1960s
  • The Student Rights Movement
  • The Women’s Movement of the 1960s-1970s
  • The Environmental Movement
  • The movement to secure equal rights for the LGBTQ community
  • The movement against globalizing corporate power.

Since the election of Ronald Reagan who took office in 1980 we have a practical demonstration that human rights can be undermined through building right-wing backlash counter-movements. The Christian Right is simply the largest movements in this network.

Central to the conservative plan was their understanding that social movements should pull politicians and political movements toward them, not the other way around. Social movements are often involved in politics, but they step outside the limits of the electoral and legislative system to use other means ranging from demonstrations to civil disobedience and beyond.

Conservative strategists studied how the Labor Movement had yanked the Roosevelt Administration into crafting a social safety net in the 1930s. They studied how the Civil Rights movement had whacked the Democratic Party in the north into pulling away from the segregationist demands of the southern Democratic Party “Dixiecrats.” So conservatives decided to build a right-wing social movement to pull the Republican Party to the right. It worked.

Now we have a chance to put the country back on track toward progressive social change, but only if we have learned from history.  The New Right in the 1970s learned from the labor, civil rights, and women’s movements. During this same period Democratic Party “Centrists” moved away from mobilizing support through these grassroots movements.  The essay that follows suggests that to rebuild progressive movements we need to articulate clear principles that guide our work, rather than developing our politics through opinion polls and focus-groups.

Wrong About the Right:
Clarifying Basic Principles

by Jean Hardisty & Deepak Bhargarva

While the focus of progressive movement-building is now on creating large organizations “to scale,” yet another of the movement’s greatest challenges is being neglected: We are undecided on the larger principles that underlie our work for social justice. Many people don’t like to do this “big picture” thinking. They prefer results-oriented activism and practical solutions. And they are correct that larger principles must be tied to people’s everyday concerns and identifiable, attainable goals.

But to be successful, mass organizing must be informed by visionary principles as well as nuts-and-bolts techniques. Most bold new policy proposals grow out of the everyday work that activists in submovements do on various issues.These proposals–for example, national healthcare, full rights and services for immigrants, or replacing the racist criminal justice system–are not the polished, poll-tested, slightly left-of-center ones increasingly attractive to Democratic Party centrists. Indeed, they may seem fringe and far out of the mainstream. But they have their roots in real material conditions.

What we lack are the overarching principles to tie these proposals together. In the 1960s and ’70s progressives generally agreed that government had a responsibility to defend the weak or temporarily weak, protect individual rights, provide a reasonable standard of living and regulate private enterprise to protect the public from rampant greed and criminal behavior.

Battered by the right’s relentless assaults on these core principles, progressive movement activists today do not have a coherent vision. Instead, we are driven by a vague sense of what a better society would look like, a recognition of how times have changed and persistent despair as we fight one defensive battle after another.

It is therefore essential that we address several fundamental questions right now:

  • What is the role and responsibility of government?
  • How can the racial imbalance of our movement’s leadership be corrected?
  • What role should religion play in public life?
  • How should progressives respond to globalization?
  • What social issues should we identify as “bottom line”?

As principles that respond to these questions emerge, we must not allow political expediency to trump creativity. The voices of people of color, and young people and women of all races must be explicitly sought out.

Funding may facilitate this discussion, but it will not in itself produce a dynamic vision. Think tanks alone will not develop these principles, and framing and messaging will not substitute for them. The process of drawing out larger principles must be an organic one: a step-by-step process of slowly creating broad consensus. Here, we can learn from the right’s success with active listening.

While the challenges we face are considerable, they are not insurmountable. But we must get moving so that when the tide of public opinion turns in our direction, we are not caught flatfooted, with a movement badly in need of reform and lacking the very basics needed to seize the moment and go forward. The right was ready for the backlash of the late 1970s. We must be ready for the coming backlash against the outrages of the past twenty-five years.

[maxmegamenu location=max_mega_menu_3]

A Collection of Shared Resources