State of the Union: A Status Report on the Far Right

This article is republished from Campaign for America’s Future.

As long as we’re taking the measure of the country this week, let’s look in on the far (and not so far) fringes of the right wing. What’s up with them? And how worried should we be?

For the past several months, I’ve been trying to get a bead on the actual numbers of the far-right movement. To that end, I accrued a motley little collection of surveys, studies, and sociological research pulled together from here and there. I’ve been sort of walking around this pile, kicking at it, figuring out which pieces fit together, in the hope of getting a handle on exactly how many really scary people there are out there right now. It seemed like an important question to get answered.

Finally, I did what I should have done on Day One. I picked up the phone and called Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, who knows more about the hard research on the far right than anyone else in the country.

“Chip, how many far-right wingers are there in the United States?”

I knew the question was vague. I figured, based on our past conversations, that I’d have to carefully define “far right” and qualify who belonged in that group. And then we’d have a discussion about how you slice and dice the various factions and their relationships to the whole, and….

But that’s not what happened. Chip didn’t even skip a beat.

“Ten percent of the population.” He declared this with a jaunty certainty that’s uncharacteristic of Chip, who usually has a sociologist’s inbred caution about putting caveats around his claims.

“Ten percent? That’s it? Flat out?”

“Ten percent. That’s it. It’s been the same number for most of our history, and it doesn’t change much.” He went on to explain that sociologists and social psychologists have spent decades doing on a large scale what I was doing with my little clutch of studies. And invariably, he said, no matter how they define “far right” or “authoritarian,” no matter how they count up the fundamentalists and nationalists and proto-fascists, the numbers always come up somewhere between 7 percent and 12 percent. Or, on average, about 10 percent. Always. And it’s been that way going back as far as they can go.

So there you have it: the answer to the question, “How many really hardcore conservatives are we dealing with here?” It’s thirty million people, give or take.

Still: the number seemed small. Intuitively, it just seems like the crazy is running a lot deeper than that these days. Chip confirmed this: it is, in fact, deeper than that.

“There’s another group of people that are actually more interesting right now,” Chip explained. Dr. Robert Altemeyer, who did the original research on right-wing authoritarian followers, found that there’s a second slice of the American populace—about the same size as the first one, or slightly bigger—who are conservative by temperament, but don’t live full-time in that same overwrought, hyper-vigilant, paranoid space that the ultra-right wing authoritarian 10 percent do. This group, Chip said, usually hews closer to the political center-right, keeping themselves at some distance from the really wild-eyed True Believers in the next cohort farther out.

But according to Altemeyer, I pointed out, these people tend to move away from the center and embrace hard-line conservatism if they’re under extreme social or economic stress, right? Exactly right, said Chip. It’s happened several times before in American history. (One example: In Nixonland, Rick Perlstein documented how, back in the mid-1960s, conservative suburban homeowners were driven into the arms of the far right by their fear of neighborhood integration in the wake of fair housing laws. The political careers of both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan where launched on the resulting tide of rage). And it’s precisely what’s happening again now.

This faction’s rightward march is being driven by the Tea Party movement, which is organizing the core of this second slice. It’s actively decoupling itself from the center-right position of the GOP’s mainstream, and forming stronger alliances with the ultra-right 10-percenters—creating a super-right-wing faction that includes upwards of 25-30 percent of the country.

A lot of progressive strategists who are unfamiliar with the factions within the right wing are looking at this newly congealed group as one contiguous bloc. That’s a grave mistake. Despite the growing overlap, the two groups retain essential differences we need to keep our eyes on if we’re going to deal with this new fusion effectively. A few examples:

  • The ultra-right clings to racism as an all-purpose explanation for what’s wrong with America. The Tea Party folks (as I explained last week) have largely moved past racism. Not to say you won’t find it (especially among the elders); but it’s a mistake to say — as some progressives do — that it’s a universal motivating force.

Which isn’t to say that hate won’t figure prominently in their politics. Conservative politics literally, structurally cannot function without an “us-versus-them” narrative to keep voters on the barricades. But this alliance will be less grounded in racism against the usual black and brown groups, and more deeply rooted in mutual tribal agreements on the evils of socialism, liberalism, and Islam (the only acceptable racism left). We should also keep our eyes on a faint but already growing strain of anti-Semitism within the combined movement, as both groups begin to identify “Jewish bankers” as both the cause of the nation’s current economic distress and the main proponents of socialism and liberalism in America.

  • The ultra-right includes a higher-than-average number of people who live lives that can only be described as marginal. Their lack of attachment to family, careers, or community often feeds their rage, and stokes their persecution fantasies. It also makes them far more likely to resort to violence than the Tea Party members.

This isn’t nearly as true of people in the second slice, who have generally made considerable investment in family, community, business and church ties, and are seeking to protect those investments at all costs. Those commitments keep them tethered a bit more closely to reality, and so they’re typically far less willing to break the law to achieve their ends.

However, when this group joins forces with the far right, the dynamics change. Sometimes, their very presence can embolden the violence-prone radicals in the first slice, who feel an increased sense of permission (they’ll be heroes to millions more people if they act), and who may actually receive more widespread community cover if they do commit a crime. Other times, they act as a sort of ballast, anchoring the more radical members back into society in ways that discourage violence as a tactic throughout the movement.

  • The ultra-right is in this fight for life. Many of them were raised in families which have clung to extremist beliefs for generations. But for those joining the new Tea Party movement, their activism is more situational. They haven’t done anything like this before. They’re only stepping up now because they’re worried and frustrated (as we all are) about the way power is being used in Washington and Wall Street. There’s no telling how strong their commitment to this new alliance is, or how long it will last.
  • The Tea Party congealed due to significant funding from GOP lobbyists, with a huge assist from Roger Ailes at Fox. You occasionally find the odd antediluvian fat cat giving money to ultra-right racist, nationalist, and militia groups, too; but it’s been a long while since this faction got the kind of concentrated corporate fertilizer that’s being lavished on the teabaggers.

There are more points of differentiation, but you get the point. There are two groups here: one comprising our perennial crop of evergreen wingnuts, and another that’s only recently decamped from the center right and moved hard right to join them.

And it’s the combination of the two that’s worrisome. On their own, the far-right wingnuts can’t elect a dogcatcher (and even trying to do that much would no doubt cause a schism that would wind out for years in court. It’s just how they are.) But controlling 25 to 30 percent of the American electorate — while not enough to take over the country in straight numeric terms — is enough for the combined group to win limited but serious victories here and there. And, of course, their power is further magnified by the vagaries of the electoral college and the way we choose senators. In real terms, the system is set up so that this 30 percent can wield the political clout of 50 percent. That’s where we are now — and it’s one reason we’re running into so much gridlock in trying to govern the country.

I’ve also noted before that even though this 28 percent is a minority in straight democratic terms, the history of revolutions is that it’s also more than enough to take over an entire country if the combined group should decide to resort to violence. (The Nazis are the case I use most often here.) Two or three guys with guns can subdue and terrorize entire city blocks full of unarmed citizens. Strength in numbers is irrelevant —just as democracy is irrelevant—if you’ve got superior firepower and are willing to use it.

And this brings us down to the real driver that will determine which way this plays out. The ultra-right has steadily ratcheted up its calls for violence as the Obama administration unfolds and the economic stress drags out.

Will the “second slice” Tea Party folks follow them down that path?

Or will their strong attachments to the larger community keep them on the side of civilization?

Or, perhaps, will the ultra-right overplay their hand by launching a run of domestic terror that sends their new allies scurrying back toward the center, ending the coalition? (It’s happened before.)

Much of the future of the conservative movement in America is riding on these questions. And there are other variables at play that will also affect how they’ll be answered. One is Fox News — which, according to a poll last week, really is now the most trusted name in news. (Fortunately, those numbers are easily disputed; one of the rules of thumb when dealing with the right is that conservative groups of all types always grossly inflate their numbers, which is why figuring out how many of them there really are can be so fraught.)

Still, the Fox effect is out there. My newly-retired parents took a long road trip last week, during which they stayed with several friends. In every house they stayed in, their hosts — all of them educated professionals in their 60s and 70s, most of whom had been liberal-to-centrist all their lives — had stopped taking a daily paper, and were watching Fox exclusively. Whatever this says, it’s not good. Given the constant stream of overtly eliminationist hate speech that flows from Messrs. Beck, O’Reilly, Hannity, and the rest, Fox may well be the biggest influencer determining which direction the Tea Party slice decides to go.

Another driver is the Democrats’ continued fecklessness in clearly communicating the coherent moral values at the heart of the progressive worldview; and their extreme reluctance to support any kind of progressive populist agenda. Everybody knows now that there’s a rising populist tide in America. Average Americans, left and right, are uniting behind an implacable fury at the big banks — and at Congress and Obama, who seem determined to enable criminal behavior rather than make any serious attempt to control it.

You don’t need me to tell you that the tide is rising. We’re seeing the signs of political climate change all around us. But most of the Village still regards any kind of populism as a dangerous (and avoidable) impulse. “Responsible” consultants are cautioning Democrats not to get out front of that wave and ride it. In 20 years, historians will record this as a mistake on the same magnitude as the one they made in 1972 when they started backing away from the unions. It’s going to be the biggest missed opportunity since….oh, damn, it’s hard to say, since the Democrats have already missed so many big ones that it’s hard to keep track. But this one could, in the end, trump them all.

Even though the odds against the newly amalgamated Tea Party/ultra-right hybrid controlling Congress or electing their own president are slim to none, this group will continue to be GOP’s main base as long as the populist wave crests and they can avoid succumbing to schisms. And though they won’t change the way the other 70 percent of us vote, they’ll probably hold onto enough power for the next while to keep doing serious damage to our democracy.

Any progressive strategy to weaken the right should begin by finding a way to peel the second slice back off from the ultra-right, and bring it back toward the center. That alliance is the keystone on which the entire strength of the conservative movement is resting right now; pull that stone, and the rest of it crumbles. Reviving a vital progressive populism is the best wedge and sledge we’ve got right now. And that’s why we shouldn’t hesitate to reach back to 1910 to inform the kind of politics we’ll need to win in 2010.

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