Roots of Right Wing Populist Rage -- Realignment

There is a seismic shift occurring in the political Right as established organizations scramble to respond to the new wave of right-wing populism.

The Republican Party and its largest single voting bloc, the Christian Right, are split in how to respond to the rapid emergence of a right-wing populist movement outside their control as reflected in the teabaggers and townhallers.

That was clear at the 2009 Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC this past weekend. Some speakers made repeated attempts to reach out and embrace the angry teabaggers and townhallers, while the more moderate speakers praised their "patriotism" but urged toning down the rhetoric. This reflects a larger split inside the Republican Party.

Contrary to popular belief, the Christian Right did not diminish in its support for Republican candidates in the last election -- they were just outvoted. And while younger evangelicals are more tolerant in their social views, there is little evidence of a larger shift in voting trends among conservative Christian evangelicals. For the past 30 years voters identifying themselves as aligned with the Christian Right total about 15% of the electorate. That's unlikely to change much in 2010, and speaker after speaker at the Values Voter Summit made it clear that their goal is to mobilize and extend the conservative evangelical base for the upcoming Congressional election.

In the meantime, the Right intends to do everything in their power to block every legislative, regulatory, diplomatic, military, and foreign policy initiative of the Obama administration with which they have more than the slightest disagreement. That's what they did during the Clinton administration -- and it worked.

It is neither accurate nor useful to see this as one gigantic top-down, corporate run, astroturf, revolt of ignorant wingnuts. Far too many progressive and liberal media pundits and politicians enjoy using this rhetoric, but it undercuts our ability to analyze what is happening and prepare an effective response. While corporate spin and astroturf spam abounds, focusing on just these factors takes our eye off the growth of an angry right-wing populist movement that can mobilize voters and in some cases lead the unstable and insurgent to use violence.

When the power shifts in Washington, DC between Republicans and Democrats, there is always a flurry of re-alignments; and some submovements grow while others shrink. There are also attempts to parasitize or take-over other pre-existing movements and emerging movements. Some groups will reframe their slogans or broaden their agenda (in socio-speak: frame alignment and frame extension)

What are the dynamics of Right-Wing populism? It involves two key sectors of the Right: Elite formations at the top, and a Mass Base being mobilized.

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At the top, the rhetoric of populism is utilized opportunistically by Elites:

Large Corporate Interests
Business Nationalists
Astroturfers & Propagandists
Right-wing Media Demagogues
Opportunistic and/or Right-wing Politicians
Conservative Religious Leaders

The Mass Base of angry right-wing populists is targeted, but they exist in separate yet fluid and overlapping submovements:

Economic Libertarians
Christian Right
Patriot / Militia
White Nationalists (xenophobic & anti-immigrant)
Ultra-Right -- Organized White Supremacists (neonazis & KKK, etc)

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For a chart defining these sectors in more detail, go here.

The sectors in the Elite and Mass Base are not in actual coalitions as much as working on parallel projects that they see as in their interest. This concept was proposed by sociologist Sara Diamond to explain how mass mobilizations could be generated by right-wing movements that had fundamental ideological and/or strategic differences. As long as the short term tactical project advanced their goals, they learned to stop fighting each other and turn their attention to stomping on the progressives, liberals, and Democrats.

So while most economic libertarians are happy to sincerely denounce organized White supremacists, the outcome of "parallel projects" is that they nonetheless can be simultaneously pushing the same agenda such as stopping the government option for healthcare, blocking union reform, etc.

Understanding the dynamics of right-wing populism helps progressive activists craft more effective countermovements, frames, and tactics.

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More to come.

Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, is co-author with Matthew N. Lyons of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. He has studied and written about the Political Right for close to 40 years.