Power to the People

Thunder on the Right: The "New Right" and the Politics of Resentment

by Alan Crawford
Pantheon, 381 pp., $13.95

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan; drawing by David Levine

Ronald Reagan is often said to owe much to the “new right” and to count on its support in this year’s election. Exactly what he can count on is not clear. Like most labels in American politics, the “new right” stands for a mosaic of groups and programs whose parts do not fit together neatly.

One of the uses of Alan Crawford’s Thunder on the Right, although he does not say so, is to show that the new right is not a single organized movement but rather comprises at least two distinct forces. One consists of the various “pro-family” groups which have sprung up in reaction to the liberalization of sexual behavior during the last decade. The three major organizations are the National Right-to-Life Committee, headed by Dr. Mildred Jefferson, a black surgeon from Boston; Save Our Children, Inc., a group opposed to homosexual rights, led by the singer Anita Bryant; and the Eagle Forum, Phyllis Schlafly’s 50,000-member organization which is fighting the equal rights amendment to the Constitution. More recently large evangelical Christian groups like the Moral Majority, led by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, have begun to take an active part in mobilizing votes on these issues.1

The other element of the new right is more familiar; it consists of groups pursuing, often in concert with the Republican Party, traditional conservative aims—against welfare, government regulation, and taxes, for example, and for private enterprise and US “supremacy.” These groups are much bigger now than they were in the 1950s and 1960s. Typical organizations are The Pacific Legal Foundation, dedicated to fighting for private business interests against ecologists and conservationists; the Consumer Alert Council, led by the energetic Barbara Keating, which fights government regulatory agencies; and anti-union organizations like the National Right-to-Work Committee.

The aims of these two parts of the new right are not harmonious. The profamily groups avoid identifying themselves with the Republican Party. Indeed, many of the people in the profamily movements favor extensive government intervention in social life to save the family. The anti-abortion advocates want the state to interfere with a woman’s decision not to have a child. A faction of the anti-ERA group wants the federal government to make payments to working women so that they can stop working and go back to being full-time mothers.

By contrast, much of the more traditional branch of the new right tends to oppose big business as much as it does big labor and big government. Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada, a harsh critic of government spending who is popular with new-right groups, recently announced, “It’s time to get the Fortune 500 off our backs.” John Connally fell from favor with right-wing groups for accepting campaign contributions in 1979 from eastern establishment businessmen like David Rockefeller and Andrew Heiskell of Time, Inc. Time itself is considered by “new-right” publications such as Conservative Digest as part of the eastern…

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