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Power to the People

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 establishment.

Nor do the new-right organizations fit into a neat sociological package. Urban Catholics are more likely to be found in the anti-abortion groups than small-town Protestants. The enemies of government spending who voted for Proposition 13 in California came from all classes and races. Crawford recalls that when Anita Bryant fought homosexual-rights laws in Florida in 1977, she had the help of Bob Skiddell, a Democrat who is president of the Miami Beach Lodge of B’nai B’rith. It is true that the rhetoric of Christianity has become a part of pro-family politics, and so tends to exclude Jews. This Christianity is evangelical. It believes the world can be changed once people are twice born. Paul Weyrich, a leader of the Christian new right, says: “I call it reverse ecumenism because the original ecumenical movement was a very liberal movement. And now we have going co-operation among conservative Catholics, among conservative Lutherans, among conservative Baptists and all kinds of people who frankly didn’t speak to each other.” The pro-family movement did much to encourage this reverse ecumenism.

The proclaimed Christianity of the pro-family movement is not a simple continuation of the Bible-Belt politics of God and Country of the 1950s and 1960s. The overt racism of the past is gone. No one talks about white supremacy any more. The welfare mothers in Harlem are not loved but when Conservative Digest talks about “state’s rights,” once a thinly disguised code word for white supremacy, it is more likely to be speaking of, say, the western states taking back control of valuable lands owned by the federal government. The new right seems a collage of programs whose followers feel dislocated in America now, who fear that the society they were brought up to believe in is disappearing or has disappeared.2

What binds the two wings of the new right together is the enemy; they have defined a clear enemy everyone can attack, whatever the differences among themselves. For the old-style radical right of the 1950s and 1960s, such as the John Birch society, the enemy was external: communism and its allies, which were seeping into America from the Soviet Union. The enemy of the new right is more likely to be home-grown and is defined by sexual preferences and class. People who believe in freedom from the old sexual taboos—on abortion and homosexuality and female independence—are enemies. So are people who are seen as elitist—from the eastern upper middle class, for example, or from the big universities or the TV net-works and liberal newspapers. The old right was also class-conscious; the eastern establishment was sometimes seen as fiendish, but when it was, this was partly because men like Alger Hiss or J. Robert Oppenheimer or even Dean Acheson were thought of as susceptible to the blandishments of international communism. The new-right groups frequently use the word “elitist” when they are describing conventional liberalism but they seldom indulge in the red-baiting of the McCarthy years. (An exception can be found among the more vehement elements in the pro-family wing of the new right who claim homo-sexuality “causes” communism.) For the most part the enemy is intrinsic to American life.

Groups that have a clear enemy to hate often derive a sense of solidarity with one another from their victories over that enemy, whatever their other differences. During the last few years this has happened to the new right. Crawford describes how in 1978 single-issue organizations of the new right took credit for defeating three enemies in the Senate and electing people whom they could call their own. Roger Jepsen beat the liberal senator Dick Clark in lowa, with the decisive help of an anti-abortion organization, lowans for Life; William Armstrong defeated Senator Floyd K. Haskell in Colorado, calling him an “elitist” and drawing on strong support from “states’ rights” groups; Gordon Humphrey defeated Senator Thomas McIntyre of New Hampshire, largely because of the senator’s support of the Panama Canal Treaty.

The Panama Canal Treaty was a boon to the new right. The issue was framed not so much as one of defense against international communism as the loss of part of America. We would be “giving part of ourselves away,” Gordon Humphrey said. The American Conservative Union flourished thanks to this issue. Its promotion campaigns, including 2.4 million mailing pieces attacking the treaty, cost $1.4 million. In 1978 the ACU’s income from contributions rose to $3.1 million.

The pro-family groups have determined to defeat a number of senators, including Frank Church and John Culver, because of their support of abortion. They succeeded in having the Republican platform withdraw support for ERA—and of course they have had much to do with discouraging the presidential prospects of Gerald Ford and George Bush and building momentum for Ronald Reagan. In 1978, Human Events, a newright periodical, was prescient when it claimed that “what is of special interest about this election year is that leading Democratic politicians, many from states that normally tilt leftward, are running—and winning—on hard-right conservative themes.”

Crawford’s book says much that is useful about how the different organizations get out the vote and raise cash. But his attempt to explain the new-right movements by taking them as a whole is less convincing, particularly in its lack of historical perspective. Bible-thumping jingoism has a long history in America, as do prejudices against abortion and homosexuality. Popular hatred of the central government goes back to the time of Andrew Jackson. Crawford tries to find the origin of the current movement in nineteenth-century populism and then labels the new right “neopopulist,” which is hardly clarifying. What is missing is an analysis of changing sexual and family mores in America, neither of which was central to the populist campaigns of the past.

Crawford recognizes that the word “right” itself is hard to apply both to the pro-family groups, which claim to seek both liberal and conservative support, and to the groups opposed to both big government and big business. He tries to resolve the difficulty with standard journalistic explanations of the new right: that the people in this movement come from, or are moving to, the Southwest; that they want to be like tough western cowboys or homestead families living on the frontier. This doesn’t square with the large numbers of urban, white-ethnic voters who are now mobilized against abortion or gay rights. Of the people in Little Italy who worry about these issues, few imagine themselves as cowboys.

At his most abstract Mr. Crawford is at his worst. All these people, he believes, are driven by ressentiment—the resentment that ordinary men and women feel against those above them, who have all the power, and those below, who get too much sympathy. Ressentiment has been used to explain everything from the origins of the French Revolution to the rise of Fascism and Nazism; but a social researcher has to explain why specific kinds of resentments lead to specific kinds of political action and why ressentiment may come and go, questions Crawford cannot pursue because he fails to examine the social institutions that make people resentful. Nor does he give sufficient attention to writers like Hannah Arendt, Erich Neumann, Richard Hofstadter, and Kai Erikson, who sought to understand how disparate social elements are temporarily bound together by finding a common enemy to fear and hate.

Mr. Crawford’s own experience in conservative politics helps to explain his feelings toward the new right. After attending the University of Indiana, he became editor of New Guard, the journal of the Young Americans for Freedom, and worked for Senator James Buckley. He saw the traditional conservative movement invaded by people who claimed to speak the same language of free enterprise, but were not “one of us”—people, one gathers, who were often of lower-middle-class origins, were repelled by the manner of William F. Buckley, and bought double-knit suits. The Young Americans for Freedom were split by the presence of libertarians who believed in abortion and gay rights as part of the absolute right to individual freedom. (At one YAF convention they wore buttons that said “laissez faire” and were hòoted out of the hall as “laissez fairies.”) What Crawford’s experience has given him, however, is an intimate look at how the congeries of groups he calls “new right” became more sophisticated in their techniques of organizing. On this subject he is both interesting and intelligent.

  1. 1

    See the series beginning with the article by John Herbers in The New York Times, August 17, p.A1.

  2. 2

    See the report by Dudley Clendinen, The New York Times, August 18, p.B7.

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