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 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.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Crawford argues, the John Birch Society and other groups promoting God, Home, and Country were poorly organized and self-defeating. Richard Whalen, an aide to President Nixon, made the same point in 1974 in his book Taking Sides. He says the leaders of these groups were

egoists, dogmatists, hucksters, and eccentrics, all engaged in a childish sandbox politics and being very noisy about it. Often referred to by liberals as the “Radical Right,” such organizations were more accurately described as the irrelevant Right.

In the 1970s, three things caused a change. The expansion of sexual freedoms, combined with a large influx of women into the labor force, became intensely upsetting to a great many people, there were new troops to organize. Second, organizers appeared who learned how to use direct-mail and other techniques of recruitment effectively. Single-issue groups seeking “non-partisan” support, such as Save Our Children, Inc., found they could use these direct-mail techniques to bypass the established party and political organizations and gain power on their own. So did organizations attacking bureaucracy, taxes, national weakness, etc. Finally, and ironically, the post-Watergate election reforms strengthened the process of converting mailing lists into functioning political groups.

The congressional reformers of 1974, seeking to reduce the power of big money in politics, limited individual campaign contributions to $1,000 and, at the same time, encouraged the use of PACs—political action committees—which were supposed to promote political participation outside the party structure. Individuals may give up to $5,000 to support a candidate or cause if they contribute to a PAC. PACs of various kinds had of course existed before the 1974 reforms, and were mainly used to benefit liberals by organized labor, antiwar, and consumer groups. After 1974 they were used by corporations to collect contributions for pro-business candidates from their executives and employees. But organizers outside the traditional Republican Party hierarchy also made use of them to go after a new clientele: people who could afford to give only five or ten dollars. In Mr. Crawford’s words, the effect on the right was that “the power of a tiny number of technicians who have learned to raise small amounts of money from large numbers of people was vastly increased.”

These “technicians” were people who combined intense sentiments for God-Home-and-Country with expertise at using the latest computer techniques to develop mailing lists. The direct-mail impresarios created the PACs, then went out and raised the money and recruited the membership for these paper organizations by mail. The right-wing genius of mail order is Richard Viguerie, whom Mr. Crawford describes as working in a “windowless, temperature-controlled, professionally guarded high-rise office in Falls Church, Virginia.” Mr. Viguerie needs a guard for his computer tapes, which are his political capital: his company RAVCO now has earnings of about $15 million a year.

Both the pro-family groups and the campaign for Proposition 13 were launched with heavy use of direct mail. And the more traditional single-issue groups, the gun lobby, the defense groups, all used direct mail extensively during the 1970s to reach a larger audience. In adapting this standard technique of American marketing to their own purposes, the pro-family groups were able to identify people willing to work or give money. These persons were then organized into local cells and the cells were combined into state and national organizations. In effect, the old party organizations, which the 1974 laws sought to bypass, are being recreated in form, with the substance consisting of a single issue. Some of the anti-ERA groups and anti-homosexual groups tend to be scrupulous about their lists. They will not sell them, claiming they want to remain nonpartisan politically and apart from other groups such as the gun lobby.

Evangelical Christians found in the mid-1970s a way to reach beyond their traditional base in the south, by using the pro-family issue and making use of television. According to Benjamin Armstrong, director of National Religious Broadcasters, Inc., a widely popular national evangelism has “come about because of the purchase of prime time in major blocks in some of the major networks.” The numbers of people who are reached by these religious shows are hard to judge, as are their real influence. One hundred and fifteen million people in the United States are supposed to watch some sort of religious program each week. But an explicitly Christian new-right program like the one staged by the Reverend Falwell’s Moral Majority reaches no more than six million people a week, whereas a nonpolitical religious program like the Old Time Gospel Hour reaches fifteen million. Whatever the size of the audience for the Christian new right, the movement has succeeded in making it truly national: proportionately as many New Englanders watch Reverend Falwell’s program as Southerners.3

The confluence of election “reform,” mass-marketing techniques, and a broad new public disturbed about threats to the family thus goes far to explain the appearance of the new right. But this confluence is by no means the whole story. Mr. Crawford says the direct appeals themselves are simplistic and are based on “anger and fear,” but they are much more. The letter writers know how to express and to capitalize on the kinds of distress many American now feel.

In what Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” in American politics—the style he traced in such different figures as William Jennings Bryan and Senator McCarthy—in the past the country appeared to be threatened by people who want to take it away from “us.” The assumption was that the country belongs to “us,” is us. The new assumption of the direct-mail campaigns is quite different: “They” have in fact taken the country away from us, and “we” no longer belong. The letters are usually careful not to be specific about who “we” are, reflecting an appeal to a mass audience that is mixed in religion, social class, and geography. “They,” however, are clearly and luridly depicted: the awful and the immoral—homosexuals and people who have abortions—the cowardly and the unpatriotic—SALT II proponents and internationalists. Social issues are often reduced to single defects of character; for instance, here’s how a letter from the Conservative Caucus, signed by Howard Phillips, begins:

Dear Friend:

I think you will appreciate, more than most Americans, what I am sending you.

I have enclosed two flags: the red, white, and blue of Old Glory—and the white flag of surrender.

I want to show you, by these two flags, what is at stake for America under the SALT II Treaty with Russia…. You and I must choose—and the Senate must decide—whether we will personally accept the White Flag of Surrender as America’s banner.

The enemy is depicted as having a great advantage it never had before. The laws of the land are now on the enemy’s side. This is more than a matter of the enemy having legal rights, or of evil men on the Supreme Court violating the spirit of country and constitution. What is conveyed is a conviction that under the ordinary processes of American law, from the lowest courts on up, from lawmakers in Washington to those in Sacramento, this country has become “theirs” rather than ours. Here is how the rhetoric of loss works in a mailing from Anita Bryant. The letter opens:

When the homosexuals burn the Holy Bible in public…how can I stand by silently.

Dear Friend:

I don’t hate the homosexuals! But as a mother I must protect my children from their evil influence.

Here moral piety defends the pure from outside contamination, a classic expression of “the paranoid style.” As the letter unfolds, however, the “outside” appears everywhere. Unlike communists in the 1950s homosexuals have openly been incorporated into American life, and this is thanks to the law. For instance, Ms. Bryant says, “They want to recruit our school children under the protection of the laws of our land!” In a mailing from the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation against the UN’s children’s rights program, the fear that the law is on “their” side appears in this way: “As incredible as they might sound, these are just a few of the new ‘children’s rights laws’ that could become a reality under a new United Nations program if fully implemented by the Carter administration.”

Thanks to the changes in American law, the “enemy” no longer needs to conspire in secret as he did during the 1950s. Even worse, the government surveillance apparatus once used to ferret out communists and other enemies is now turned on “us.” Here is a letter sent by Lyn Nofziger, now Reagan’s press secretary, who worked for Nixon in the days when the president was using the IRS and the CIA for domestic political purposes:

Dear Friend:

You can bet that somewhere in the vast labyrinth of the federal bureaucracy there’s a file on you!

It may be a social security record, an FHA record, or an OSHA record.

It may be at HUD or the Department of Agriculture. Or it may be at the Federal Elections Commission.

Big brother government will go to any length to keep a tab on you!

More generally, these letters are defensive in tone. The old American pieties of God, Family, and Country have to be justified again, because they are not simply under attack but are being stripped of legitimacy. There is a curious lack of geographic sense in these letters. One I received from Independence, Inc. shows New England villages set in the midst of Arizona; another shows Italian families, not in a city, but farming tomatoes in what looks like a Louisiana swamp, as an illustration of the virtues of small-town life. I have the impression that the new-right promoters have difficulty connecting with the realities of the country, even with its physical reality, and that this vagueness has not been a disadvantage for them. Mr. Crawford quotes a jingle of the Washington “humorist” Mark Russell:

We struggle to exist,
Our country is not on a map,
It’s on a mailing list!

Along with this sense of dislocation, the new-right rhetoric contains a search for magical solutions that will put “us” back on the map. Everything has to change; we must destroy the present to regain the mythic past. This search is common to many mass movements, in Europe as well as America. What is distinctive about the contemporary scene is that single issues are seen as keys to the magic kingdom. The rhetoric suggests that a victory of a single issue will radically transform the larger society.

This rhetoric is in part simply political hyberbole, but it also evokes the pathos of the new right, especially its profamily wing. Again and again one encounters the fantasy that narrow political actions can revolutionize the moral character of society itself. The anti-ERA forces, for instance, insist that the nuclear family would be saved if equal rights for working women could be defeated. At a recent debate I attended on ERA in New York, a woman from the Bronx said, “You are talking about getting a man’s pay and I am talking about giving America back its mothers!” The Bible-promoting organizations claim America will become a religious country if school children listen to the word of God for five minutes a day. The anti-homosexuals use images of contagion to condemn homosexuality, as in Ms. Bryant’s association of homosexuality and Bible-burning, or Christian Voice’s belief that homosexuality causes communism. Eliminate the source of the contagion, and the other evils can be prevented as well.

The symbolic crusade in which the new right is engaged cuts both ways. A recent New York Times/CBS poll on abortion4 reveals that when people are asked: “Do you believe there should be an amendment to the Constitution protecting the life of the unborn child, or shouldn’t there be such an amendment?” half of the respondents think there should be. If the question is changed to ask if there should be an amendment prohibiting abortions, only 29 percent favor it. When people are asked if they think a woman should be allowed to have an abortion if she wants it and her doctor agrees, 62 percent think she should be allowed. The new right is engaged in a war of words which seems likely to succeed not by talking about what people should do concretely, but by suggesting, in a more diffuse and general way, what kind of society America should be.

The more we consider the process by which the new-right groups are created and sustained by such fantasies, the more the question arises how much Ronald Reagan can count on the people he has mobilized. Like all extreme groups which have set truth against reality, the members of the new right are constantly betrayed from within. For them, as Crawford’s book makes clear, a politician “sells out” when he gets power and therefore gets caught up unforgivably in the compromises of real political life. (Similarly for many conservatives the American Medical Association is currently betraying the ideals it has promoted for many years, as doctors find they must depend on health insurance and government medical payments for their livings.) But the real worry for the new-right groups is Reagan.

One reason is the disappointment in Goldwater, who sold them out by becoming just a Republican. Goldwater has come “to represent a serious problem for conservatives,” according to Conservative Digest. Will Reagan follow the same pattern? His chosen vice-presidential candidate in 1976 was Senator Richard Schweiker, who then was considered a Republican liberal, and his running mate in 1980 is George Bush, an ornament of the trilateral establishment. On paper Reagan looks good on all the single issues, but he is perceived as too soft in practice, and too likely to turn over the business of government, as he did when governor of California, to “ordinary Republicans.” Paul Weyrich of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, now a coordinator of new-right groups, told me: “I’m not enthused about Reagan-Bush but what alternative do we have? Reagan’s gut instincts are conservative but he doesn’t like conflict. He wants to get the liberals off his back.”

The single-issue people, the floating disaffected voters and their leaders, matter to Reagan. He needs their money and their votes. Once elected, could he do much to satisfy them? The problem is that their fantasies tend to cancel each other out. To make a significant tax cut, he would have to reduce the military spending that many powerful new-right and old-right groups now favor, because that is where most of the fat is in the federal budget. Since he couldn’t cut the military, he would have to increase taxes to balance the budget. There is nothing at all Reagan can do to stamp out homosexuality. Some of Anita Bryant’s people want federal money to set up counseling centers for homosexuals, but this would be another federal welfare program. He can put the weight of his office behind the stop-ERA movement, but its defeat will neither stem the trend toward divorce nor withdraw women from the labor force. And he could not encourage women to leave work without launching a vast program of family assistance. Reagan would have a hard time reconciling the gun lobby with the growing pressure from police groups for handgun control.

There is one longing he can satisfy when in office: the desire for more and bigger weapons. With “our” man in, nothing is likely to satisfy the new-right groups except an increase in the pace and the danger of the arms race. And these groups have very low tolerance for token measures, just as they are ready to turn on brothers like Goldwater who deviate in the slightest from the true faith.

As far as Jimmy Carter’s record is concerned, there seems little difference between his bumbling conservatism and Reagan’s more purposeful brand. There is a difference however in the voices these men will have to listen to. Carter, like all other Democratic presidents since the New Deal, will have to listen to the liberal wing of his party. He is contemptuous of it but he knows liberals have claims on him, and in international affairs at least some of them are now more likely to assert the claims of caution. Reagan must listen to a different set of voices, voices that are more moving, more insistent in their distress, and more implacable.

One thing he can do for them is to increase the weight of armaments and the likelihood of war. Carter may stumble into such a war, but the logic of Reagan’s support may impel him toward the use of military force. Carter, to be sure, has again and again yielded to pressure from the arms lobby: witness the MX missile. There is little to be said for his four years. But there is a real and unsavory choice in this election over who is more likely to take the wilder risks.