Source Dave Anderson
Date 01/02/18/14:12

An Interview with Chip Berlet & Matthew Lyons

by Elaine Wolff, editor, parallax views
February 15, 2001

It's hardly news that the coalition that brought George W. Bush to power in
the 2000 presidential
election includes heavy representation by far right organizations with
agendas to dismantle the
gains of the civil rights movement over the past forty years, as well as
impede any further
improvement in social or economic equality by the working poor, feminists,
gays and lesbians,
immigrants or people of color. Unclear to many of us, however, is the roots
of this coalition in the
right-wing populism of George Wallace, who launched two unsuccessful
presidential bids, as well as the remnants of Goldwater Republicans and
evangelical Carter Democrats. The political influence exerted by these
groups since Reagan's election was also responsible in large part for that
public travesty known as "welfare reform" an attack primarily directed at
women and children of color living well below the poverty line. To this
day, many of us on the left are still shocked that the largest rollback of
public assistance in the history of the U.S. was passed under a Democratic
president. Politicians in both parties successfully created and preyed upon
middle class fears that a large, idle underclass was the parasite that
threatened their prosperity - during the largest economic boom in history.
The truth, as author Matthew Lyons notes, is that the Reagan revolution
"involved a massive redistribution of wealth from working-class and
middle-class people into the coffers of the wealthy," while the
lowest-income Americans are worse off in absolute and relative terms than
they were twenty years ago, as reported by Brookings Institution economist
Gary Burtless. How were the architects of the welfare reform movement so
In their new book, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort,
Lyons and co-author Chip Berlet shed some much-needed light on the power
behind the New Right coalition and its firm foundation in American history.
Berlet and Lyons caution the reader that racism and scape-goating, far from
fringe elements in our society, have been a key ingredient in the
development of our nation from the very beginning because they speak to the
human temptation to find an easy target rather than challenge the larger
social and economic structures that create inequality.
Berlet began our interview by defining "populism."

Berlet: Populism is a style of banding together to challenge some kind of
elite system or group. It can move to the left or the right; it can be very
democratic in terms of involving people in the political system or it can
be very profoundly demonizing or scapegoating.

Wolff: Matthew, do you want to define "right-wing?" I think it's a term
that is used very loosely, especially on the left.

Lyons: "Right-wing" is defined in opposition to something else as we use
the term. We see right-wing populist movements as involving a backlash
against social change movements, progressive political movements,
revolution and reform. One of the key things about populism in general is
it involves some kind of attack on elites or groups that are perceived as
elite. In the case of right-wing populism, rather than looking at the
actual structures and positions of power and domination in society, it
involves focusing on scapegoats, which can mean certain prominent
individuals or groups who hold a certain amount of power, or focusing on
groups that really don't hold much power at all in the larger scheme of
things, but who become a lightning rod for people's resentments about very
real disempowerment that they experience. Historically, this has included
attacks on people of color, immigrants, gays and lesbians, women workers,
poor people, a lot of different groups depending on the specific movement.
It's this combination of a distorted anti-elitism as an attack upward, so
to speak, and then this attack downward against oppressed groups that we
see as characteristic of right-wing populism.

Berlet: One of the things we like to point out is that there are very
different types of right-wing politics, from conservatism, to reaction, to
the Christian militia movement out on the far right. Matt and I are critics
of right-wing politics, we're on the left, but we see very often that when
people criticize the right, they lump them all together, they use a kind of
simplistic and demonizing rhetoric to characterize the right, and we don't
think that's fair, first of all, it's not accurate certainly, but it gets
in the way of serious political discussion.

Wolff: Your book is an historical work. You start at the beginning of the
United States as a nation and come up to the present time, so let's talk
about the history of right-wing populist movements in the US.
Lyons: We see the roots of right-wing populism even going back to the
colonial period before the revolution with Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, and
with the developments in the American Revolution. In the case of both
Bacon's Rebellion and the movement for independence, you had a combination
of this distorted anti-elitism targeting the British government as an
institution that was seen as oppressing the people in the colonies, which
in some ways was certainly true, but it was a matter of taking all of the
resentments and grievances that people had, and projecting them over there
as a way to avoid dealing with the very real social conflicts within
colonial society itself, and that then was coupled with an intensification
of attacks against American Indians and, in the case of the American
revolution, against Black people. There was a great fear that the British
government was supposedly fomenting slave rebellions, and the patriot
forces saw themselves as needing to fight for their own liberty and to
prevent African Americans from fighting for their liberty.

Wolff: Let's follow that thread into the 1800s. As you note in your book,
the Jacksonians often get a semi-glowing review as an American populist
movement whereas the Know-nothings are characterized as narrow-minded and
violent. Could you talk about why that isn't exactly accurate?

Lyons: The Jacksonians were a coalition of forces that formed a basis for
the modern democratic party, that came together in the 1820s and 30s around
Andrew Jackson. They are remembered for championing the "common man." They
supported a number of political reforms that made it possible for more
lower-class white men to take part in the political process through
changing voting laws and the electoral system. That's one side of their
politics. The other thing that doesn't get so much attention is that that
was coupled with a very clear move to intensify oppression against African
Americans and American Indians. Some of the very same laws that expanded
the voter franchise for white males reduced or eliminated the franchise for
Black males. And the Jacksonians also intensified the Westward expansion,
which meant a very brutal and murderous expulsion of many Native American
groups such as the Cherokees and the Chocktaws. Now in the case of the
Know-nothings, this was a movement around the same time, a little bit
later, which focused on targeting Catholic immigrants, particularly Irish
Catholics, who were probably the largest immigrant group in the 1840s and
50s. There was this notion that Catholic immigrants were tools of a vast
Vatican conspiracy to subvert and take over the American republic and to
replace it with a Catholic-controlled autocracy. And the Know-nothings were
often opponents of the Jacksonians, so you had these two different versions
of these repressive populist movements. The thing that's complicated about
the Know-nothings is that they also championed a number of social reforms
such as municipal reforms, increases in social programs, social welfare
programs. They were one of the first movements to welcome women's activism
in a large way.

Wolff: Certainly a theme that emerges in the book, is that in these early
movements there was often an effort to ostracize and scapegoat Europeans
who were of the later immigrant groups, Easter Europeans, some of the
Irish, Jewish people from the Eastern states particularly, Italians. But
that eventually what always prevailed was a greater definition of white

Berlet: The theme of white nationalism is important, of course, because
what it means to be white is pretty valuable. It's a social construct, as
many folks know, so if the problem is immigrant groups are putting pressure
on the people who hold the reins of power, one way to sort of buy off that
pressure is to suddenly discover that the Irish are white. But what gets
left out of that for a long time, obviously, is women and people of color,
so that the concept of white nationalism is woven into the fabric of the
United States. And what happens when white nationalist movements get
pressed by demands from outside groups is that they sometimes come up with
conspiracy theories to say, oh those people who are angry, they're not
really interested in fairness or equality or just a seat at the table,
they're really trying to subvert America and to destroy it. Starting in the
early 1900s, time and again these movements that we look at are primarily
movements of the white middle class, generally run by men; they tend to use
conspiracy theories to explain why some group has to be kept down, and that
jumps all the way up to today where you have groups like the Christian
Right coming up with reasons why feminists and reproductive rights activist
and gays and lesbians aren't just demanding fairness, they're really part
of this vast plot. And this idea of the vast conspiracy to undermine
America tracks back to these movements.

Wolff: Let's talk about what is probably America's most infamous right-wing
populist movement, the Ku Klux Klan. The organization and its history is
much more complex than most of us are aware.

Lyons: The Klan has gone through a lot of different phases over its
history. The original Klan was formed in the period right after the Civil
War, the late 1860s in the south, and it was a reaction against the
abolition of slavery, and against the efforts by Black people in the South
to exercise a greater political voice and to win freedom in all spheres of
society. The Klan called for a return to open white supremacy, and
reestablishing something at least close to slavery for Black people. The
anti-elitist aspect of the Klan at this time involved the notion that the
northern capitalist business forces and the military forces that they
controlled were coming into the south and taking away people's rights to
control their own society. When the Klan was revived in the early 20th
century, it was very different from the original Klan in a number of ways.
For one thing it was a national movement. It spread fairly quickly from the
deep south to have a major voice in all regions of the country. It targeted
not only Black people, but also immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and a number
of other groups, and it involved a number of otherwise seemingly
progressive political features. That could mean anything from calls for
reforms at the municipal level, getting rid of corruption in city politics,
involvement in the labor movement there were Klan groups that had very
close ties with labor movements in certain areas, even the socialist party
in certain areas although the Klan also opposed labor activism in other
cases. And it's particularly striking when you look at the role of women in
the Ku Klux Klan. Kathleen Blee and others have written about the
development of the Women's KKK organization in the 1920s as a movement that
had very complex politics with regard to gender roles, and in relation to
the women's movement. There were Klan leaders who supported the original
Equal Rights Amendment. But all this was within the framework of upholding
white male nationalism, Protestant supremacy, anti-immigrant ideology.

Wolff: In the book you claim that the 1930s anti-fascist movement helped
lay the groundwork for the Cold War Red Scare and McCarthyism.

Berlet: The way they did that was again this conspiratorial view. Rather
than looking at the actual nature of the fascist movement and the
right-wing movements that were being critiqued, they really demonized, and
they used hysterical kinds of rhetoric, and they came up with these vast
conspiracies. There probably were some small conspiracies, but this idea of
the vast conspiracy which then they turned around and gave the government
sweeping power to go after right-wing and fascist movements. And you can
actually see the beginnings of this with the Palmer Raids in 1919-1920,
which was an anti-red scare, and then there was this anti-brown scare
(named after the brown shirts worn by Italian fascists) and it reverberates
back in setting up the state apparatus that went after people in the 1950s.

Wolff: You make a distinction between the Old Right of the 1950s and the
New Right which begins to develop in the 1970s and 80s.

Berlet: If you're talking about the Old Right you think about the
anti-Roosevelt forces of the 1950s, sometimes called the Taft wing of the
Republican party, and the Old Right had not let go of some of its more
overt white supremacy and anti-semitism and it was a very out-of-step
movement in the 1970s. In 1964 they had put forward Barry Goldwater as a
presidential candidate, and he was almost an embarrassment for American
conservatives. So the strategists pulled back and they began to think of a
way to re-cast right-wing thinking in America, which for a long time has
been based on a coalition of anti-communism, social traditionalism, and
libertarian economic theory. They saw how Jimmy Carter, by saying that he
was born again, had attracted a lot of previously non-voting but
democratic-leaning Christian evangelicals into the voting booth for the
first time in many years. So what you have then is an attempt to bring
right-wing-leaning Republican and conservative evangelicals who have been
sort of aloof from politics into the system. Jerry Falwell was recruited to
talk about social issues and to get Christian evangelicals to see that they
had a place in the voting booth. At the same time, one of the things Matt
likes to talk about is that they first tried to start a third party.

Lyons: The George Wallace campaigns and the late presidential campaigns in
1968 and 1972 had a real impact on the new right. George Wallace mobilized
primarily lower-class white voters in both the north and the south who were
in the Democratic party, not in the Republican party. Although he is
remembered as a staunch advocate of segregation as the governor of Alabama,
at the national level he really downplayed explicit racism, and was a real
pioneer in promoting a kind of coded racism which appealed to people's
racist sentiments, but did it in a way that was harder to catch hold of.
And this really influenced the early New Right theorists. The
organizational vehicle he created, the American Independent Party, was
something (the New Right coalition) initially tried to take hold of. When
that didn't really work out very well, they shifted over to the Republican
party, but there was definitely a very calculated effort to pull Wallace
Democrats into this New Right coalition. Richard Viguerie, who pioneered
the direct mail New Right campaigns of soliciting support, started with the
mailing list to tens of thousands of names that the Goldwater campaign had
collected in the 1960s. But he added to that the one or two million names
that the George Wallace campaign had collected in 1968 and '72. So while
the Republican Party became the home of the New Right in the 1970s, its
roots, in terms of the social base and in the ideology behind it, really
combined both Republican and Democratic as well as Independent roots.

Wolff: David Duke would be a particularly egregious example of someone who
just recently, in the 80s and 90s was able to capitalize on the same sort
of divide. Could you talk about him and how the ascent of the New Right is
related to the growing divide between rich and poor.

Berlet: Well, I'll talk about Duke because I think he's a good example of
how coded rhetoric can be used, and that a lot of people miss the racist
undercurrents if they're not paying attention. Duke, of course, starts out
obviously wearing a Klan robe and Nazi swastika, so he starts out as a
member of the white supremacist wing of the far right. But as he moves into
the electoral arena, he reinvents himself both literally and figuratively.
He comes back into the political system as someone who's just standing up
for white rights and what's fair for white people, too. And that sounds
fine until you find out really what he's talking about is people of color
are destroying America. He's pushing all these theories about welfare
mothers being lazy and shiftless, and all those kinds of ideas are what we
call, and others call, "producerism," the idea that the white middle class
is being squeezed by secret parasites up above often seen as Jewish
bankers or the trilateral commission or the UN globalists. But what they do
is they stomp on people down below, and that's traditionally people of
color and women, immigrants, gays and lesbians, who are seen as sinful. So
you're lazy and sinful down below, you're seen as elite, secret parasites
up above. Duke is the quintessential expresser of this kind of idea. He
talks about those people who are parasitic on the system and basically live
off welfare, but many people in his following see a Black woman when they
hear that. And so what he does is he uses these little hints, which in an
audience that isn't paying attention is gonna say, well, that's not racist,
that's not anti-Semitic, and if they don't do their homework they'll go
away believing that. And so he can play on their resentments in a way
that's harder to challenge, and to me that's the most important aspect of
understanding Duke - he starts rhetoric that is then later picked up by the
Republican party.

Wolff: Or by Bill Clinton, for instance, in the Welfare Reform movement.

Berlet: Absolutely. Once the Republicans start, the Democrats pick it right
up and you see it on a number of levels with anti-immigrant,
anti-affirmative action, anti-welfare they're all really speaking to an
alienated white nationalist base.

Lyons: When we look at the kinds of motivations that lead people into
right-wing populist movements, one of the important things is a sense of
economic hardship, economic injustice, economic inequality. It's not the
only factor, but it's an important one, and over the past twenty, thirty
years, there's been a lot of economic difficulties that large portions of
the population have experienced. Now one of the things that contributed to
that was the Reagan revolution, so-called, in the 1980s, which involved a
massive redistribution of wealth from working-class and middle-class people
into the coffers of the wealthy. But this development is something that
certain portions of the right have been able to capitalize on. Pat
Buchanan, in the campaigns for president that he launched in the 1990s,
appealed to people's sense of economic injustice. And the way he did it was
in terms of targeting global capital, global elites, which he portrayed as
a distortion of the free enterprise system. Now, we see it actually as an
outgrowth or a logical development of the free enterprise system, the
capitalist system. But that notion that some kind of international,
multinational corporate elites were threatening the true American
hardworking business people is something that has been effective for giving
people a way to make sense of their economic hardship, without challenging
the underlying system that brings it about.

Wolff: Let's talk for a minute about the anti-World Trade Organization
movement, which in the demonstrations in Seattle in 1999 and against the
IMF last year. You argue that even within that large, diverse movement
there are elements of repressive populism. Are you speaking only about Pat
Buchanan and his following, or do you also see that among some of the
people on the left?

Berlet: Well, I'm afraid we see it at least a little bit on the left, where
there's this tendency to use a conspiracist analysis about global trade.
Certainly Matt and I both abhor the globalization of the economy on behalf
of wealthy elites and large corporations. That's not our idea of a
democratic system. But in characterizing globalization, as some people do,
on the basis that there's a big difference between industrial capitalism
and financial capitalism and there's this idea that these parasitic
national bankers are what's behind this global economy that's dangerously
close to the old Jewish bankers conspiracy theory. And so there are people
on the right who are eager to move into the anti-globalization movement and
recruit out of it, and our critique to a large extent is to say, given the
history of these right-wing populist movements and the way they use this
phony anti-elite critique based on a conspiracy theory, folks involved in
fighting globalization should be very careful about their rhetoric,
especially when it comes to nationalism, because in this country that will
mean white nationalism. So there's people on the left who are at best
insensitive and at worst complicit in spreading theories that build attacks
on immigrants, on global alliances with working people, and spread theories
that are essentially the base for anti-Semitism.

Wolff: Let's talk for a moment about the Green Party and the most recent
Nader presidential election bid. Do you see some hope there for a truly
progressive populist movement in the U.S.?

Berlet: Well, I think there's a real potential there. I'm a big fan of Joel
Kovel, who challenged Nader in a couple of the primaries, especially in
California. I think that (the movement) shows that there are a lot of
people who understand on a very basic level that things are unfair in terms
of the global economy, and as we restructure the global economy to be more
fair to more people we have to pay attention to the environment. That's a
very good political sense of reality and has a lot of hope for the future.
But you know, I asked Nader if he would distance himself from Buchanan and
the right-wing populist forces around Buchanan, and he wouldn't do it. He's
still trying to see if he can build a coalition that bridges the left and
right. We think sometimes you have to end up working with a broad range of
people in political movements, but in the anti-globalist campaign, this
right-wing xenophobia, or as I said to Nader, the racism, sexism,
homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant and xenophobic policies of the
people around Buchanan, don't you think you should separate yourself - he
refused. I don't think you can build a movement that starts by throwing our
allies overboard.

Lyons: One of the things that the right-wing populist movements point to is
the need to promote genuine alternatives, genuine radical political
alternatives, that speak to the real grievances and concerns and sense of
disempowerment that people have, but that focus on actual systems and
structures of inequality and oppression rather than on scapegoats, rather
than on fake conspiracy theories. And the Green Party is an example of a
movement that has that potential but hasn't quite sorted out those kinds of
issues; it hasn't quite fully made that kind of demarcation between
different kinds of populism.
Chip Berlet is senior analyst at Political Research Associates in
Somerville, Massachusetts and editor of Eyes Right! He has written about
right-wing movements for over twenty years.

Matthew Lyons is a historian, activist and author whose work has focused on
social movements. He is the author of The Grassroots Network: Radical
Nonviolence in the Federal Republic of Germany, 1972 - 1985.

Elaine Wolff is a writer and community radio producer. This interview
originally aired on Left in Sight on radio station KO.OP 91.7, Austin,
Texas, December 20, 2000.

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