In Solidarity recently we have discussed how political Islam can be both a “sigh of the oppressed” and a reactionary, right-wing movement.
The Christian right in the USA shows the same paradox more extravagantly. Thomas Frank, in his study of the rise of the right in Kansas, found that in Olathe, a poor Kansas City suburb which is a bastion of the right, “each of the conservatives I spent time with was either a blue-collar worker or married to one”
He talked with one of the leaders of the right, Kay O’Connor, a working-class woman. She supports tax cuts for the rich. “Progressive taxation is theft, plain and simple”. She supports voucher schools, explicitly on the grounds that they will “produce good workers who will work for lower wages” and thus help business expand. Her political programme does not even include the sort of social demagogy — government programmes for jobs, controls over capitalists — which the far right of the 1930s used. Although she is, as far as Frank could see, the dominant character in her household, with her husband very subordinate, she believes women should be submissive and prides herself on being “a happy captive”.
How do these paradoxes work? Racism may serve as the glue to keep some of the US radical right together, but Frank reckons that is not true for them all, and not true in Kansas. Kansas right-wingers see themselves as in the tradition of campaigners for the abolition of slavery, like John Brown, and the 1960s civil rights movement.
In his book Pity The Billionaire, Frank describes the Tea Party as more secular, more concerned for economic rather than moral doctrine, and having its base somewhat higher in the economic scale, than the Kansas right.
But at the centre of the varied spectrum of the US plebeian right, as Frank describes it, is a religious idea. There is a natural order of society, defined by the Bible, the free market, and the US constitution. “It is God’s finger that wrote the Constitution. This is God’s country; these are God’s rights” (Glenn Beck).
At some vaguely-perceived point in the past, that holy trio prevailed. Society was maybe tough, but good. It has been spoiled by “the liberal elite”. Now the people are rising up against “the liberal elite”.
There are odd echoes here of the “privilege theory” current in some left-wing circles. The blight in society is that ordinary honest-to-goodness people are victims of “the elites” with their reading, their smooth talk, their put-downs, their cosmopolitanism, their un-Americanism.
“Harvard hates America”, as one right-wing best-seller puts it. The answer is to hearken to the simple truths which naturally well up from the ordinary, honest-to-goodness people.
And the US right “knows” how those ordinary honest-to-goodness people get the simple truths. They are in tune with God, and so in tune with the “real” America of small business and free-market competition, uncorrupted by the fast-talking ideologues of East and West Coasts.
This construct also allows politicians who are Harvard graduates and East Coast insiders to lead the right. If they speak up for God and the market, then they are not really part of the “liberal elite”.
Another eerie parallel with some trends on the left is the way the US right is sustained by a constant bubbling of scandals and revelations conveyed on the internet.
In 2009, for example, the right was galvanised by the idea that the Obama administration planned to set up internment camps for right-wing activists. Then the scandal faded, as it was replaced by the next one.
Frank attributes some of the rise of the right to the weakness of the left. “While leftists sit around congratulating themselves on their personal virtue, the right understands the central significance of movement-building... going door-to-door, organising their neighbours, mortgaging their houses, to push the gospel of the backlash”.
Another paradox, though: the right-wing activists’ organising energy remains undismayed partly because it is not based on a “realistic” pursuit of immediate and definable goals.
The US right has cut taxes for the rich, battered unions, increased social inequality. Working-class right-wing activists may see those things as part of the God-given order, but not as their cherished goals.
US government spending remains a big proportion of the economy, 33 years after Ronald Reagan took office, and will remain big. Abortion remains legal. Organised prayer in public schools remains as illegal as when the Supreme Court struck it down in 1962. But if your political motivation is to make a moral stand, then it remains strong. Your sense of victimhood — what Frank called the plen-T-plaint — remains fresh.
You think God is in control, not you, so results may be slow. Paradoxically, that fatalism can produce a determination and sense of duty unknown to the “realistic”.
The lesson for the left, to my mind, is that we must develop politics which has a moral drive, a focus on the big picture and the long term, as compelling and vivid as the right’s, as well as, and based on, rational and realistic assessments.
• Thomas Frank, What’s The Matter With Kansas? (2004), and Pity The Billionaire (2011)