RIGHTS FOR SOME: THE EROSION OF U.S. DEMOCRACY
by Jean Hardisty
Right-wing leaders often
appropriate progressive themes by calling for rule by "the people," equal
opportunity, and "equality" feminism. Their rhetoric has convinced many voters
that the Right offers a more fair and direct form of democratic representation
than that offered by liberals and progressives. But an accurate
analysis of the Right's agenda reveals that, while it embraces the rhetoric of
democracy, it promotes a constricted, shrunken version of democracy. It's a
version that resembles the United States political landscape before the New
Deal reforms of the 1930s and 1940s. By defining democracy in its narrowest
sense, the contemporary Right claims the mantle of democracy, even though,
since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, its campaigns, policies, and
initiatives have attacked democratic principles and undermined democratic
Progressives have a gut-level
understanding that the Right is anti-democratic, so when we fight the Right's
agenda, we often say we are "defending democracy." But what exactly do we mean
by that? How do progressives define the "democracy" that we are defending? What
definition of democracy does the Right use? What change does the Right intend
to bring to society as a whole? What is its overarching vision, and how does
that vision alter democracy as progressives define it?
What is Democracy?
Democracy has no single definition.
It is a fluid concept that can describe a political system in which very few
hold power and each person is responsible for his or her own welfare, or an
egalitarian and inclusive political system in which decision-making is
broad-based and the members' needs are met. The Right has historically
promoted the former version of democracy and progressives the latter. In its
most narrow definition, democracy simply offers citizens the right to vote.
Unfortunately, this narrow definition is used widely, by political
commentators, the State Department and school textbooks. So when another
country does not offer people the opportunity to vote, or doesn't offer choices
among different political parties, the U.S. declares that it is not "a
democracy." If that country does offer even the semblance of a plebiscite, its
classification changes and journalists and government officials are inclined to
celebrate the arrival of democracy.
Progressives fully understand that
the vote can be a sham because many people don't vote and others are
illegitimately denied the right to vote. The U.S. Constitution was intended not
to establish democratic self-government, but to perpetuate the power of
property-owning white men. Even for those who had the vote, direct
representation was mediated through the Electoral College and two very
differently-composed Houses of Congress. The Constitution is a
flawed document that is, to this day, being corrected and expanded to include
basic rights and guarantees. Progressives remain critical of the many real
breaches of individual rights that persist in the U.S.
Despite the United States' blatant
shortcomings - from institutional racism to systematic government violations of
civil liberties - certain characteristics are now widely accepted in the
consciousness of much of the U.S. public as constituting "our system of
democracy." These characteristics include: the right to vote and have that vote
counted; the right to hold and express individual opinions; an independent
judiciary; and freedom of religion. Each characteristic has seldom been a
reality. Nevertheless, they remain the popular image of U.S. democracy.
Progressives often appeal to each of these standards in order to defend
individual rights and liberties from governmental abuses.
But in a truly inspiring vision of
democracy, a democratic society provides equal protection under the law, equal
access to economic opportunities, and equal access to individual rights. For
those less able to compete for a good life, government provides a social safety
net, paid for by all the members of the society. Full membership in society is
open to all. There is no "fence" around the society to legitimize those within
and allow them to forget and ignore those outside. White male property owners
are not more deserving than mothers who receive welfare or children with
physical disabilities. Government does more than simply represent and carry out
the will of the voting public; its role extends to supporting people as they
strive for better lives.  Social justice activists consistently
work to push U.S. society to reach this democratic potential by efforts to
expand rights and protections for everyone, not just the privileged, demanding
that government uphold the individual liberties guaranteed in the Bill of
Rights, and fighting for a meaningful social safety net.
While the Right (including the New
Right, the Christian Right, and the secular right wing of the Republican Party)
opposes every assumption and program promoted by liberals and progressives, it
supports "democracy" - the most rosy, popular view of U.S. democracy. This view
is often taught in schools, where students learn that our democracy is the best
system in the world, a system of self-governance in which the citizens are,
first and foremost, free from unnecessary government interference in their
lives. Freedom, the key ingredient, is freedom from constraints on individual
liberty. This version of democracy is a matter of form rather than substance.
That is, so long as the vote is in place and representative political bodies are
present, it is acceptable for elites to dominate decision-making and for gross
inequalities of power and wealth, lack of mass participation, and inadequate
protection of minority groups to exist.
The Right, using this version of
democracy, declares its ideology and agenda to be "for the average working
person." The Right's leaders use rhetoric such as "returning power to the
people" or "taking our country back" to emphasize their "democratic"
But this is a dodge that
intentionally misleads the public. Rightist leaders borrow and coopt the
language of an expansive, progressive vision of democracy, while pursuing a
constricted and reactionary version of democracy. Only occasionally does a
marginal figure such as Pat Buchanan confess his doubts about democracy and his
suspicions of "the people."
What Can People Expect From Democracy Today?
An expansive view of democracy grew
in popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, as activists pressed demands on the
government for services, protections and relief in economic, social, and
political areas. Many white voters, educated by the civil rights movement,
began to imagine a more inclusive version of democracy in which members of the
society were not placed "outside the fence" because of their race. Many people
began to see de facto racial
segregation, slum housing conditions, unemployment, and widespread hunger and
malnutrition as affronts to democracy. All three branches of government - the
Congress, the Executive branch, and the Judiciary - responded to popular
pressure by taking some responsibility for the poverty and the other forms of
oppression in which a large portion of people in this country lived.
Precedent existed for government to
assist those living in poverty: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal
of the 1930s and 1940s. In many cases during the Roosevelt's Administrations,
government acknowledged such needs and then a joint force of government, the
non-profit sector, and occasionally business tried to address them. The backlash
was immediate and vicious. Roosevelt and his New Deal policies came under
sustained and sometimes vicious attacks from the Right of the 1930s and 1940s -
the Old Right. Its principal weapon was the accusation that an expanded
government was socialistic and that liberal government programs were the work
of "domestic communists." But, despite the Right's attacks, FDR was re-elected
three times, finally dying in office.
The Old Right's opposition to
"government interference" remained strong in the 1950s, when the National
Review magazine played a leading role in
critiquing government programs. Wisconsin's Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy
promoted the Old Right's anti-communist paranoia with his Senate Internal
Security Committee Hearings, creating a climate of fear and red-baiting that
ruined hundreds of lives. But the popular movements of the 1960s and 1970s,
which mobilized large numbers of people to exert demands on government,
lessened the Old Right's effectiveness. Liberal reformers who were elected to
Congress refined New Deal programs. The civil rights and the anti-Vietnam war
movement mounted serious challenges to the status quo. The women's movement soon joined that challenge and
the movement for the liberation of lesbians and gay men caused still more
people to demand government action. Liberation movements generated a drumbeat
of demands for expanded rights, as they mobilized to bring more people "inside
the fence" of democracy, and leave fewer and fewer people disenfranchised,
marginalized, and "outside the fence." The John Birch Society actively opposed
the liberation movements, but was not able to block them. In the 1960s and
1970s, many people's expectations of their government were perhaps higher even
than during the New Deal.
In the 1970s, young, ambitious
leaders of the Right responded by abandoning the Old Right's identity and
fashioning a new style and a new name - the New Right.
Continuing its attack on the legitimacy of any federal government program that
addressed social justice issues, the New Right dropped the explicit promotion
of racial bigotry. It attacked liberalism as a tax-and-spend ideology that
created inefficient government programs that were causing, not ameliorating,
the country's problems. Using high-tech methods, simplistic language, and
outrageous accusations, it demonstrated its muscle by defeating six of seven
sitting liberal Democratic Senators in the 1980 election. Under the protection
of Ronald Reagan, its charismatic standard-bearer, the New Right took control
of the Republican Party, while simultaneously courting conservative evangelical
Christians with a program of "family values" and minimal government.
How The Right
Portrays Itself As Democratic
In the 1970s the New Right set out
its ideology with shameless clarity. Calling itself a "revolutionary"
movement, its leaders declared that they were going to take the country back
from the liberals, feminists, and secular humanists who "controlled" the
national agenda. In a book that could serve as the manifesto of the New Right,
The New Right: We're Ready to Lead!,
Richard Viguerie states, "Conservatives are fighting for ...basic rights not
merely for ourselves but for all Americans. One of the biggest lies of 20th
century American politics is that liberals care about people and conservatives
don't. This is a bum rap put on us by liberals. I suggest it's conservatives
who, by their actions, show real love and compassion for their fellow men." 
The New Right repackaged the agenda of the Old Right, while denying that the
movement was racist. The New Right's leaders sought to leave behind the Old
Right's tainted association with the KKK, White Citizens' Councils, neo-nazi
anti-Semites, and even the John Birch Society, while simultaneously positioning
themselves well to the right of traditional Republican conservatives.
To become a
mass-based social and political movement, however, the New Right needed to
attract a following outside of the Republican Party. Republicans have for
decades had a reputation as the party of white country club members and big
business. But at various times it has successfully painted itself as the party
of "the common man," especially during the anti-communist hysteria of the
1950s. Another instance was the courtship by President Richard Nixon's Vice
President, Spiro Agnew, of "the silent majority." Agnew claimed that most
inactive voters were conservative and were best represented by conservative
Republicans. Two constituencies were available for the New Right's
recruitment: voters who had supported the presidential candidacy of George
Wallace, the white supremacist Democratic governor of Alabama who is sometimes
called the father of the conservative movement, and conservative Christian
evangelicals across the country.
In recruiting these new
constituencies, the New Right's leaders struck an aggressively populist tone,
despite an agenda that served the interests of business and the wealthy. As
Chip Berlet describes in his book, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close
for Comfort, "...[T]he grievances of many
White middle- and working-class people-both a legitimate sense of injury and
angry scapegoating generated by the erosion of traditional privileges-could be
harnessed to benefit wealthy elites and intensify disempowerment and inequality
for millions of people."  As is so often true of right-wing
populism, rhetoric about "the people" masks the interests of the ruling class.
The changes the Right pursued in
the tax code throughout the 1980s and 1990s served the standard Republican
constituency of corporate leaders, captains of finance, and businessmen.
Additionally, they served the interests of venture capitalists, the economic
sector most directly represented by the New Right in the 1970s and 1980s and
later by right-wing Congressional leaders such as Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay.
But, by presenting themselves as anti-elite defenders of average people, the
leaders of the New Right camouflaged the movement's actual class interests. By
pursuing strategies such as tax protests, citizen-initiated ballot referenda,
and Congressional term limits, which appear to favor "average people" over
elites, the Right has cloaked itself in the mantle of populism. It thereby
claims to be more democratic than its liberal opposition.
The Realities of
The New Right launched itself as a
movement with California's Proposition 13, an anti-tax crusade. Tax cutting as
an issue has had long political legs. It continues as a central plank in the
Right's agenda. Proposition 13 illustrates how the Right spins its activism to
give it a populist appearance while it actually aims to shrink government's
ability to meet people's needs. A 1978 tax reduction ballot initiative, it
capped property tax rates and severely limited the state's revenues. Its
right-wing backers promoted it as "direct democracy" (ballot initiatives)
challenging "runaway government" (taxes for government programs).
No U.S. political movement has made
greater use of the "populist" political options of state-level ballot
initiatives and referenda than has the contemporary Right. If ballot
initiatives were indeed a populist means of passing legislation (implying a
more direct form of democratic expression), the Right would have a legitimate claim.
But, contrary to popular belief, ballot initiatives are no more "pure" as an
expression of public opinion than the average law passed by a state legislature
or by Congress. In both cases, interest groups line up to influence the
formulation of the proposed law, to aggressively sell it to the voting public,
and to benefit from the outcome. Referenda are formulated by a small number of
people who have the opportunity to manipulate language to make their initiative
look more broadly appealing than its actual content warrants. They use their
political skill and connections to mobilize the "initiative campaign industry"
- money, the media, direct mail, negative advertising, paid signature
gathering, and PR firms - to reach various like-minded groups and individuals.
All this is similar to the process used by legislators.
The wording of the initiative can
confuse (and thereby manipulate) voters. Indeed, many people do not vote for
the initiatives because of their complexity or, in some states such as California,
their excessive number. Research suggests that, despite (often purposefully)
confusing language, voters exercise their choices fairly competently over a
wide range of ballot propositions. They seek out available information and
vote on the basis of ideology, cues from their political party, and their own
self-interest. But law made by ballot initiative is
not more democratic than that made by
In the case of initiatives to limit
taxes, the Right benefits from the fact that, in the American imagination, tax
resistance is often tied to democratic self-governance. It is associated with
the Boston Tea Party's defiance of British "taxation without representation"
and captures popular approval because it is always presented as righteous indignation
over "tax robbery" and the misuse of public funds.
Howard Jarvis, the architect of
Proposition 13, presented his ballot initiative as "a people's movement." Nothing could sound more democratic. The use of the
political tool of initiatives and referenda at the state level was a
progressive reform won in the 1980s by progressive activists who explicitly
designed it to give average citizens a way to circumvent intransigent state
legislatures that were unresponsive to the popular will. But the way the Right
promoted Proposition 13 and its effect are anything but democratic.
Proposition 13 and many similar initiatives in other states have proved to be a
power play by the joint interests of small business, large corporations and
Proposition 13 was built on
widespread dissatisfaction in California in the mid-1970s, when an unresponsive
state legislature seemed unwilling to counter a trend of rising property taxes.
Most journalists and scholars who studied the success of Proposition 13 have
concluded that it was the result of a grassroots effort- an expression of
popular will that was not underwritten by special interests. But
in his 1998 reassessment of three tax revolt initiatives, Daniel A. Smith comes
to a very different conclusion. He presents convincing evidence that the
forces behind Proposition 13 were not grassroots citizens, but right-wing
"populist entrepreneur" Howard Jarvis, the business community, and real estate
Proposition 13 is just one example
of the many state-level ballot initiatives that the Right has sponsored in the
last 20 years. A wide array of groups - not just right-wing groups - uses
ballot initiatives and referenda to advance their cause or agenda. But some
are explicitly anti-democratic, in that they specifically deprive a minority
group of its rights. In these cases, for the Right to
claim to be speaking for "the people," "the people" would be people not
categorized as "minority" or those not demonized by the Right - that is, white,
heterosexual males who are "upstanding citizens." Examples of right-wing
referenda directed against those "outside the fence" include initiatives that
attack prisoners' rights, bilingual education, lesbian and gay rights,
affirmative action, and immigrant rights.
Other right-wing referenda, such as
those that attack women's right to abortion and support the death penalty,
reflect long-standing right-wing causes that violate individual rights. Some
ultraconservative groups, such as the National Rifle Association, have
sponsored initiatives that support a contested individual right - the right to
bear arms. Some conservative-sponsored initiatives are ambiguous, such as term
limits. But in the majority of the Right's referenda successes, the victory has
caused a so-called minority (often small in number and relatively less
powerful) to lose political ground at the hands of the self-styled majority
(often more powerful, though not necessarily a numerical majority).
Further, the Right often uses
deception to woo the voters to its initiatives. Slogans such as "No Special
Rights" used to promote anti-gay initiatives, or the use of "civil rights" in
the title of referenda that overturn affirmative action programs, or the
message that "English is the key to opportunity" to promote propositions
eliminating bilingual education all illustrate the Right's co-optation of the
language of equality in its campaigns to undo gains minorities have made.
Clearly, the Right's use of deceptive rhetoric violates the spirit of
democracy, if not the letter of election laws.
Campaign Finance Reform -- Heading for the
When presented with an opportunity
to take political action that could actually promote a more accountable and
open democracy, the Right abandons its populist rhetoric and digs in its heels.
The most common and widely accepted critique of contemporary U.S. democracy is
that money and "special interests" play too large a role in influencing
elections and legislation. Volumes have been written about how money corrupts
the "will of the people." When it is to the Right's advantage, such as when Al
Gore engaged in questionable fundraising policies during his Vice-Presidential
tenure, the Right's leadership is vocal in its criticism of the role of money
in politics. When it comes to an actual solution, such as campaign finance
reform, the Right is firmly opposed.
Because the public is increasingly
aware of the role of money in politics, it was heartening, but not surprising,
that Senator John McCain (R-AZ) struck a popular chord when he centered his
2000 presidential primary campaign on the theme of campaign finance reform. But
McCain hit a brick wall of resistance from the Republican Party, which had
already made a bargain with George W. Bush for the 2000 Presidential
nomination. Along with McCain's candidacy, the Republican leadership rejected
his message of campaign finance reform. This was not a new rejection. Led by
the Party's right wing, Republicans at the federal and state level have effectively
stonewalled on the subject of campaign finance reform for over twenty years and
still oppose many of the reforms suggested by its advocates.
Politicians in both parties have
long accepted money and worked for the interests of the donors. Democrats and
Republicans alike are beholden to individual and corporate donations to finance
the campaigns that allow them to stay in office or run for office. But the
right wing of the Republican Party has resisted, and blocked, the reform of the
system that makes politicians dependent on private money, and, thus, the
resulting need for politicians to deliver favorable legislation to those who
make major donations.
Micah Sifry of Public Campaign, a
Washington D.C. think tank that promotes clean-election laws at the state
level, has called the current electoral system of privately financed campaigns
"an operating system that shapes who can run for office, what issues get
raised, and which interests get served." Without private
money, candidates cannot mount a campaign, resist the "bribery of special
interest donations," or forcefully represent the interests of those who don't
have access to the resources to form Political Action Committees (PACs) that
collect and funnel money to a candidate or legislator. Extraction industries,
such as mining and timber, make large donations to politicians who head
committees dealing with the environment. Tobacco and alcohol interests pour
money into the coffers of the Republican Party in the form of "soft" money
donations, which are not limited by federal laws, and thereby buy assurance
that Republicans will defend them in Congress. And, although campaign
finance reform alone will not ensure an open democratic political system,
without it, those with money will certainly continue to exercise
Clearly the ability of business
interests, corporations, and wealthy individuals to obtain special government
access and influence is patently anti-democratic. Following the Watergate
scandal in the 1970s, Congress passed a clean-elections law, the Federal
Election Campaign Act, which covers both candidates and political parties.
covers only candidates, not political parties, It limits individual donations
to $1,000 for any one candidate and provides matching funds for presidential
parties that receive 5% of the popular
vote in the previous election.
Because Republican and Democratic
politicians at the federal level thwarted further efforts in the 1980s,
activists began to work for clean-elections laws at the state level. If a
candidate consents to private fundraising restrictions, public funding of
campaign races is now available in Maine (1996), Vermont (1997), Arizona (1998)
and Massachusetts (1998), and activists are pursuing this reform in six other
states. Thus, campaign finance reform activists have put the issue on the table
for public debate and have raised the public's awareness of the role of money
in undermining democratic principles and practices. But campaign finance reform
laws can be nullified if the state legislature refuses to grant the funds to
underwrite them, as it has in Massachusetts, or are voluntary, as is usually
true. Even in their weak forms, nearly all Republicans and many Democrats have
fought campaign finance reform laws at every step. For instance, 38 of 50
Republican Senators and three of 50 Democrats opposed the campaign finance
reform bill, passed in the Senate in early 2001 with a vote of 59-41.
The Christian Coalition, Concerned
Women for America, and other conservative groups regularly publish materials,
raise money and contribute to campaigns that promote their positions,
specifying elected officials' voting records and candidates' campaign
positions. According to Beverly LaHaye, Chairman of Concerned Women for
America, campaign finance bills limit this activity and would "criminalize the
educational work of public policy groups, including CWA." Paul Weyrich of the
Free Congress Foundation does not support campaign finance reform because he
insists it would restrict his constitutional right to freely express his
political views. By usurping the language of democratically held values, such
spokespeople insist they are individuals with constitutionally guaranteed
liberties, not the corrupt special interest groups that these laws are intended
Narrowing Rights for Some of "The People"
At every step, the Right - both the Old Right and the contemporary
Right - has opposed across the board
democratic guarantees of equal treatment for all, without regard to race,
ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. While claiming
to speak for "the people," the Right's leaders have for decades supported full
rights of some people and opposed full rights for others. An early example is
the New Right's opposition to a guarantee of equal legal, political, and
economic rights for women when it opposed the Equal Rights Amendment (the ERA).
Passed during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the amendment went
to the states for ratification. In 1984 it failed to obtain the 2/3 state
ratification needed for passage of a Constitutional Amendment when Phyllis
Schlafly, right-wing leader of the anti-feminist women's group, the Eagle
Forum, mounted a crusade to defeat it. Arguing that the ERA would guarantee
that women would serve in combat, eliminate single-sex bathrooms, and forbid
preferential treatment for women in the workplace, Schlafly's crusade paid off
when the ERA fell three states short of approval. During her crusade, President
Reagan announced that he supported women's rights but opposed the ERA on the
grounds that it should not be a Constitutional Amendment. This
anti-ERA position was characteristic of the Right's historical opposition to
civil rights and women's rights; in fact, the rights of many, such as
lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender people, Native Americans, and immigrants.
For decades, the Right has argued
that the Constitution supports "states' rights"-the idea that the federal
government has very limited authority vis-à-vis the states and that most
decisions should (constitutionally) stay at the state level. Journalist Michael
Lind identifies two conservative arguments for states' rights: that individual
liberty is best protected in a system of strong states and weak central government,
and that states serve as excellent incubators of creative ideas - "laboratories
for democracy." Critics of the Right have often
noted that rightists suspend these arguments when they argue for a federal ban
on abortion or a constitutional amendment to ban the burning of the U.S. flag,
to impose mandatory annual standardized tests in all public schools, or most
recently, to overturn the decision of the Florida Supreme Court to recount
votes in the 2000 presidential election.
Altogether, the "states' rights"
slogan has an ignoble history. White segregationists raised it time and time
again in the South during the 1960s to justify opposing desegregation. At that
point, many who led the states' rights opposition were Southern Democrats.
Resisting desegregation of Southern schools, Old Rightist George Wallace stood
blocking the steps to a schoolhouse door in Macon County in 1963, defying
federal marshals in the name of states' rights. At his 1963 inauguration as
Alabama's Governor, Wallace declared "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow,
segregation forever." "States' rights" was widely used as code for "white
rights" and Southern politicians invoked it when the states' white power
structures opposed federal anti-racist policies.
State legislatures are most often
more conservative than is Congress. When, under the banner of states' rights,
power is passed from the federal government to the states, the result is
usually a more conservative exercise of that power. So, when the protection of
the rights of unpopular groups is handed to the states, the states are likely
to follow their own more conservative social and political attitudes.
Providing rights to groups that are out of favor can become virtually
voluntary. For instance, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender
people are unevenly protected across states. When block grants pass
decision-making on the use and availability of federal funds to the states, the
rights of welfare recipients and prisoners are unevenly protected. Each state
determines its own level of "tolerance." In this case, as in many others,
states' rights allow states to preserve their "right" to discriminate.
The New Right's leadership seldom
met a civil rights gain it didn't attempt to roll back, understanding that many
white Americans tired of policies and programs that explicitly challenged
racism. So the New Right retained the Old Right's use of the states' rights
argument to oppose any broadening of rights and protections for people of
color, thus courting those white Republicans who had changed party affiliation
from Democratic to Republican when they perceived the Democratic Party to have
moved leftward. Much of that perception stemmed from the Democratic Party's
pro-civil rights stands. The defection of large number of Democrats ended the
Democratic Party's dominance in the South, while the Right's policy agenda from
the 1970s to the present time reflects a camouflaged white supremacism that
belies its claim to have shed the racism of the Old Right.
The "Colorblind" Paradigm
The New Right's leadership crafted
a rationale for its "benign neglect" of civil rights enforcement and its trust
in the states to police civil rights enforcement. This rationale, adopted and
promoted by the Reagan Administration, differed from the Old Right's white
supremacist position and provided a new analysis of race in America. In books
and speeches throughout the 1980s, the leaders and ideologues of the New Right
"embraced" the civil rights movement, claiming that, thanks to the civil rights
movement, legal segregation was now overturned. This was in keeping with a
widespread acceptance among whites that segregation's time had passed and it should not be restored.
Asserting that the civil rights movement had accomplished its goals, the New
Right opposed programs developed in the course of that correction as irrelevant
and, in most cases, unfair to white people in the present "post-civil rights"
period in which there is "no longer racial discrimination." The only fair current
policies, therefore, are "colorblind" ones that do not unfairly discriminate
The Right's claim that racial
discrimination is a thing of the past serves as a sleight of hand that masks
its attack on civil rights. Republican rightists in the House and Senate
resisted the reauthorization of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by claiming that it
was no longer needed. Similarly, rightists during the Reagan Administration
popularized the argument that affirmative action resulted in the unfair treatment
of whites. Nathan Glazer and other neoconservative rightists argued that,
because affirmative action was "discriminatory," it was contrary to the goals
of the civil rights movement. By claiming that racial
discrimination was a thing of the past, Glazer turned the civil rights argument
for fairness and equality on its head - a common right-wing strategy. To this
day, the attack on affirmative action is mounted on the basis of "colorblind
Opposing Civil Rights
But the actions and non-actions of
the Reagan Administration demonstrate a far deeper anti-civil rights agenda.
Reagan was lukewarm to the idea of a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday; he signed
a bill in 1983 only after much public pressure and two major civil rights
marches. His foreign policy initiatives in U.S, relations with South Africa
reflected a soft approach to apartheid, pressuring for "constructive
engagement" instead of a strategy of stronger economic sanctions to oppose it.
For five years Reagan resisted sanctions legislation. Even when a sanctions
bill finally passed in 1986, he vetoed it, only to have Congress override his
veto. These are just some of the negative, stonewalling policies that the
Reagan-era New Right pursued in the area of civil rights.
New Rightists filled the
bureaucracy of the Reagan Administration and gutted the federal government's
bastions of equal protection-the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Justice
Department's Division of Civil Rights, and the U.S. Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Under the leadership of Assistant Attorney
General William Bradford Reynolds, the Civil Rights Division abandoned its
practice of entertaining charges of systemic discrimination. At the EEOC,
Chairman Clarence Thomas failed to pursue 1,700 complaints of race and gender
discrimination and did not pursue class action suits. Reagan appointee Linda
Chavez, who recently withdrew as George W. Bush's nominee for Secretary of
Labor, headed the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights from 1983 to 1985. Chavez reversed
the Commission's gains dramatically, decreased its productivity, and marched
lockstep with Reagan's anti-civil rights agenda. In 1982, presidential advisor
Edwin Meese III led a drive within the Administration to restore tax-exempt
status to racially segregated schools and colleges that resulted in an official
announcement that tax-exemption would be granted. The furious objection of
civil rights leaders forced the Administration to reverse this decision. 
In addition to
blocking civil rights enforcement, the Right has used the "colorblind"
rationale to justify a number of proactive
anti-civil rights initiatives. For example, the Republican right wing has
targeted civil rights and anti-poverty programs for annihilation. Often the
Right calls the attack a "reform," such as the Right's "welfare reform"
campaign. In this case, the Right mobilized public anger against the
expenditure of (white) taxpayer money to support the poor by stereotyping
welfare recipients as "welfare queens" who were described as lazy, sexually
promiscuous, immoral, and cheating the taxpayers who fed them.
Right-wing welfare opponents nearly always depicted the stereotyped "welfare
queen" as a Black woman, although African American women were
37% of welfare recipients. 
Rightist Senators and
Representatives have relied on a number of books to justify cuts that shredded
the poverty programs, including: George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty (1981); Charles Murray's Losing Ground (1984); Dinesh D'Souza's The End of Racism
(1995); and the late Richard Herrnstein and
Charles Murray's The Bell Curve (1994). Funded by conservative backers and aggressively marketed to
conservative audiences as scholarly research, these books received wide
attention from the mainstream press. Gilder and Murray developed the right-wing
argument that poverty programs do more harm than good in poor communities (read
"communities of color") by fostering dependency and a sense of victimization. The
Bell Curve made the case for the far right
message of white superiority.
The success of these right-wing
ideologues is due not to their scholarship, which has been systematically
discredited, but to the timeliness of their publications. Theirs are
politically expedient, not objectively researched, works that appeared when
needed to support and justify the successful campaigns mounted by rightist
Republicans and conservative Democrats to dismantle affirmative action,
compensatory education and public welfare programs. Their analysis allows
whites to focus on liberal policies and on the poor themselves as the sources
of social problems, rather than on racism, redlining, the relocation of jobs to
the suburbs, and on substandard housing, poor educational facilities, or other
institutional causes of poverty.
In several other
areas, the New Right and the Reagan Administration attacked the civil rights
gains of people of color while claiming not to be racist and to speak for "the
people." The Right both spawned and supported a number of anti-immigrant groups
such as the American Immigration Control Foundation (AICF), The Federation for
American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Carrying Capacity Network, Americans for
Border Control (ABC), and The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). Using
images of immigrants of color as a code to communicate racist messages, these
well-financed organizations have been effective in increasing anti-immigrant
prejudices by promoting scapegoating and stereotyping of immigrants of color.
Their messages include: immigrants are not assimilating; they are often
criminals; and they have too many children, and so harm the environment and
disproportionately use social services, paid for by white Americans.
In 1994 Alan Nelson,
a former Director under Reagan of the Immigration and Naturalization Service
(INS), authored California's Proposition 187, mandating that teachers, doctors,
social workers, and police check the immigration status of all persons seeking
access to publicly funded education and health services and deny services to
undocumented immigrants. The Proposition passed, with backing from a local
organization called Save Our State (SOS). The campaign for Proposition 187 was
closely tied to the reelection campaign of conservative Republican Governor
anti-immigrant sentiment swept into Congress in 1994 with the arrival of a
Republican majority headed by Representative Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and his
"Contract With America." In 1996, a "new Republican"-controlled Congress
enacted three laws that directly affected immigrants, 85% of whom are people of
color: the Illegal Immigration Control and Immigrant Responsibility Act
(IIRIRA), the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act
(PRWORA or the "Welfare Reform Act"), and the Anti-Terrorist and Effective
Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). In each case, legal as well as undocumented
immigrants were stripped of individual rights and benefits. PRWORA eliminated
Social Security and food stamps for all immigrant legal permanent residents. The law further authorized
states to deny Medicaid, Title XX Social Services, and any state-funded aid to
legal permanent residents.
the authority of the INS to deport longtime legal immigrants for minor crimes,
committed before the Act had passed and for which they had already served time.
It also denied immigrants access to the federal courts to have their cases
heard before a federal immigration judge, thus denying them their right to due
process. And AEDPA imposed mandatory detention and deportation of any
long-term permanent legal resident immigrants who had been convicted of, or had
served time for, any drug offense, including past offenses. The government may
apply these punishments on the basis of evidence labeled as "classified," that
neither immigrants nor their attorneys are permitted to examine. As with
IIRIRA, the right to judicial review is eliminated.
groups have organized the "Fix '96" campaign to reverse some of the three 1996
Acts' most outrageous measures. The Agriculture Research Act of 1998 has
restored food stamp benefits to roughly 250,000 low-income children, and
elderly and disabled immigrants. In October 1998, Congress restored SSI and
Medicaid eligibility to about 12,000 elderly and disabled immigrants. No other
bills, designed to restore full benefits to affected immigrants, have yet been
rights groups mentioned here work closely with other right-wing groups, such as
U.S. English and English First, which work to promote English as the only
official U.S. language. Legislation has been passed in 26 states declaring
English to be the official state language. Often these laws are largely
symbolic. However, California millionaire activist Ron Unz has provided exceptional
leadership and money in promoting opposition to bilingual education. His
support was crucial in California to the 1998 passage of Proposition 227,
virtually outlawing bilingual
education, by providing that all children shall be taught in English, with
sheltered immersion to last no longer than one year. In 2000, a second
proposition banning bilingual education was passed in Arizona. Titled "English
for the Children," Proposition 203 was 99% funded by Ron Unz.
The Right has mounted other attacks
on those it wants to exclude from society, especially "criminals." Beginning
with the Reagan Administration, the Right has pursued, and won, support for a
policy of rolling back individual protections in the criminal justice system.
First under the banner of "law and order," then under the banner of "the war on
drugs" rightists have promoted policies that erode the rights of criminal
defendants, impose mandatory sentences such as "three strikes and you're out"
laws, and, most recently, attempt to reverse the mandatory requirement of
Miranda warnings. Although all of these policies disproportionately harm
people of color, the Right asserts that they have nothing to do with race. An
example is the imposition of the death penalty, which the Right has encouraged
at every turn, despite compelling evidence that it is administered in a
racially biased way.
Over time, opponents of civil
rights legislation have whittled away at attempts to correct voting inequities.
The 1982 Voting Rights Act required the creation of new congressional districts
to enable more racial minorities to elect candidates of their choice. These
"majority-minority" districts made it possible for 17 new Black Representatives
to be elected to the U.S. Congress in 1992, mostly from the South. Almost
immediately, opponents to the creation of these new districts began to file
suits in federal court, and by 1996, the courts had declared many of these
district boundaries unconstitutional, which threatened election schedules and
confused and angered Black voters. When many incumbent Blacks succeeded in
getting re-elected in their new, white-majority districts, rightist critics
made the spurious claim that this meant "majority-minority" districts were
unnecessary. Despite these attempts, a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision
declared such redistricting was allowable if done for political, not racial,
motives, and the redistricting stands.
Reining in the
One of the most insidious of the
Right's campaigns has been its support for the appointment and election of
federal and state judges who support its conservative "colorblind" agenda. The
Right attacks judges who hand down decisions that it opposes, using the code
phrase "judicial activism" to smear judicial opinions it deems too liberal.
Opponents of "judicial activism" include Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and
Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation. Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian
Coalition is equally active in opposing appointments of candidates based on
their political beliefs. The Eagle Forum called Bonnie Campbell of Iowa,
"rabidly pro-abortion, feminist and anti-Christian." John Nowacki of the Free
Congress Foundation accused Marsha Berzon, Justice William Brennan's first
female clerk, of being a "self-described believer in the labor movement." Then-
Senator John Ashcroft successfully blocked African-American Ronnie White's
confirmation, misrepresenting his views on capital punishment by labeling White
On the other hand, The Christian
Coalition has promoted the election of judges who are anti-abortion and
pro-Christian. The Alabama Christian Coalition supported the appointment, as a
circuit judge in Alabama, of Roy Moore, who made headlines by displaying a
redwood tablet of the Ten Commandments behind his bench. In 2000, the Alabama
Christian Coalition again promoted him in his successful bid for election as
Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
When narrow political litmus tests
are applied in judicial appointments, the judiciary's decisions begin to
reflect the opinions and attitudes of those who hold the power of appointment,
rather than reflecting careful and considered judgments of the legal issues at
hand. We have recently witnessed the consequence of ultraconservative
appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, when the Court handed down a 5-4
decision in the case of Bush v. Gore
(the presidential election vote-count decision), a decision that was criticized
as politically motivated by many legal scholars and by Justice Stevens in his
As part of the Right's campaign to
shape and control the judiciary's ideology, right-wing Senators systematically
blocked the confirmation of President Bill Clinton's judicial appointments, and
thereby created a severe shortage of judges. Ralph G. Neas, President of The
People for the American Way Foundation, has noted that the Right has
disproportionately blocked nominations of white women and people of color to
the judiciary; these appointments often languished for years without even
getting a hearing. "Senator Jesse Helms," Neas notes, "has blocked a series of
African American nominees to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has
never had a non-white judge." 
In 1995 the Right led an attack on
the independence of the federal courts by successfully shepherding through
Congress the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which placed limits on the
discretion of the federal courts in their role as overseer of prisoners'
rights. In many prisoners' rights cases, prisoners are seeking redress for
violations involving rape and sexual abuse, physical abuse, squalid conditions,
and lack of medical care in prison. Here again, when the ACLU challenged this
provision before the Supreme Court, the Court's conservative majority upheld
And, as mentioned above, Congress disallowed federal immigration judges from
considering deportation cases under the Illegal Immigration Control and
Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA).
Perhaps the most egregious example
of judicial interference are the "three strikes and you're out" laws.
Supplementing the little-used federal three strikes law, the Right has promoted
the far more dangerous state-level three strikes laws now on the books in 26
states. In California, where the law is most indiscriminate, a prison term of
25 years to life is mandatory for any
third crime after convictions for two felonies. Many crimes, including petty
theft and assault, can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies, giving
prosecutors, not judges, discretion in sentencing in these cases. Trial judges
are thus required to impose unjust punishments that violate common sense and
their own judicial judgment.
As is true of much of the judicial
and prison systems, the three strikes laws disproportionately harm people of
color. A recent study of the effects of California's three-strikes law noted
that African Americans account for half of all three-strikes sentences,
although they represent only about 12 percent of the population.
Redistributing Wealth - Upward
For most Americans, and internationally,
"democracy" suggests a large middle class, created and sustained by a system of
equal economic opportunity. The middle class outnumbers both the working poor
and the very wealthy, but also dominates the cultural life of U.S. television,
radio and print media, where middle class Americans tend to have relatively
stable jobs and own their own homes or apartments, as well as a television, car
and other symbols of economic security.
In many ways, this snapshot of the
middle class has become a myth, as many "middle class" people must now work two
or more jobs to maintain their lifestyle. They may lack health insurance,
daycare for their children, or the means to send their children to college.
They may live on credit card debt and have little or no savings. But the
predominance of the myth of the middle class has given U.S. democracy a
somewhat undeserved reputation as a place with, unlike many other countries, a
relatively equal distribution of wealth. The U.S. is "democratic" because,
though some are poor and some are very wealthy, the vast majority of people are
Here again, the Right has a
consistent record of opposing the relative economic equality associated with
democracy by promoting policies that increase the gap between the rich and the
poor and favor the wealthy and business/industrial/corporate interests. The
Reagan Administration devoted nearly two of its eight years in office to
restructuring the tax code. By lowering the taxes of the wealthy and
drastically reducing most corporate taxes, it made taxes far less progressive
than they had been under President Jimmy Carter. Breaks for poor people,
introduced by Democratic administrations to help moderate the economic gap
between the poor and the middle class - such as federally subsidized housing
and general relief welfare programs - came under attack from the Right and
were, for the most part, eliminated.
The Reagan Administration
implemented the famous "trickle-down" theory, which asserted that if
businesses, corporations, and upper-income people prosper, the prosperity will
"trickle down" to the middle class and the working poor through better jobs and
higher wages. The Administration used the theory to justify its tax breaks for
the rich and corporations, who allegedly would spend their new-found money in
ways that would stimulate the economy and benefit all. The actual result
defied the theory. The federal debt nearly tripled, creating a sucker punch
aimed at the poor and the working poor. The huge deficits created by the tax
cuts made it "necessary" to cut existing social programs intended to address
those most in need, and to decrease the economic gap between rich and poor.
Instead that gap dramatically increased.
The Right's leaders argue that its
policies created the 1990's economic boom and that, as a movement, it is
responsible for freeing the economy from government control and allowing the
market to do a far better job of regulating the economy and creating prosperity
than any government intervention could do. But privatization and deregulation
disproportionately benefit owners and severely curtail the government's ability
to monitor private economic activity for its negative effect on non-owners. The
result is to give free rein to private-sector pursuit of corporate profits.
Promoting Privatization and
Privatization and deregulation have
been among the Right's most anti-democratic legacies, and have been largely
accomplished with the complicity of centrists and even liberal Democrats. An
excellent example of the Right's attack on the federal government's power to
look after the greater public welfare is the 1996 Telecommunications Act,
passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton. The
bill's stated intent was to support competition by suspending government
regulation in the telephone and broadcasting industries. The causal link
between suspending government regulation and unleashing competition rests on
the bogus idea that deregulation is anti-monopolistic and creates increased
competition; it thereby ultimately lowers prices and benefits the consumer.
But, as most often results from deregulation, a spate of buyouts and mergers
occurred, creating in 2001 less competition and higher telephone and cable
The airwaves were, until recently,
considered to belong to the public. Because they were in the "public domain,"
the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulated them with an eye to the
public good. So, in 1982, when advocacy groups for people of color pointed out
that only a minuscule number of people of color are awarded licenses (giving
access to the airwaves), the FCC was able to respond with regulations making
access to the airwaves easier for owners who were people of color who were
serving their communities. However, in the earliest days of the George W. Bush
Administration, Michael Powell, Chairman of the FCC, announced his plans for
the agency. Michael Powell is General Colin Powell's son and in his job
oversees the public airwaves, including radio and television and also telephone
and cable services. In keeping with the Right's advocacy of unfettered free
market capitalism, Michael Powell announced a policy of still further
deregulation, asserting that the free market is the best regulator and that he,
as Chairman, wants to "remove uncertainty from the marketplace" by reviewing
more quickly big mergers and other matters. He has abandoned all efforts to
promote diverse programming and any efforts to promote competition by requiring
that cable systems remain open to use by competitors.
The Right rationalizes its
commitment to eliminating any government role in the free market by asserting
that the free market is more democratic than are democratically elected
governments. And, by the early 21st century, this has become
centrist economic orthodoxy. Milton Friedman, the grandfather of free market
libertarianism and, for decades, the country's leading right-wing economist, is
now arguably the country's most influential economist. Calling this dominant economic
ideology "economic populism," author Thomas Frank describes in detail how the
extreme capitalism of the Right has become accepted as democratic, when in fact
it represents the end of economic democracy.
Several myths now dominate public
consciousness and promote the illusion that the capitalist free market is
democratic. Most often-repeated is the notion that stock ownership has become
so widespread as to be almost universal and that, because of its rise during
the 1990s, it has accomplished a redistribution of wealth that has been far
more efficient than any monetary program the federal government could have
implemented. By asserting that the average wage-earner, even when suffering
from stagnant wages, has benefited from the escalating stock market, the Right
claims that spreading the wealth through stockownership represents economic
democracy through investing. The facts, however, belie such assertions. The
richest 10% in the U.S. now own nearly 80% of all stocks, mutual funds and
retirement accounts. And since this same group owns over 70% of the net worth
in this country, one could hardly argue that stock ownership has made a dent in
the unequal distribution of wealth. Nevertheless, Conservative media
commentators and Republican policy strategists tout stock options as the "best"
employment benefits, noting that, while job security may be shaky, the stock
market is trustworthy and will continue to deliver profits.
A complement to the idea that
stocks are now so widely owned that a rising market benefits most workers is
the idea that unions, which "force" workers to contribute to no-option pension
systems, are, by contrast, anti-democratic. Rightist commentators assert that
in the stock market one has complete freedom and is master of one's own fate,
whereas in unions the workers must give up freedom by conforming to the
majority's will, and paying for the privilege to boot. According to the Right,
it is not the union that will provide protection through militancy and
collective worker solidarity, but the free market and the corporations that, by
their profits, are the best means to protect the individual from exploitation.
But the truth about our just-ended
economic boom tells another story. The growing economic gap between the haves
and have-nots in the U.S. is indisputable. Between 1977 and 1999, the family
after-tax income for the top 1% grew by 115%, while the bottom 20% watched
their incomes decline by 9%. Between 1990 and 1998, the average weekly earnings
of production workers in the U.S. rose 6% above inflation, while the pay for
CEOs rose 420%.
An economy with such multiple
indicators of vast inequality does not resemble the myth of American democracy
as a system that fosters economic equality. The Right favors the notion of
"equal opportunity" within a free market system, asserting that the free market
is the great economic equalizer. But the right-wing view of the free market as
the great equalizer is almost entirely mythical. When there is no safety net
and human service programs are cut to the bone, "equal opportunity" becomes a
sham. When each individual is entirely responsible for his or her own fortunes,
the economic system becomes one in which the most able, well-connected, and
ruthless prosper. It is a formula for survival of the most powerful. Relying
on the free market as the only method of the distribution of wealth harms
Liberties - for Some
Shortly after the states adopted
the Constitution, its first ten amendments were ratified by a 2/3 majority of
the states in 1791. This Bill of Rights was inspired and supported by Thomas
Jefferson and written by James Madison. The language of the Bill of Rights
guarantees protection for individuals from a number of possible abuses of power
by the federal government. It represents was both a reaction to the authority
exercised by the British government over the colonists and the vision of the
Constitution's early writers, who wanted to avoid creating a governmental
authority that could act without the "consent of the people." The Bill of
Rights, unlike the Constitution, spells out what the government cannot do.
The Bill of Rights guarantees
protection from unreasonable searches and seizures; it guarantees the right to
religious freedom, as well as other freedoms such as freedom of speech and the
press, freedom to assemble, and protection from being tried twice for the same
crime. It also guarantees rights, such as the right to a speedy public trial
and to a lawyer. The Second Amendment also provides
"the right of the people to keep and bear arms." The
value of these freedoms is obvious for those, especially white, middle- and
upper-class people, who enjoy in everyday life the freedoms guaranteed by the
Bill of Rights. But not all Americans benefit equally from the Bill of Rights.
Social justice activists are constantly fighting against the curtailment of the
rights of marginalized and less powerful people. They work to expand democracy
so that it stretches to provide protection and guaranteed rights to everyone.
In a number of different ways, the
Right has chipped away at those freedoms during its two decades of political
success. Two examples of the erosion of individual freedoms and rights are
especially noteworthy: its campaign to severely limit the right of individuals
to sue for redress of grievances, euphemistically known as "tort reform;" and
the widespread denial of the right of ex-prisoners to vote.
"Tort reform" is a concept promoted
by the Right in response to what its leaders maintain is an "explosion" of
litigation filed by consumers to redress grievances against private businesses
and corporations. In response, tort reform legislation has tilted civil courts
from a focus on protecting the rights of consumers to protecting the profits of
business and industry. In a review of tort reform legislation published in Trial
Magazine in August, 2000, Roselyn Bonanti
discusses six areas in which business and industry have been granted protection
from civil suits by consumers: laws that shield the gun industry from liability
(passed in 19 states and pending in 25 more); laws that allow insurance
companies to shield their internal audits from public disclosure (passed in
three states and pending in 20 more); laws that deny full access to the courts
for uninsured drivers involved in automobile accidents, no matter who was at
fault (passed in five states and pending in seven more); and laws that protect
tobacco companies from being required to post a bond in suits filed against them
in a state other than their home state¾
called "foreign punitive judgments legislation" (passed in five states).
Rightist organizations have put time, energy, and money into this kind of tort
reform, funded to a large extent by right-wing funder James Leininger from
Public outcry has been muted,
partly because the issues under debate in tort reform laws are often technical
and unclear to the average person; and partly because people have been falsely
convinced that there is a "blizzard" of civil suits based on unfounded charges
resulting in huge, undeserved monetary settlements. But in cases where a
company's culpability is clear, the public has demanded accountability. For
example, an increasing number of laws now ensure accountability from HMOs and
PPOs by protecting the right of consumers to sue for malpractice (passed in
nine states and pending in 26 others).
Felony Convictions and Voting Rights
Another example of the Right's
anti-democratic campaigns to limit the rights of individuals (in this case,
voting rights) are their efforts to establish "law and order" legislation and
to legislate a "war on drugs." These dual efforts have resulted in a record
number of felony convictions, many of them for relatively minor drug offenses.
And, arrest rates for drug offenses are six times higher for African Americans
than for whites, even though their drug use rates are virtually the same.
In 14 states a felony conviction deprives ex-prisoners or parolees of the right
to vote during their entire lifetime,
the rate of Black voter disenfranchisement is seven times the national average.
Almost three-quarters of the felons who are thus disenfranchised are either on
probation or have completed their sentences. Here the Right has won support
with a "tough on crime" message that has consequences both for individual
rights and for racial justice.
In a recent study conducted jointly
by Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, the authors conclude,
[T]he restrictions on voting by
ex-felons clash with longstanding notions of justice -f that once offenders have
paid their debt to society, they are free to resume a normal life in the
community. Even denying the right to vote to prisoners is problematic. No
other country bars ex-offenders from voting for life or has such a significant
percentage of its citizens who cannot vote as a result of felony convictions.
Church and State
The Right has long opposed these
guarantees of separation of church and state contained in the First Amendment.
This Amendment has two parts: it guarantees the freedom to practice any
religion (the free exercise clause) and offers protection against enforcement
of any state religion (the establishment clause). The Christian Right, whose
political clout dramatically increased in the 1980s and 1990s, has demanded
that an array of Christian religious expressions be permitted in public spaces,
such as: prayer in schools; federal aid for private Christian schools and
colleges; prohibition of teaching about evolution and comprehensive sexuality
in schools; religious manifestations in public places, such as the hanging of
the Ten Commandments or the display of a nativity scene at Christmas; and
retaining references to God in state mottos. Going even further, it has promoted
the slogan "America is a Christian country."
The Christian Right has organized
and mobilized public ire over the prohibition of prayer in public schools,
which dates to a 1962 decision, Engel v. Natale, in which the Supreme Court declared school prayer in public schools
to be unconstitutional. Along with opposition to abortion, school prayer has
been a centerpiece of the Right's agenda. In both instances, the Right's
organizers have camouflaged the Christian religious basis of the campaigns. By arguing
for a "moment of silence" in the classroom, Christian Right strategists claim
that such an observation does not constitute a public expression of religion.
In a similar view, anti-abortion activists now discuss abortion in terms of
taking a life rather than as a religious prohibition.
In many instances, Congressional
Democrats and moderate Republicans have thwarted the Right in its efforts to
violate First Amendment guarantees regarding the separation of church and
state. The proposal to pass a school prayer amendment to the Constitution has
never gained substantial support. But with the election of George W. Bush and
his appointment of Christian Right activist John Ashcroft as Attorney General,
a Republican majority in the House, and the establishment of a White House
Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the Right is preparing to
mount a new and more subtle challenge to the separation of church and state.
President Bush has long stated his support for government support of
faith-based groups working in the private sector. Titled "Charitable Choice,"
this program has already been sanctioned on a small scale by Congressional
legislation, and will likely become a major focus of the Bush Administration's
human services funding. It will open the floodgates of federal funding for
religiously-affiliated charitable programs and would represent a major boon to
some religious organizations. The threat to the separation of church and state
arises not from the funding itself, but from the possibility that faith-based
organizations may be allowed to discriminate while using those funds. This is
a concern to conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christian charities,
who fear being forced to violate their religious prohibitions on supporting gay
and lesbian people or women who seek an abortion by the non-discrimination
requirements of government funding. Suspending non-discrimination rules in the
case of these faith-based government grants would represent an important
erosion of the wall of separation between church and state.
Current Strains on Democracy
The resurgence of a powerful right
wing has had an enormous impact on what government does for people and what
people can rightfully expect from our government. But other factors are also stressing
U.S. democracy and its ability to serve all of us. Struggling with old and new
prejudices, our culture continues to suffer from persistent racism, sexism and
homophobia. The increasing globalization of our economic system and the
technologies that support it put strains on how we think about doing business,
and, indeed, challenge the very notion of a sovereign state. As we move towards
a monopoly media, we lose the benefits of lively, accessible debate that are so
essential to a successful democracy. The inability of centrist, liberal, and
progressive forces to command widespread support and to say clearly what their
core values and vision really are also contribute to a lack of real
alternatives for the voting public. While the Right did not invent these
phenomena, it has certainly learned how to capitalize on them.
One damaging outcome of the
right's political dominance has been the increasing acceptance of private
profit as a measure of virtue and worth. The current emphasis on consumerism
and the accumulation of wealth is a direct result of the Right's libertarian
message that any person can "make it" in U.S. society, and that those who do
not lack individual responsibility and self-discipline. By exalting the
private accumulation of money and things and downplaying the public sector and
public service, the Right spreads its central theme that the most desirable and
fair system is the capitalist system of free market, private property rights,
and a weak government.
Looking at these instances of the
Right's recent choices of issues and tactics we have seen clearly that the
Right is anti-democratic. Its agenda is to shrink democracy by severely
limiting government's ability to provide social services, by allowing big
monied interests to control elections and influence our representatives, by
rolling back the gains of a range of human rights movements, and by undermining
judicial independence. The Right seeks to weaken the separation of church and
state and to limit individuals' rights to seek redress for grievances. As the
George W. Bush Administration completes and surpasses the agenda of the Reagan
Administration, we will see a further contraction of democracy and more and
more people placed "outside the fence."
This should not come as a surprise.
The Right's leadership has openly advertised its vision for the future of the
country for over twenty years. The examples listed here are only some of the
ways in which the Right is challenging democratic principles and practice. There
are, unfortunately, many more. The Right is moving ahead on many fronts
simultaneously, and this assault affects us everywhere, in our city halls,
schools, courts, homes, and wallets. While it is valuable to acknowledge our
separate situations, it is also useful to recognize the connections across the
issues that concern us, remembering the adage that an attack on one is an
attack on all. Often we do see how each aspect of prejudice unchecked
interferes with liberation for everyone. The Right understands this, and
strategically connects its campaigns addressing race, gender and sexual
orientation under the umbrella of promoting "traditional family values." This
strategy allows for an attack on one group to spill over and affect other
Today's right wing is firmly
embedded in the center of the Republican Party, welcomed in by the language of
"a better future for the average person" and wrapped in the colors of the flag.
If we continue to uncover the anti-democratic trends of the Right, we can see that
although the rhetoric and tactics of the Old Right have changed, much of its
legacy remains, and not just in the militant cries from the far right. We need
to see the Right's agenda very clearly, identify its anti-democratic core, and
challenge its campaigns as they appear. That way, we will be able to reassert
the vision of an expanded democracy that
reflects a commitment to meet the needs of us all.
Jean Hardisty would like to thank Pam Chamberlain and
Betty Furdon for research assistance; and for editing assistance, Elly Bulkin,
Nikhil Aziz, Denise Bergman, Kate Cloud, Ruth Hubbard, Rosario Morales, Mitra
Rastegar, and Sunny Robinson.
 Because the Right has demonized
these terms, we need to define them for ourselves again. Here we use the term
"liberal" to refer to those who favor the reform of social and economic
inequities and "progressive" to describe those who once called themselves
leftists, those who seek more radical change. Using these definitions, a
progressive perspective informs this article.
 Over two hundred years later, reforms
to the Constitution, beginning with the Bill of Rights, have expanded suffrage
and created, in theory, additional protections and guarantees for most citizens.
This expansion of rights has required numerous amendments, including: the
Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1865), prohibiting slavery in the
United States; the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), guaranteeing the right to vote
to all men, without regard to race, color, or previous condition of servitude;
the Nineteenth Amendment (1920), extending the right to vote to women; and the
Twenty-Fourth Amendment (1964), forbidding poll taxes that were used primarily
to prevent African Americans from voting.
 In the United States, the
understanding of the theory of democracy stems from the writings of Benedict de
Spinoza, a 17th century Dutch theorist of democracy; John Locke, a
British philosopher who wrote about democratic self-government as a political ideal;
and John Stuart Mill, 19th century English economist and political
theorist who expanded Locke's ideas to include individual freedoms. See:
Benedict de Spinoza, A Political Treatise
(1677); John Locke, Two Treatises on Government (1690); and John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859). Modern democratic theorists have updated
the work of these thinkers and have identified race and gender as illegitimate
criteria for excluding a person from his or her democratic rights.
 For a discussion of this expanded view
of democracy, see: Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty" in Isaiah Berlin, Four
Essays on Liberty (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1969).
 This view of democracy was described
in detail (and approvingly) by Robert Dahl in his book, Polyarchy. The working definition of polyarchy is: officials,
chosen fairly through elections, make policy decisions on behalf of citizens
they represent. This view of democracy is widely accepted throughout academia
and in the State Department's classification of third world countries as
 "If the people are corrupt, the more
democracy, the worse the government." Patrick Buchanan, Washington Inquirer, January 18, 1991.
 Though most of the New Right's leaders
were young Republicans who had been burned by the failed candidacy of Barry
Goldwater, oldtimer William F. Buckley, Jr. played a central role in crafting a
"fusion" politics that united several conservative ideologies.
 Richard Viguerie, The New Right:
We're Ready to Lead! (Falls Church, VA: The
Viguerie Company, 1980), 214.
 Paul Weyrich, one of the most
prominent New Right leaders, wrote in March 1984, "Conservative in the black
community means racist and that is understandable. The leadership on the
right, however, bears no resemblance to the reactionary Southern icons of the
past.... I am sure there are people who call themselves conservatives who are
prejudiced. But the leaders are far from it." Paul Weyrich, "It Would Help If
They Really Knew Us." Conservative Digest,
vol. 10, no. 3 (March, 1984), 44.
 Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons, Right-Wing
Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort
(New York: Guilford Press, 2000), 227.
 David S. Broder, Democracy
Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money (New York: Harcourt Brace, 2000), 1-21.
 Shaun Bowler and Todd Donovan, Demanding
Choices: Opinion, Voting, and Direct Democracy
(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 165-73.
 Jack Citrin, "Who's the Boss? Direct
Democracy and Popular Control of Government," in: Stephen Craig, ed., Broken
Contract/ Changing Relationships Between Americans and Their Government (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), 268-93; and
Clarence Lo, Small Property Versus Big Government (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990),
 Daniel A. Smith, Tax Crusaders (New York: Routledge, 1998).
 Between 1981 and 1999 about ¼
of all ballot initiatives were explicitly conservative, with 12 specifically
rights-depriving initiatives mounted during that time. Compiled from
information available at: www.iandrininstitute.org,
accessed on 8/25/00.
 Micah L. Sifry, "How Money in
Politics Hurts You," Dollars and Sense,
no. 230 (July/August, 2000), 17-20.
money is unregulated contributions not intended to support individual
candidates but to promote "party building" and other general campaign
activities. It can be given in unlimited amounts.
 Primaries and final elections differ.
Individual candidates receive matching funds in federal primary elections if
they raise $5000 in each of 20 states. Political parties receive matching funds
if they make a showing of 5% or better in the previous presidential election.
 George Gallup, "ERA Draws Increasing
Support," Washington Post, August 9,
 Michael Lind, Up From
Conservatism: Why The Right is Wrong for America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 215.
 Nathan Glazer, Affirmative
Discrimination (New York: Basic Books,
 In 1998 Glazer entered the public
debate again, with his book We Are All Multiculturalists Now (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), defending
affirmative action with the very arguments he had rejected and disdained in Affirmative
 Martin Schram and Charles R. Babcock,
"Reagan Advisors Missed School Case Sensitivity; White House Saw Legalistics,
Not Sensitivity of School Policy." Washington Post, January 17, 1982, A1. For coverage of the Supreme
Court decision overturning the policy, see: Juan Williams, "Administration and
the Tax Exemption Ruling: Decision Giving IRS the Power to Set Status Has
'Ominous' Implications, Reynolds Says." Washington Post, May 30, 1983, p. A3.
 The chronology of the development and
marketing of this stereotype by right wing organizations is documented in Lucy
Williams, "Decades of Distortion: The Right's 30 Year Assault on Welfare."
Somerville, MA: Political Research Associates, 1997. Also see: Gwendolyn Mink,
ed., Whose Welfare? (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 1999).
 Staff of House Committee on Ways and
Means, 104th Cong., 2nd Session., "Background Material
and Data on Programs Within the Jurisdiction of the Comm. On Ways and
 Doug Brugge, "Pulling Up The Ladder:
The Anti-Immigrant Backlash." The Public Eye (vol. IX, no. 2, Summer, 199), 1-10.
 Refugee Reports, vol. 20, no. 11 (1999).
 James Crawford, "Bilingual Education:
Strike Two" Rethinking Schools, vol. 15,
no. 2 (Winter 2000/2001), 3,8. Also see: Crawford, Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory
and Practice (Bilingual Education Services, 4th ed.,
1999); and Crawford, At War With
Diversity: U.S. Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety (Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2000).
 One classic article is David C.
Baldus, Charles Pulaski, and George Woodworth, "Comparative Review of Death Sentences:
An Empirical Study of the Georgia Experience," Journal of Criminal Law and
Criminology 74 (fall 1983): 661-753.
 Hunt v. Cromatie, US 99-1894, decided
April 18, 2001, slip opinion.
 "The Imperial President Bequeaths
America an Imperial Judiciary," Court Alert, March 19, 2001, www.eagleforum.org/court_watch/alerts/2001/3-19-01;
"Senate Confirms Controversial Judicial Nominees," Free Congress
Commentary, March 10, 2000, www.freecongress.org/press/offpress
/000310jnfcc.htm; "Judicial Nominations Recent Actions," Civil
Rights Monitor, Vol.11, no. 3, Leadership
Conference on Civil Rights, www.civilrights.org/crlibrary/monitor/vol11_no3/art4p1.html.
Accessed May 25, 2001.
 Speech by Ralph Neas before the
American Trial Lawyers Association, August 1, 2000, titled: "Race, Civil Rights
and the United States Supreme Court in the New Millennium." Available at
 See the court decision U.S. v
French et al., consolidated with Miller
v. French et al., Nos. 99-224 and 99-582
respectively. Available online at http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/99-224.ZS.html.
 Mark Riley, "Tough Approach Strikes
Out in U.S.," Sidney Morning Herald,
Feb. 18, 2000.
 Stephen Labaton, "New F.C.C. Chief
Would Curb Agency Reach," New York Times,
2/7/01, C1. Also see: Paul Davidson, "Is Telecom Act 'a complete failure'?", USA
Today, February 8, 2001, 3B.
 Thomas Frank, One Market Under
God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy (New York: Doubleday, 2000).
 Chuck Collins, Chris Hartman and
Holly Sklar, "Divided Decade: Economic Disparity at the Century's Turn,"
(Boston:United for a Fair Economy, 1999), 2-4.
 Collins et. al., op cit., 8.
 This and other guarantees are applied
unequally. For instance, in a 2000 case before the 5th Circuit
court, the court held that a lawyer who fell asleep during his client's death
penalty trial provided adequate legal counsel. Burdine v. Johnson 99-210324.
 This is perhaps the most highly
contested Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Proponents of gun control argue
that, when read in context, it applies to an entirely different society than
the one we now have and that, in the present time, the right to bear arms can
be constitutionally limited. Opponents of gun control (including the National
Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America) argue that the Amendment speaks
for itself and should be taken at face value.
 Roselyn Bonanti, "The Status of State
Tort "Reform" Legislation," Trial Magazine,
August, 2000, 28-34.
 Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration, "1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse," www.
samusa.gov. Accessed May 25, 2001. The rate of drug use for whites is 6.6%; for
African Americans: 7.7%.
 Marc Mauer and Jamie Fellner, "Losing
the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States"
(Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, October, 1998). Also see: Tamar
Lewin, "Crime Costs Many Black Men the Vote," New York Times, October 23, 1998, A12.
 See: "From Promise to Policy: A
Discussion of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives."
A press briefing sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life,
National Press Club, January 30, 2001. Available online at www.pewforum.org.