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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Defanging America’s Hard Right

This item by J.P. Green was originally published on February 5, 2010.
Sara Robinson’s post, “State of the Union: A Status Report on the Far Right ” at the Blog for Our Future helps to put the big Tea Party confab in interesting perspective. After collecting and crunching all of the data, Robinson called up Chip Berlet, one of the leading authorities on America’s hard right, and asked the money question, “…How many far-right wingers are there in the United States?” Berlet responded:

Ten percent of the population….It’s been the same number for most of our history, and it doesn’t change much.

Robinson adds, “How many really hardcore conservatives are we dealing with here?” It’s thirty million people, give or take.”
Many progressives might find the ten percent figure encouragingly low, although it’s scant comfort that thirty million paranoid, sometimes violence-prone reactionaries are out there. Robinson paraphrases Berlet, however, in cautioning that there is another group on the far right, “who are conservative by temperament, but don’t live full-time in that same overwrought, hyper-vigilant, paranoid space that the ultra-right wing authoritarian 10 percent do.” This group is capable of a hard right turn in times of economic and /or social stress, like, well now.
This group is a key base element of the Tea Party movement, according to Robinson and Berlet, and is is “actively decoupling itself from the center-right position of the GOP’s mainstream, and forming stronger alliances with the ultra-right 10-percenters—creating a super-right-wing faction that includes upwards of 25-30 percent of the country.”
It’s a scary prospect, almost a third of the electorate hardening their political views in a rightward direction, including flirtations with racism and anti-semitism, according to Robinson. She continues:

And it’s the combination of the two that’s worrisome. On their own, the far-right wingnuts can’t elect a dogcatcher (and even trying to do that much would no doubt cause a schism that would wind out for years in court. It’s just how they are.) But controlling 25 to 30 percent of the American electorate — while not enough to take over the country in straight numeric terms — is enough for the combined group to win limited but serious victories here and there. And, of course, their power is further magnified by the vagaries of the electoral college and the way we choose senators. In real terms, the system is set up so that this 30 percent can wield the political clout of 50 percent. That’s where we are now — and it’s one reason we’re running into so much gridlock in trying to govern the country.

Robinson notes that Fox News feeds this toxic mix at a time when independent daily newspapers are shrinking and disappearing. She has some harsh words for Democratic leadership:

Another driver is the Democrats’ continued fecklessness in clearly communicating the coherent moral values at the heart of the progressive worldview; and their extreme reluctance to support any kind of progressive populist agenda. Everybody knows now that there’s a rising populist tide in America. Average Americans, left and right, are uniting behind an implacable fury at the big banks — and at Congress and Obama, who seem determined to enable criminal behavior rather than make any serious attempt to control it.
You don’t need me to tell you that the tide is rising. We’re seeing the signs of political climate change all around us. But most of the Village still regards any kind of populism as a dangerous (and avoidable) impulse. “Responsible” consultants are cautioning Democrats not to get out front of that wave and ride it. In 20 years, historians will record this as a mistake on the same magnitude as the one they made in 1972 when they started backing away from the unions…

Robinson sees a remedy, but one that requires new focus and commitment from progressive Democrats:

Any progressive strategy to weaken the right should begin by finding a way to peel the second slice back off from the ultra-right, and bring it back toward the center. That alliance is the keystone on which the entire strength of the conservative movement is resting right now; pull that stone, and the rest of it crumbles. Reviving a vital progressive populism is the best wedge and sledge we’ve got right now…

I’m sure Robinson is right that such a wedge strategy could be efffective. Theresa Poulos has a post, “Five Ways It Could Fail” at the National Journal Online, which could help flesh out the specifics of an effective wedge strategy. Poulos’s post is less an article than a collection of five interesting video clips highlighting weaknesses in the Tea Party movement. The videos address: political infighting in the Tea Party Movement; exploiting the political inexperience of Tea Party participants; the difficulty of GOP attempts to absorb the movement, which includes a Independents; social issue schisms; and the possibility of an improving economy.
The Republicans hope to mimimize the internal disagreements within the Tea Party Movement and portray it as a monolithic anti-Obama/Democrat juggernaut. If we fail to challenge this meme, the blame will be ours.

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