This entry is part one in my new series of undetermined length, “The Darkening Horizon”. I will be examining the rise of the far right in the U.S. and Europe and the conditions that create space in the political mainstream for these movements.
Much digital and print ink has been spilled since November on the resurgence of the Republicans, and the right in general. Radical conservatives have staged a seemingly impossible comeback from just two years ago, when supposedly liberal Democrats were taking over all the levers of Washington. Michelle Bachmann (!?) is a serious presidential candidate. To what do we owe this tremendous shift in the conversation and how bad is it likely to get?
Without dwelling unnecessarily on well-worn territory, in the United States our Republican Party has been fully taken over by economic nihilists (Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner), theocrats (Michelle Bachmann!?) and the perpetually unhinged (Michelle Bachmann!? There’s a lot of overlap between those two categories. Also see Sarah Palin). Amazingly, these people are still treated as serious and principled individuals by the mainstream media and, indeed, the mainstream of the American public. As such, they are potentially dangerous.
What we can say is that Americans still largely consider both legacy political parties to be “mainstream”. As long as the proto-fascist Republican Party can maintain the illusion of normalcy they will be a danger to the nation. If they can do that, a perfect storm of economic, cultural and political conditions exists that can enable their rise even further.
More than enough voters are willing to pull the lever for Republicans, even if only to vote against the status quo. Because of this structural advantage, the far right in the U.S. presents a unique problem in its potential to take power. Conditions in the political culture and electoral system force American voters into a binary choice system where both sides can be successfully co-opted by outside interests with a more narrow agenda than the general public. The public has no clear electoral recourse within a two party system that has been manipulated to exclusively serve narrow corporate and ideological interests no matter who is in office and without losing the public’s will to be governed. Therefore, it is possible in such a system for an extreme political movement to mainstream itself and take power. However, if it is to be successful the movement is forced by the American system’s strong bias against new parties to take over one of the two dominant parties. As a result, when the extreme political movement makes its move to the mainstream it inherits a vestigal legitimacy in the media and the public’s mind through its association with an existing formerly mainstream institution. It is through this process, mixed with unabated rivers of parallel interest corporate cash, that in just ten short years the formerly unthinkable has become the new normal.
As conditions change, the Overton window (the universe of the politically possible at any given moment) churns and shifts rapidly to keep up with the demands of capital – especially if there are strong economic headwinds rolling through society. Ideological shifts among populaces that take decades in stable times can radically reorient and create openings for activists to spread new political ideas and possibly build new institutions and movements. But this churning is a double edged sword. If enough hegemony already exists in a given political environment, the disorientation of civil society can be consciously harnessed to consolidate the power of counter-revolutionary establishment forces. Up and coming extremists can even be co-opted by the establishment as a check against revolutionary change, provided the new turks are amenable to dealmaking.
Basically, the result is an electorate that bounces back and forth between two parties dominated by interests other than the general public. In such a system, when it is sustainable as the American system is, one of the parties can be radicalized, and the already pacified public that accepts such a system accepts the new movement in the legacy clothing as the new normal. That party will continue to receive large shares of the vote in national elections, large corporate cash infusions, and through its ability to be taken seriously will drag the other party, inevitably, to the right. When conditions are favorable for their party, they may even take power. Such is the result of the toxic combination of a heavily entrenched two party system, a passive electorate, and a media that fails to do even the most basic journalism or provide a check on lies and disinformation perpetrated by the powerful.
In times such as these there are many possibilities that can be known, but exact outcomes are impossible to predict. Conditions exist in civil society for many normally unlikely things to happen – even extreme elements creeping out of the shadows, so to speak, to capture the allegiance of enough people to take power. The system is too dynamic, too fluid, with too many variables, to be accurately measured with any predictive value.
For this threat to even be among us, large swaths of the population must have been radicalized by this nascent far right movement. There must be many true believers out there to support the number and sheer insanity of these Republican radicals in office – at least tens of millions spread across the country. They are not going away any time soon, and they have only so much capacity to moderate their views. They come from all different places on the political spectrum, as Chip Berlet from Religious Dispatches helpfully listed last year:
Why are there so many angry people? The Tea Parties are part of a broad Patriot Movement in the United States cobbled together from several preexisting formations on the political right:
Economic libertarians who worry about big government collectivist tyranny.
Christian Right Conservatives who oppose liberal government social policies
Right-wing apocalyptic Christians who fear a Satanic New World Order
Nebulous conspiracy theorists who fear a secular New World Order
Nationalistic ultra-patriots concerned that US sovereignty is eroding.
Xenophobic anti-immigrant white nationalists who worry about preserving the “real” America.
The sheer number of these people represents a pretty significant social problem. Whether the U.S. goes all in on the right, eventually, or not, the scars of these ideas will outlive all of us.
Torture is mainstream, and defended by a Democratic president. The lowest tax levels in 60 years are immorally high. Anything to the left of Mike Huckabee is socialism. New progress on economic justice, the environment and climate change, ending the wars, prosecutions of war criminals or criminal bankers – all unthinkable at the moment.
For this much we can know – the ideas of the crazies are here to stay for the foreseeable future. If even the most hardcore Democratic partisans get their dream and they win the next four elections for their do nothing but help the rich candidates, we’re still going to have candidates backed by tens of millions who are promulgating these dark ideas. We’re still going to have to respond to them. They are still going to threaten progress and social equality.
What we need isn’t to fight back at only the ballot box. What we need is a social revolution that creates a critical mass of public opinion to discredit these ideas once and for all while advancing the cause of progress.
Even if the right isn’t exactly winning, they are at least powerful enough to force anyone to the left of Huckabee into just holding the line. Democrats in Washington like it exactly this way. With stagnation, they can just preserve the status quo that their corporate funders and future employers love so much for it’s profitability. When election time rolls around, they can always just point the finger at the Republicans and tell us that if it weren’t for them, we’d all have our ponies, and they are so scary, you have to vote for us no matter what. And stop being so unreasonable. Don’t you realize that anything completely opposed by the Republicans must be a pretty bad idea?
For now, the extremists are getting their way on war, on the sham deficit peacockery, on the debt ceiling, and in the war on women. A court system that has been packed with conservatives over the past 40 years keeps handing down decisions like Citizens United. The Administration, the Democrats in Congress, provide no check on these forces. They only acquiesce.
It seems to be common sense, then, that eventually Democrats will acquiesce all the way to giving radical Republican conservatives all the power. They certainly appear determined to do so.
In part two – the darkest corners of America