Angry Voters, Right-Wing Populism, & Racial Violence: People of Faith Can Help Break the Linkages

Eric Ward is nervous. He’s seen it before—the angry right-wing populist crowds, the strident calls to “Restore America” and “Take it Back.” In the mid 1990s, Ward was a community organizer for a human rights group in the Pacific Northwest. As a burly young black man with a loud voice and strange hair, Ward stood out when he addressed the predominantly white audiences of folks concerned about rising prejudice and bigotry. After April 19, 1995, people began to take Ward more seriously, as bodies were removed from the Oklahoma City Federal Building, collapsed by a truck bomb delivered by a domestic terrorist seeking to shift the right-wing populists into an armed insurrection. Timothy McVeigh failed to achieve his goal, but 168 people died in the process.

On January 19, the people of Massachusetts elected a conservative Republican backed by the Tea Party movement, Scott Brown, to the Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy. Scott will try to shift the right-wing populists back into an alliance with the Republican Party, which itself is already moving to the political right.

After Scott was elected, President Obama began using populist rhetoric to try to regain support for Democratic Party reforms. Progressive activists urged a campaign to win back the populists from right-wing ideology. Conservative icon Pat Buchanan, wrote the Scott victory meant that Republicans should target the white vote by vowing an “end to affirmative action and ethnic preferences, an end to bailouts of Wall Street bankers, a moratorium on immigration until unemployment falls to 6 percent, an industrial policy that creates jobs here and stops shipping them to China.”

The mainstream media suddenly began to take the angry right-wing populist fervor more seriously; but while the coverage was intense, it has been overwhelmingly superficial, for the most part failing to consult historians, social scientists, and human rights groups about what happens to a society when it is buffeted by the gusts of populist anger. Is it fair to mention Republican Scott Brown, the right-wing populists, and the Oklahoma City bombing in one article? Can there be a role for people of faith and their allies in ensuring that no such linkage develops and that history does not repeat itself?

To find out I turned to the Center for New Community (CNC), a national nonprofit that helps build local alliances among congregations from different faith traditions and other institutions seeking to resist bigotry and build “a democratic future based on human rights, justice, and equality.”

Eric Ward now works at the CNC. From his office outside Chicago, Ward asks people to consider to whom is America supposed to be “restored?” When Ward hears a white protest leader tell a predominantly white crowd to “take it back,” he has no doubt that some in the audience want America “taken back” from people of color and “restored” to white people. And he heard this rhetoric increase after Obama was elected.

“[When people who] oppose the Obama reform of health care claim we are losing our country they are using racialized, coded rhetoric,” says Ward, whether they are aware of it or not. Some pundits who backed the Tea Bag protestors and Town Hall criers were well aware of the racialized content of their rhetoric. Ward complains that “we see Pat Buchanan on television claiming that our country was built by white people… Really?” He wonders, “Why is this acceptable commentary on any television station?”

Ward believes “folks need to be held accountable for their racism. Too many people are hearing this coded rhetoric and deciding that the real problem with the economy must be folks of color, immigrants, and the Jews.” During the last period of Patriot and militia growth in the mid-1990s, Ward witnessed this coded racist rhetoric being tested in the margins of the right-wing media, though it has since moved into the mainstream. In the past year I’ve interviewed dozens of activists and scholars who see the same dynamics. All of us are worried.

“What I find surprising is the lack of an appropriate or effective response. Decent people need to stand up,” says Ward. “The Democratic Party pundits seem to think this is some sort of game; they act as if there are no legitimate grievances at all out here. They have to realize that the other side is not playing a game—they are playing with the lives and livelihoods of real people,” Ward points out. “Meanwhile, across the country, people are being pulled into right-wing populist movements, and from there, some of them are being recruited into white supremacist movements.”

I catch up with the Rev. David Ostendorf by cell phone while he is waiting for a plane at an East Coast airport. He is the executive director of the CNC where Ward works. Ostendorf, A United Church of Christ minister, once led PrairieFire Rural Action, a group that tried to save family farms during a major agricultural economic crisis in the 1980s. “Back then we helped build a popular economic political movement among family farmers across the country seeking debt relief along with fair and sustainable government agricultural polices,” explains Ostendorf.

“Around 1984, we saw right-wing and racist organizers try to move in and take advantage of our movement. They were trying to capture the emerging populist sentiments and steer them into the anti-Semitic and racist right. So we publicly took that on in our organizing efforts,” Ostendorf recalls. “After a few years we managed to push the racist right back under their rocks; and we also retained our focus on helping keep rural communities alive and struggling for economic justice.”

“At the Center for New Community, our work approach is built on a foundational understanding of the importance of race in America,” says Ostendorf. “We build on the ground in local communities along with states and regions to mobilize progressive populist sentiment that we hope will turn into movements for effective political change. We juggle social, racial, and economic issues, and we constantly are pushing back against the organized racist movement.’’

“What I am seeing as I crisscross the country is that we are in a similar period to the 1980s,” Ostendorf observes. “There is so much political anger and dissatisfaction, but I sense that it is much broader than what we faced in the 1980s. It crosses economic, class, race, and geographic boundaries. The challenge we face is that populist sentiment can go either way, toward right-wing regressive and potentially racist forms of populism; or toward a more progressive movement. That’s the dilemma on the table right now.”

There’s Something Happening Here

We are in the midst of one of the most significant right-wing populist rebellions in United States history. The Tea Parties and Town Hall protests along with the “9/12” rally in Washington DC last Fall were visible proof; as are the ongoing and anti-tax “Liberty” protests. In mid-January, the overwhelmingly Democratic Commonwealth of Massachusetts elected a conservative Republican, Scott Brown, to fill the Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy. Brown was backed by some of the Tea Party groups and built his campaign using right-wing populist rhetoric. All across the country, Tea Party activists are moving into the Republican Party apparatus and pulling it further to the political right.

Right-wing populist movements appear periodically throughout US history during times when the participants feel they are being “displaced” and losing political, social, or economic power. Scholars like Margaret Canovan, Martin Durham, Kathleen Blee, Michael Kazin, and Rory McVeigh have studied this process extensively.

Based on what we saw in the 1990s, Matthew N. Lyons and I wrote a book about the history of right-wing populism in the United States. We found that racial anxiety and anti-immigrant xenophobia is a major text or subtext of these movements. A common outcome is that lots of angry white people not only condemn callous and corrupt politicians and their wealthy allies; but also blame and then stomp on those they scapegoat for societal problems: the lazy, sinful, or subversive louts being coddled and unfairly assisted by the corrupt government and arrogant liberal elites. It is the “producers versus the parasites.”

Historically, the scapegoated groups have included Freemasons, native peoples, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, anarchists, communists, civil rights organizers, the Rockefellers, the Council on Foreign Relations, feminists, the Trilateral Commission, the Bohemian Grove society, gay people, the Skull and Bones club at Yale, and the Bilderberger banking conference. And this is the short list.

Sound familiar? It should; and not just because this frame and storyline is now on the nightly news and ubiquitous on the Internet and conservative talk radio. The elite scapegoats for right-wing populists today are liberals and Democrats trying to pass “socialist” health care schemes as a first step toward a totalitarian fascist society. The scapegoats lower on the socio-economic ladder are immigrants, community organizers, and Muslims.

Last fall in Boise, I ran into the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President of the Interfaith Alliance, of which I am a card-carrying member. Gaddy is a Baptist of the old school, which means he is faith-centered and believes in both individual religious conscience and separation of church and state. The Southern Baptist Convention has evolved in a different direction.

Over the course of a long conversation Gaddy and I we were both offended by the rhetoric of not only the Tea Party protestors, but also that of the Republican and Democratic Party leadership. He observed that there were “well-financed initiatives that make sure it is difficult to be civil,” and he criticized the manipulative use of “name calling” to mobilize political support. The resurgence of the armed militia movement troubled us both.

From Militias to Mayhem

By mid 1994 scapegoating by right-wing populists had energized the Patriot movement, a loose amalgam of ultraconservative and hard right groups and individuals who see themselves as “Americanists” defending the Constitution from foreign and domestic weevils. The John Birch Society is one of the cornerstones of the Patriot movement.

The militia movement emerged as an armed wing of the Patriot movement in the early 1990s. Print publications and radio talk shows on the political right were warning of an invasion of jack-booted foreign soldiers dropped from UN black helicopters to seize guns as a prelude to the establishment of a totalitarian, fascist, socialist society integrated into a global New World Order. Some Christian Right commentators implied it might be a sign of the arrival of the Antichrist in the End Times.

As rhetoric heated up, researchers in a network of human rights groups across the political spectrum began to contact each other to share information and concerns about the potential for violence. With liberal Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House, conspiracy theories about skullduggery and threats to liberty went viral on the pre-Web online computer systems of the day.

In early 1995, Eric Ward helped coordinate a national conference of the human rights and watchdog groups. Held in the Pacific Northwest, we heard a series of presentations by researchers from a dozen groups. The information was so troubling, it convinced one attendee, Ken Stern of the American Jewish Committee, to volunteer to summarize the information, concerns, and a warning of impending violence. Stern presented the report to federal authorities just a few weeks before the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed. Stern, disheartened by the failure of government officials to act on the information, turned his report into a book, A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate.

Some social scientists, especially Mark S. Hamm, now argue that Timothy McVeigh had moved past the Patriot and armed militia movements into an underground neo-Nazi cell. His friend and business partner Terry Nichols had stayed aligned with the militias, and apparently thought McVeigh was going to bomb the building at night when it was empty. Evidence that came out at the trials of McVeigh and Nichols supports these contentions.

The relationships between armed militias and the white supremacist and neo-Nazi movements are well documented by Daniel Levitas in The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right and more recently by Leonard Zeskind in Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream.

Back in the mid 1990s, in the Rocky Mountains states and the Pacific Northwest, ideological white supremacist organizers played a significant role in the Patriot and armed militia movement; spreading racism and bigotry toward people of color, native peoples, immigrants, and Jews. In different regions the militias also emerged from a wide range of preexisting social movements, including economic libertarians, anti-abortion activists, gun rights activists, and nebulous conspiracy theorists, among others.

Today, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, after “virtually disappearing from public view a decade ago, the anti-government militia movement is surging across the country.” The key difference said SPLC is that now the federal government “is headed by a black man. That, coupled with high levels of non-white immigration and a decline in the percentage of whites overall in America, has helped to racialize the Patriot movement, which in the past was not primarily motivated by race hate.” SPLC released a study documenting these claims in August 2009: The Second Wave: Return of the Militias. Another difference, SPLC said, was that today, “fringe conspiracy theories [are] increasingly spread by mainstream figures.”

Most people who participate in Patriot activities will never turn to violence. The historic record, however, demonstrates that when right-wing populist rebellions are encouraged by opportunistic politicians and media demagogues, they begin intersecting with preexisting nativist and white supremacist movements; the resulting volatile mix can encourage violence.

We know that a rising crescendo of demonization and scapegoating can fuel violence against target groups. We see around us a series of overlapping social and political movements populated by people angry, resentful, and full of anxiety. They are raging against the machinery of the federal bureaucracy and liberal government programs and policies including health care, reform of immigration and labor laws, abortion, and gay marriage.

Time to Step Up

In March 2009, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich issued a clear warning:

Make no mistake: Angry right-wing populism lurks just below the surface of the terrible American economy, ready to be launched not only at Obama but also at liberals, intellectuals, gays, blacks, Jews, the mainstream media, coastal elites, crypto-socialists, and any other potential target of paranoid opportunity.

Reich served from 1993 to 1997 under President Clinton, during the height of the militia movement, at time when right-wing populists (together with Republican operatives and right-wing media) wielded conspiracy theories like a knife to gut the Clinton Administration like an Arkansas River trout.

When it was clear that Barack Obama was a serious presidential contender in mid-2008, I started writing a study about how conspiracy theories and right-wing populism were on the rise. Published in June 2009, it was titled Toxic to Democracy, and warned that:

Right-wing populist movements can cause serious damage to a society even if a significant fascist movement does not coalesce because they often popularize xenophobia, authoritarianism, scapegoating, and conspiracism. This can lure mainstream politicians to adopt these themes to attract voters, legitimize acts of discrimination—or even violence—and open the door for revolutionary right-wing movements, such as fascism, to recruit from the reformist populist movements by arguing that more drastic action is needed.

Between Obama’s inauguration in January and the time the report was printed in June, there were nine murders allegedly carried out by people who had embraced some form of white supremacist or anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.

Pushing the right-wing populists towards race war and the open arms of America’s small but hungry white supremacist and neofascist movements are demagogues including Glenn Beck, Pat Buchanan, and Lou Dobbs. Buchanan claims, as noted above by Eric Ward, that our country was “built basically by white folks… America was once their country. They sense they are losing it. And they are right.”

Until the election of Scott Brown, the Democratic Party and its centrist allies delighted in calling the Tea Party protestors “wingnuts,” “crackpots,” and “lunatics.” To the left, the progressive movement spent most of its energy castigating Obama for moving to the center, while the right was mobilizing millions of angry populist voters.

“Progressives in the country have dropped the ball” complains Ostendorf. “We won an election, but we didn’t automatically win any of the policy and structural changes we were working for. Did some progressives really think everything was going to get fixed in Washington? This never happens! Our present situation compels a reexamination of how we do longer-term political organizing in our country,” suggests Ostendorf.

When I spoke with Gaddy last Fall, I was visiting states like Idaho, Montana, and Washington to research the expansion of the Tea Party movement and the return of the armed militias. I was also interviewing immigrant-rights organizers about their sense of a gathering wave of resentment and antagonism toward their constituencies. They worried that the smug demonization of the Tea Parties by the Democrats and liberal pundits was making matters worse.

Gaddy suggests that people of faith across the political spectrum need to get involved in steering the country and both political parties away from demonizing and uncivil rhetoric. “It is never enough to fulfill your civic obligation by sending an e-mail,” he says. “We need individual and joint action.” Gaddy’s criticism of the Christian Right is well-known. His advice to the Democrats last fall: “They had better get off their high horse and respond” to the anger in the heartland, “and make it clear these folks concerns are being heard.” Given President Obama’s abrupt change in tone and message after the election of Scott Brown, it seems the message of Gaddy and others is finally getting through.

What does the future hold? The variables are too complicated and volatile to make predictions with confidence. In the 1990s there was an informal national network of nonprofit human rights watchdog groups that tracked the militias and warned of impending violence before the Oklahoma City Federal Building was reduced to rubble. That research network has since unravelled—the victim of shifting priorities by funders. Yet most of us stay in touch as we can; and we ask ourselves if we are being overly sensitive to a potential for violence as we see the same societal conditions emerging. Most agree we would rather be ridiculed for our warnings than live with our silence.