Right-wing Populism in America:
Too Close for Comfort

By Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons
New York: Guildford, 2000, 386 pp., $21.95

It's easy to dismiss fanatical white supremacists and other far-right zealots as fringe characters who play a peripheral role in American politics. But right-wing populist movements in the United States have long been part of our nation's social fabric, and they have influenced our values and policies to a much greater extent than most people recognize.

Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons argue this case persuasively in their illuminating new study, Right-wing Populism in America: Too Close For Comfort.

Deeply rooted in American political traditions, populist movements in general are "a response to the tensions and inequities of U.S. society" which exploits anti-elite resentments by mixing reactionary and progressive-sounding appeals, the authors explain.

Fueled in large part by real grievances, such movements can follow widely divergent paths. Much depends on the extent to which they actually challenge entrenched hierarchies, or whether they demonize oppressed groups and target those who are alleged to be part of a sinister, secret cabal.

Essential to right-wing populist ideology, the authors say, is an interpretative framework known as "producerism," which posits a noble, hardworking group of middle Americans who produce the goods and create society's wealth while constantly in conflict with "parasites" at the top and the bottom of the pecking order.

The key image that comes to mind while reading this volume is that of a vise — with diligent, tax-paying producers squeezed from two sides, exploited by greedy financiers and plutocrats while at the same time being bled dry to finance dubious social programs that are wasted on an unworthy underclass of lazy ne'er-do-wells.

"The sense of being cheated undergirds the producerist worldview and provides a powerful mobilizing framework for right-wing populism," writes Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates in Somerville, Mass., and Lyons, a historian. They note that the producerist model easily lends itself to scapegoating and conspiracy theories.

Accordingly, America's woes have been attributed to the machinations of "Jewish bankers" or other evil powers from on high and the shameless mooching of "welfare cheats," ethnic minorities, non-English-speaking immigrants, and assorted freeloaders from below.

Tapping into a deep vein of discontent, Klansman-turned-Republican David Duke fashioned a producerist pitch when vying for statewide political office in Louisiana in the early 1990s.

Railing against "internationalists" and "Zionists" who allegedly control the news media and dominate the U.S. government, Duke said it was "time for the white middle class or any middle class person in this country that's productive and works hard, it's time for us to say 'no,' we're not going to finance illegitimate welfare birthrates anymore."

In a chronological sweep dating back to the pre-Revolutionary era, the authors show how the producerist narrative has figured prominently in defining moments of American history, including Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, the War for Independence, the rise of Jacksonianism in the early 19th century, Ku Klux Klan terror after the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt's Progressivism, and the emergence of the Christian right and other contemporary New Right movements.

The Jacksonians, for example, are typically remembered as champions of "the common man" because they criticized banks and monopolies and helped to eliminate property requirements so that white males of all classes could vote and run for office.

But in keeping with the producerist motif, the Jacksonians also supported slavery and the mass killings of Indians, while denouncing the abolitionist movement as a British plot to undermine the United States.

Like President Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt delivered blustery diatribes against corporate monopolies. He was also aggressively white supremacist.

A leading proponent of race-suicide theory, Teddy the Rough Rider fear-mongered about how white civilization was in big trouble because of falling birthrates among white women, especially upper- and middle-class women. Echoing the Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction era, President Roosevelt beseeched white America to undertake a collective renewal in the face of grave threats to the race.

In celebrating violence as a spiritual purifier, Roosevelt and the Progressive groundswell in the United States paralleled a new breed of right-wing mass movements that sprouted across Europe between 1880 and 1914.

Relying on charismatic politics and mass activism, repressive populist groups embraced a romanticized nationalism that glorified self-sacrifice, warned of cultural and physical decay, and foreshadowed the European fascist movements that emerged after the First World War.

Describing fascism as "the most virulent form of right-wing populism," the authors assert that the threat of a fascist takeover is not the main danger posed by far-right populists in America. In addition to day-to-day violence and the pervasive psychological toll from bigotry and scapegoating, the threat of right-wing populist groups lies in how they interact with other political forces and with the U.S. government.

"Such movements," Berlet and Lyons contend, "help pull the entire political spectrum to the right and make mainstream forms of brutality and injustice look more acceptable by comparison."

As the authors analyze the myriad manifestations of contemporary right-wing populism in America, another danger becomes clear. While purporting to champion the interests of "the people," right-wing populist leaders steer grassroots discontent away from positive social change by channeling anger against the weakest and most vulnerable elements in society.

After the civil rights movement peaked and the New Left began to unravel in the late 1960s, GOP strategists realized that by appropriating populist language they could harness the grievances of white middle- and working-class Americans in a manner that would ultimately further the interests of the rich, the well-born and the economically powerful.

President Ronald Reagan skillfully employed populist rhetoric to advance deceptive policies that primarily benefited wealthy elites.

By invoking anti-corporate language as they trumpet certain "leftist" themes (opposing globalization and free trade as bad for workers, for example), right-wing populist organizations hope to attract support from a broad spectrum of people who are not readily aware of their repressive agenda.

In the end, according to the authors of this important book, right-wing populism reinforces existing ills by deflecting attention away from the structural causes of economic and social injustice.

-- Martin A. Lee