News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

Right Wingers Marching in DC Is Big News -- But the Same Old Faces Are Pulling the Strings

The men behind the religious right make a comeback with the Tea Party movement.

Glenn Beck will tell you that this weekend's march of right-wing activists on Washington was six months in the making.

Don't believe a word of it. Try 40 years.

As disgruntled white taxpayers joined conspiracy theorists, gun enthusiasts, state-sovereignty activists and a few outright racists on Pennsylvania Avenue, the long-time leaders of the American right, whose pedigrees go back to the 1964 presidential campaign of Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., no doubt witnessed a day they thought might never come.

Never before has the right taken to the streets in such numbers. (Estimates range between 50,000 and 100,000 attending the post-mach rally at the U.S. Capitol building.) Marching has long been the province of the left, most notably in the civil rights movement. But the election of the nation's first African-American president, a moderate liberal, in a time of economic crisis, yielded right-wing leaders the gold of backlash.

While the foot-soldiers of the Tea Party movement give it a more secular appearance than its recent predecessors, the movement is the right's replacement for a religious right that has weakened since 2004, when it helped win a second term for George W. Bush. The tactics, however, are the same: just as the religious right subverts the Christian faith in the service of its authoritarian, business-friendly goals, so, too, does the Tea Party movement subvert the American civic religion -- that faith characterized by love of country, invocation of the Founders and veneration of the Constitution.

At the dawn of the cultural evolution of the 1960s, a handful of right-wing activists and intellectuals banded together to form a philosophical movement that became known as the New Right. These were the people who won Barry Goldwater the Republican presidential nomination, only to see their candidate meet disastrous results in his race against Democrat Lyndon Johnson of Texas. But the right is never truly defeated; its leaders are patient, and they learn from their errors. When they're out of power, they stay busy, building institutions and mailing lists, all the while waiting for their moment to strike.

And so, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected to the presidency, largely thanks to the tireless efforts of New Right leaders.

Out of their tiny numbers, they went on from the Goldwater campaign to found the religious right, a textbook example of ground-level organizing that led to a national electoral victory with the election of Reagan. And they are at it again.

On September 11, the day before Saturday's big march, I joined 100 right-wing activists for a fundraising workshop presided over by Richard Viguerie, who, together with Howard Phillips and the late Paul Weyrich, launched the religious right when they convinced who the late Rev. Jerry Falwell to lead an organization called the Moral Majority. Mobilizing congregants of fundamentalist Protestant churches, these three men -- two Catholics, and a Jewish convert to an unorthodox and authoritarian subset of Protestantism -- mobilized Southern Baptists and Methodists around the issue of abortion, a symbol of the perceived disempowerment of men in the wake of the women's liberation movement.

When the right enjoys success, it is almost always does so by appropriating the techniques of the left. For their organizing model, Viguerie and Phillips used the playbook written by Morris Dees, who organized the 1972 presidential campaign of the anti-war candidate George McGovern, unexpectedly winning him the Democratic nomination (although, in the general election, McGovern met a fate that matched Goldwater's). Dees went on to found the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that tracks the activities of militias and hate groups.