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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.
 
 
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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.

Today, Viguerie has branched out, helping to build a broader coalition in the form of the Tea Party movement, which joins together the various interest groups of the right in the politics of resentment against the perceived loss of power by white men symbolized by the election of Barack Obama.

Much of the Tea Party movement's messaging comes from the virtual one-man clearing house that is Howard Phillips. Since his early days in the Nixon administration, Phillips has led a campaign to "defund the left" -- efforts to keep federal dollars following to organizations that are traditionally identified with liberalism.

The right's current campaign against Planned Parenthood is its best-known example. Although no federal dollars go to Planned Parenthood to pay for abortions, right-wing politicians and activist contend they do in the form of subsidies that pay for gynecological care and breast-health services for women who cannot afford to see private doctors.

The targeting of former White-House adviser Van Jones, hired to develop policy on green jobs, represents a new round in the right's new "defund the left" front. Phil Kerpen, policy director for the right-wing astroturf group, Americans for Prosperity, saw the campaign against Jones, by his own account, as one way to stop the flow of federal dollars for the creation of green jobs, which he contends will serve only liberal groups, ranging from labor unions to environmental justice organizations.

At last year's Constitution Day gathering of Phillips' Conservative Caucus organization, the themes that today define many of the themes flogged daily on FOX NewsChannel were on full display: the false charge that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and purported evidence of Obama's alleged socialist roots.

Countless signs on display at the 912 march on Washington made reference to Obama's alleged socialism, or even communism.

When I interviewed Phillips just days before the 2008 presidential election, he told me he had just gotten off the phone with Jerome Corsi, the primary advance man for the birther conspiracy. Corsi was in Hawaii, looking for fodder for his claims, and was checking in regularly with Phillips.

Phillips served as mentor to Randall Terry, who, though not technically part of the Tea Party movement, seeks to tap that same vein of rage in service of his cause, which is to end abortion by any means necessary. And it's no coincidence that Randall Terry's comeback coincides with the rise of a retooled right wing.

Terry's followers, demonstrating the disruption techniques later employed at town-hall meetings on health-care reform, interrupted the Senate nomination hearing for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Terry himself shouted down former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean at a Virginia town-hall meeting about health care. A recent e-mail blast from Terry promises organized disruptions of congressional hearings on health-care reform legislation, a technique famously used by the women of Code Pink.

Phillips, during our 2008 chat, called Terry "a dear friend." (In 1998, Terry ran for the a congressional seat on the ticket of a third party founded, and then led, by Phillips -- the U.S. Taxpayers Party, which has since evolved into the Constitution Party.)

For his part, Viguerie, on Friday, advised the Tea Partiers to launch their own candidates for Congress in the 2010 elections, and to use primary challenges to put incumbents of both parties on notice, pushing them further to the right.  Known as Reagan's "postmaster general" for his prodigious direct-mail fundraising activities on Reagan's behalf, Viguerie offered an energetic presentation on the nuts and bolts of both direct-mail and internet fundraising.

I signed up for Viguerie's workshop via ResistNet, a project of Grassfire, another astroturfing group, one that caters to the fringier elements of the right-wing coalition. On the Grassfire Web site, one will find the endorsements of Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind. Both appeared on the podium at the post-march rally on Friday sponsored by FreedomWorks, the astroturf group led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Tex.

Are you beginning to get the picture?

Whenever the right appears to fall in on itself, as it did with the collapse of the Moral Majority, it begins rebuilding on a broader base. In his fundraising workshop, Viguerie stressed the importance of building coalitions.

After the Moral Majority fell apart, the men behind the scenes rebuilt the religious right with more muscle by building on the media empire of the Rev. Pat Robertson, which was not limited to Christian fundamentalists, but encompassed denominations outside the Protestant establishment, including Pentacostals and charismatics.

When the Christian Coalition became unglued, the Family Research Council, a network of state-based policy groups with a heavily right-wing Christian bent, picked up the slack. The Family Research Council, founded by James Dobson of Focus on the Family, does not limit its mission to matters of morality, but also <strike>embraces a range of</strike> wanders into the territory of economic issues.

Now, with 30 percent of Americans defining themselves as "spiritual but not religious," according to a recent Newsweek poll, the organized right has branched out once again, giving its latest incarnation, in the form of the Tea Party movement, a more secular face -- a good move at a time when the population is more distressed about economic than cultural issues.

After the 2008 election, liberal pundits declared the religious right dead, as if its primary focus eve was religion. It was not: its primary focus is, and always was, power -- power that ultimately serves the interests of Big Business via the goal of defunding and disempowering those forces that argue for regulation and a social safety net -- in other words, the forces that enact the ideals of liberals and progressives.

And it is not dead; it has simply had a makeover. The remnant of the religious right has been folded into this new coalition, which emphasizes the resentments of white people who feel economically and culturally threatened, while occasionally referencing the evangelical fervor that marks the latter-day religious right. The figure of Sarah Palin -- the gun-toting, sovereignty-floating, Obama-Swift-boating Christian charismatic who took the right by storm as the running mate of 2008 presidential candidate John McCain.

At a conference sponsored last month by Americans for Prosperity, one speaker urged Tea Party movement members to take up positions in their local political parties, and to run for local office. This is exactly the model used by Ralph Reed, former Christian Coalition executive director, when he promised in 1990 to take the country, "precinct by precinct." He did not succeed immediately; Bill Clinton would win another term before the election of the born-again George Bush (who proved a disappointment to the religious right). By that time, Reed had moved on from the Coalition to consult for the Bush campaign.

Reed's consulting firm, Century Strategies, found him partnered in business with a man named Tim Phillips, who today runs Americans for Prosperity, who told me in an interview that his expertise is in mobilizing grass-roots activists. Last month, Reed debuted his new organization, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, at an anti-health-care reform rally sponsored by Americans for Prosperity.

Make no mistake; the Tea Party movement is the new religious right.  The megaphone of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and James Dobson's Focus on the Family media empire has been replaced by FOX News Channel and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

Different day; same stuff -- only stronger.

 

 

 

Adele M. Stan AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.