Marching To the Right: Roads To Dominion
April 26, 2000
Roads To Dominion: Right-Wing Movements And Political Power In The United States By Sara Diamond. Guilford, 445 pages, $19.95.Lately, political progressives have felt a little like Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; they kept thinking they had shaken the gang chasing them, only to find their pursuers closer than ever. "Who are those guys?" they'd say in disbelief. It has been like that recently for liberals as they've watched Christian Coalition-backed conservatives sweep into control of city councils, school boards, and state legislatures while also becoming the dominant faction in the first Republican-controlled Congress in decades. Who are these guys? And how did they suddenly get to be running things? These are the questions that Berkeley scholar and right-wing- watcher Sara Diamond attempts to answer in Roads to Dominion. And the answer she presents to the second question is: They didn't just suddenly take over. The right-wing movement (Diamond shuns the term conservative, noting that "conservatism implies reticence toward change, and that sentiment does not describe what many self-described conservatives are all about") is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon that has been building for decades. You have to understand the Right if you want to combat it, and Diamond contributes significantly to that understanding. Roads to Dominion traces right-wing movements from the days after World War II, following the fusion of three main threads of thought: anticommunism; a procapitalist, libertarian approach to economic policy; and support for the traditional order both in morality and in relationships between classes, genders, and races. Coalescing during the 1950s into a relatively cohesive movement, this fusion made it possible for the right to grow steadily in size and power. Although right-wing activists have often styled themselves as being in opposition to the established political order (witness Newt Gingrich's recent description of himself as "a true revolutionary"), Diamond points out that the far right has more often than not been "system-supportive," working to reinforce existing societal hierarchies and supporting the main thrust of U.S. foreign policy (i.e., "containing communist aggression"), even when disagreeing with the government about tactics. Diamond recounts numerous instances in which government officials have worked hand in glove with theoretically autonomous right-wing movements (for two examples, the citizens councils set up by southern whites to oppose school integration received heavy, direct support from state and local governments, and more recently the Reagan administration worked so closely with right-wing groups to funnel aid to the Nicaraguan contras, circumventing a congressional ban, that these groups acted as a virtual arm of the government). Much of the history is fascinating, and Diamond's analysis is sharp. Still, the book is not always the easiest read: Diamond's writing is serviceable but rarely scintillating, and because she crams a lot of history into a relatively small amount of space -- the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, an epochal event that spelled the beginning of the end of the Republican Party's liberal wing and launched the political career of Ronald Reagan, blitzes by in just four pages -- the reader occasionally feels lost in a blizzard of names, organizations, and dates. Still, Roads to Dominion is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the rise of far-right influence in this country, and especially for anyone seeking to oppose it. And Diamond isn't shy about criticizing the progressive community, particularly its tendency to label groups like the Christian Coalition as "radical." Such labeling, she writes, "implies that movements so designated operate outside the normal political process and ought not to be taken seriously, which is generally not the case." She slams groups like the Anti- Defamation League, Planned Parenthood, and the Human Rights Campaign Fund, which "characterized the Christian right as an undifferentiated crew of fanatics," glossing over the fact that, like it or not, the religious right constitutes "a veritable mass movement ... one that [has] developed over two decades with backing from political elites and agencies." It is facile and ultimately self-defeating, Diamond concludes, to write off the millions of followers of Pat Robertson and his ilk as crazed loonies. On the contrary, they are purposeful, organized, well connected to government and to corporate backing, financial and otherwise, and deserve to be taken very, very seriously. Surveying the American political landscape in late 1995, it's hard to disagree.