The aggressive public protests against Obama’s healthcare plan are an example of right-wing populism, a type of mass movement that periodically sweeps across the United States. Since the late 1800s, right-wing populist movements led primarily by angry White men have demonized and scapegoated people of color, immigrants, Jews, and other marginalized groups.
Populism on the right does not necessarily represent the policies or practices of traditional conservatism or economic libertarianism. In right-wing populist movements, anger, fear, and resentment are often mobilized by cynical rightist political elites as part of an orchestrated response in defense of unfair power, wealth, or privilege (and sometimes all three).
This does not mean, however, that the individual persons currently disrupting the town meetings have no right to participate in the public square.
Calling these protestors 'extremists' or 'wingnuts'; suggesting they are only Astroturf or mere puppets of elite rightist spinmasters; or demanding they be silenced; undercuts basic concepts of the democratic process.
Democracy is not a spectator sport and it can get loud and boisterous. Protestors and dissidents have a right to demand answers from elected officials, but they have no right to be bullies or attempt to silence their opposition. No matter what our political viewpoint, we all have a stake in ensuring that these public events are not marred by intimidation and mob rule. People need to stand up and defend democracy.
Anger and shouting are part of the chaos of real democratic struggles over policy. People who support a government role in providing health care need to step up. We need to be focusing our anger and doing some shouting ourselves. Not to disrupt, not to shout other people down, but to show Democrats that they need to develop some backbone. People who support serious reform of healthcare in our country need to attend town halls and public meetings, contact their elected officials, and rally their neighbors and to get involved in the public square. We need to be in the streets and suites raising a ruckus. We are being out-organized.
At the same time, being aware of how historic right-wing populism has played out in ways that promote scapegoating of immigrants, people of color, Jews and other targets is vital to protect the democratic process. The right-wing populism movement is dangerous and the people in it are scared, fed with misinformation and lies by right-wing demagogues, and genuinely scared. The individual people and the rightist movement are two different things. Anyone who has spent more than a few weeks as a community organize knows that you don’t belittle or attack scared and anxious people at public events.
This is a difficult balancing act, but a necessary skill set for those who want to defend and extend democracy as a system built on informed consent.
In the short run, people scheduling public meetings need to set the ground rules for participation up front, and enforce them with courtesy and without political bias.
In the long run, the Obama administration and the Democratic Party need to learn how to rebut false and misleading statements and beliefs without name-calling; calmly rebuke those national figures spreading the misinformation as harming civil society; and develop strong and clear arguments to defend their proposed programs.
These are the Three R’s of Civil Society: Rebut, Rebuke, Re-Affirm. The tendencies found within right-wing populism are toxic to democracy. The solution is not to short-circuit the democratic process, but to ensure that questions are fully answered and all voices are heard.
While keeping our eyes on the prize of universal quality health care for all, we must also prevent right-wing populism as a social movement from spinning out of control and into more violence. This is what happened in the mid-1990s when the Patriot and Militia movements—the most recent prior examples of mass right-wing populism—helped spread conspiracy theories and false allegations about President Clinton and blocked his policy initiatives. As anger and resentment spread through the heartland, fed by media demagogues and opportunistic politicians, Timothy McVeigh and his accomplices blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, resulting in 168 deaths, in a failed attempt to provoke an insurrection from the right.
Since the Inauguration of Barack Obama as President, there have been nine murders tied to White supremacist ideology laced with conspiracy theories. It is already happening here. Decent people across the political spectrum need to take action to preserve pluralist civil society.
p.s. If the LaRouchites show up, give them the Barney Frank response. Vicious right-wing neofascist thugs with a 35 year record of disruption and smears are an exception to the 3R rule.
Chip Berlet is senior analyst of Political Research Associates, co-author (with Matthew N. Lyons) of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, and author of the recent report, Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating.