Race and Realignment in American Politics (Parts I and II)
(Democratic National Convention, San Francisco, 1984. Photo by Thomas F. Arndt)
The reelection of President Ronald Reagan in 1984 was not a watershed in American electoral history, but it did accelerate deep trends in popular political culture which could produce an authoritarian social order in the very near future. This chapter is an examination of various political currents and social blocs competing for power within the bourgeois state apparatus. Although there is a brief overview of the political dynamics of the Democratic Party primaries, the emergence of the Rainbow Coalition of Jesse Jackson, and the general election, my principal concern here is to examine the increased racial polarization within elements of both the American left and right as part of a broader process of electoral political realignment of the party system. Most Marxists seriously underestimate the presence of racism as an ideological and social factor of major significance in the shape of both American conservative and liberal centrist politics — in the pursuit of US foreign policies, particularly in the Caribbean and Africa, and as an impediment to the development of a mass left alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties. Although class prefigures all social relations, the burden of race is a powerful and omnipresent element that has helped to dictate the directions of contemporary politics.
An explicitly racist aspect of the Reagan agenda manifested itself domestically and internationally. Black workers suffered disproportionately from both unemployment and social-service reductions. In 1983, for example, 19.8 percent of all white men and 16.7 percent of all white women were unemployed at some point; for blacks, the figures were 32.2 percent for men, and 26.1 percent for women workers. Between 1980 and 1983, the median black family income dropped 5.3 percent; an additional 1.3 million blacks became poor, and nearly 36 percent of all African-Americans lived in poverty in 1983, the highest rate since 1966. The Reagan administration slashed aid to historically black universities and reduced student loans, forcing thousands of black youth out of schools. The US Commission on Civil Rights and Office of Federal Contracts Compliance Programs were transformed into bulwarks for racial and sexual discrimination. In its foreign affairs, the Reagan administration authorized a policy of “constructive engagement” with apartheid South Africa. In 1981 Reagan asked Congress to repeal the Clark amendment prohibiting covert military aid to Angolan terrorists; authorized the US training of South Africa’s Coast Guard; and vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning South Africa’s illegal invasion of Angola. In 1982 the Reagan administration rescinded controls on “non-lethal” exports to apartheid’s military and police; voted for a $1.1 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to South Africa; sent 2,500 electric-shock batons to the South African police; and appointed a pro-apartheid US executive, Herman Nickel, ambassador to Pretoria. The next year, the administration established offices in downtown Johannesburg to promote accelerated US investment in the regime, and granted a license for US firms to service South Africa’s Koeberg nuclear power plant. By 1984 about 6,350 US corporations held direct subsidiaries or did some form of business inside the racist regime. US firms supplied 15 percent of the state’s imports, and absorbed 8 percent of its exports, amounting to $4 billion.
Given the unambiguously racist, sexist, and anti-labor character of the Reagan offensive, oppositional social movements were inevitable. In September 1981 the AFL-CIO broke with tradition to stage a massive “Solidarity” march against the administration. On 12 June 1982 over one million Americans demonstrated in favor of a freeze on the production and deployment of nuclear weapons. Black middle-class formations such as the NAACP and Operation PUSH combined with black nationalist, left and peace forces, holding a march on Washington DC on 27 August 1983 that brought more than 300,000 demonstrators to the capital. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party was, for several reasons, ill-prepared to accommodate the new militancy of women, national minorities and trade unionists. For nearly half a century, the Democrats had controlled Congress, a majority of state legislatures, and most major municipal governments. Unlike the Republicans, the Democratic Party had consciously attempted to bring together a broad spectrum of social forces and classes — trade unions, small farmers, national minorities, eastern financial and industrial capitalists, southern whites, the unemployed. It was a capitalist party, in that its governing ideology of Keynesian economics and Cold War liberalism benefited sectors of the ruling class. But in the absence of a mass labor or social-democratic party, it also functioned as a vehicle for minorities’ and workers’ interests to be represented, if in a limited manner. This governing coalition was first seriously weakened by democratic social movements of African-Americans in the late 1950s and 1960s, which forced the destruction of legal segregation and increased the number of black elected officials from 100 in 1964 to over 5,000 in 1980. The black freedom movement combined with the anti-Vietnam War movement to contribute to the defection from the party of millions of southern segregationists and conservatives. By the late 1960s, a political backlash against social reforms developed among many white ethnic, blue-collar workers who had long been Democrats. Although the economic recession of 1973–1975 and the Watergate scandal temporarily set back the Republicans and contributed to Carter’s narrow electoral victory in 1976, the general trend among whites to the right in national political culture continued. This was most evident in an analysis of the racial polarization in presidential elections between 1952 and 1976. During this period, the average level of electoral support for Democratic presidential candidates among blacks was 83.4 percent, against 43.7 percent among white voters. The results in 1980 were even more striking: 85 percent of all blacks and 59 percent of Hispanics voted for Carter, while only 36 percent of all white voters supported his re-election. Not since 1948 had a majority of white Americans voted for a Democratic presidential candidate.
The defections of major electoral groups from the Democrats had reduced the party to four overlapping social blocs. The first tendency, which was clearly subordinated within the coalition, was the democratic left: African-Americans, Latinos (except Cuban-Americans), feminists, peace activists, liberal trade unionists, environmentalists, welfare-rights and low-income groups, and ideological liberals. In national electoral politics, they were best represented by the Congressional Black Caucus and a small group of white liberals in the House and Senate. To their right was the rump of the old New Deal coalition, the liberal centrists: the AFL-CIO, white ethnics in urban machines, some consumer-goods industrialists and liberal investment bankers, and Jewish organizations. This tendency’s chief representative in national politics was Minnesota senator and former vice president Hubert Humphrey. Following Humphrey’s death in 1977, his protégé, Walter Mondale, assumed leadership of this bloc. A third tendency, which exhibited the most independent posture toward partisan politics, comprised what some have called the “professional managerial class” and sectors of the white, salaried middle-income strata. These white “neo-liberals” tended to oppose US militarism abroad and large defense expenditures. But on economic policies, they tended toward fiscal conservatism and a reduction of social-welfare programs. They were critical of nuclear power, and favored federal regulations to protect the environment; but they also opposed “special interests” such as organized labor. This constituency was behind the unsuccessful presidential campaigns of Morris Udall in 1976 and John Anderson in 1980. Its principal spokesman in the Democratic primaries was Colorado senator Gary Hart, who as early as 1973 had proclaimed that “American liberalism was near bankruptcy.” At the extreme right of the party were those moderate-to-conservative southern Democrats who had not yet defected from the party, and a smaller number of midwestern and “sunbelt” governors and legislators who had ties to small regional capitalists, energy interests, and middle-income white constituencies. The most prominent stars of this tendency in the 1970s were Carter, Florida governor Reubin Askew, millionaire Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen, and Ohio senator John Glenn. All of these groups, in varying degrees, opposed the general agenda of the Reagan administration. But only the democratic left, and most specifically the African-American community, mounted a sustained series of social protests against literally every initiative of the Republican president.
In the Democratic presidential primaries of 1984, each of these tendencies was represented by one or more candidates. Conservative Democrats Glenn, Askew, and former segregationist Ernest Hollings, currently senator of South Carolina, were in the race; the “yuppies” and white neo-liberals gravitated to Hart; Mondale drew the early endorsement of the AFL-CIO, and most of the party apparatus. Three candidates split the forces of the democratic left. California senator Alan Cranston, a strong advocate of the peace movement, received support from many freeze candidates and western liberals. Former senator George McGovern drew backing from traditional liberals, some feminists and peace activists. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, president of Operation PUSH and the central political leader within the black community, was the last candidate to announce. The Jackson and Hart campaigns were far more significant than the others, including Mondale’s. Jackson’s decision to run was made against the advice of most of the black petty-bourgeois leadership, the NAACP and the Urban League, who had already committed themselves to Mondale. Even the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, which on economic matters was a good deal to the left of the NAACP elite, supported Mondale.
The Jackson campaign’s core constituency, which was absolutely vital to its subsequent success, was the Black Church. Nearly 90 percent of the African-American clergy had endorsed Jackson by the end of 1983. Church leaders and members were active in every aspect of the campaign, from distributing literature to bringing black voters to the polls. The failure of most civil-rights leaders and black elected officials to get involved in the early stages of the effort permitted several thousand black nationalists, Marxists, peace activists, and feminists to gain positions in local and state-wide campaign mobilizations. Thus Jackson, who previously had been an advocate of “black capitalism” and had a history of political opportunism, was influenced by his campaign workers, aides and policy advisers to articulate an essentially “left social-democratic” program. By mid spring the Jackson campaign’s foreign and domestic policy positions were clearly to the left of any Democratic candidate for national office in US history. Jackson called for a 20 to 25 percent reduction in the defense budget; a bilateral nuclear-weapons freeze, with billions of dollars reallocated from defense programs to human needs; the normalization of US relations with Cuba, and an end to American armed intervention in Central America, the Mideast and the Caribbean. Despite limited funds and a virtual absence of television advertising, Jackson received 19 percent of all total Democratic primary votes, about 80 percent of all African-Americans’ votes. He won primary victories in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Mississippi and Virginia. Most significantly, Jackson forced the national Democratic leaders to recognize the centrality of the black electorate within the party. The dynamic race by Jackson motivated hundreds of thousands among the nation’s poor and minorities to register and to participate in the political process.
Jackson’s success among the African-American voters denied Mondale approximately 15 to 17 percent of the total Democratic primary voters. Hart was thereby able to maintain a credible campaign against Mondale as well. The Colorado Democrat received 36 percent of the national Democratic vote, winning victories in New England, Florida, California, Ohio and Indiana. But unlike Jackson, who attempted to create a multiracial, progressive coalition on the left, Hart ran simultaneously on the left and right against Mondale. On foreign affairs, Hart was more critical of US military intervention in Central America than Mondale. But on domestic economic matters, Hart had previously opposed the federal loan program to the nearly bankrupt Chrysler corporation on fiscal grounds; he supported a “cost-effective” nuclear arsenal and annual increases of 4 to 5 percent in military expenditures. Pointedly condemning Mondale as the “candidate of special interests,” Hart implied that he would not be subject to the mandates of organized labor. Although he did not receive his party’s presidential nomination, Hart’s critique was extremely effective, and it established the basis for the Reagan–Bush attack on Mondale during the general election.
On balance, Mondale should have been denied the Democratic nomination in 1984. Despite the endorsements of more than 107 senators and representatives, the AFL-CIO, and the vast majority of Democratic mayors, the Minnesota centrist received only 38.7 percent of the national primary votes. He received 45 percent of the labor-union members’ votes, 31 percent from Democratic college graduates, and only 28 percent of all Democratic voters aged between 18 and 34 years old. But Mondale had several distinct advantages over Jackson and Hart. By the end of May, Mondale had received over $18 million in campaign contributions, against $9 million for Hart and $1.7 million for Jackson. Such spending ratios were roughly similar to the final percentage of delegates each candidate received at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco: Mondale, 56.8 percent; Hart 31.1 percent; and Jackson, 12.1 percent. A large bloc of convention delegates were directly selected by the party apparatus, virtually guaranteeing Mondale’s nomination. In many states, the selection of convention delegates had little to do with the actual primary vote. For example, in Pennsylvania’s primary, Jackson received 17 percent of the statewide popular vote to Mondale’s 45 percent. On the convention floor, however, Mondale received 117 delegate votes to Jackson’s 18. As a “minority” candidate, Mondale should have recognized that he had to make credible, programmatic overtures to both Hart’s and Jackson’s constituencies in order to build an electoral coalition to defeat the incumbent president. But throughout the long primary season, Mondale learned nothing new; Mondale delegates were in no mood to compromise. Jackson minority platform proposals calling for major reductions in defense expenditures and for placing the party “on record as unconditionally opposed to any first use of nuclear weapons” were soundly defeated. The selection of congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as the ticket’s vice-presidential running mate was a positive concession to the women’s movement, although Ferraro’s politics were only slightly more progressive than Mondale’s, if at all. In general, African-Americans and the liberal-left supporters of Jackson left the convention without receiving even token concessions, beyond the appearance of their candidate on prime-time television for one evening. The only real factor that would later motivate these forces to support Mondale in the general election was the real fear of the ignorant demagogue in the White House.
Given Mondale’s forensic ineptitude and dull demeanor, the Republican strategy was all too easy. First, the administration defended Reagan’s aggressive foreign policies, including the destabilization of Nicaragua and the illegal invasion of Grenada, while making new overtures to the Soviet Union for a resumption of arms negotiations. The administration pressured the Federal Reserve System to ease the amount of currency in circulation, which helped to extend the economic recovery through the election. The 1983-84 recovery also permitted the president to claim falsely that his program of tax cuts and deregulation for corporations was the key to prosperity. More than in any previous administration, Reaganites followed the lead of Ayn Rand: they sported the word “‘Capitalism’ ...on [their] foreheads boldly, as a badge of nobility.” On domestic social programs, the president hinted at even deeper budget reductions ahead, but solemnly vowed never to diminish social-security benefits to the elderly, a major voting bloc. Like Hart, Reagan rhetorically projected himself “as a candidate of all the people, and Walter Mondale as the weak puppet of ‘interest groups’ and ‘special interests.’” As the “special interests’ accused of manipulating Mondale included women, trade unionists, blacks, Hispanics, gays, and environmentalists — that is, 70 to 80 percent of the population — this was a rather peculiar accusation, and its success demonstrates the extent to which political life has been degraded by right-wing populism. Mondale repeatedly defended himself against such rhetoric, but “too often it was as if no one was listening.”
In retrospect, it almost seems that the Democrats deliberately threw the election to Reagan. Two basic themes which could have united nearly all the factions inside the Democratic Party were social “fairness” and “peace.” The overwhelming majority of white low- to middle-income families had not been touched by the 1983–84 economic recovery. Millions of white workers were unemployed or underemployed. Yet throughout his campaign, Mondale focused narrowly on the issue of federal budget deficits, and on the necessity to hike income taxes on all families earning more than $25,000 annually. Instead of demanding massive federal initiatives to reduce joblessness and poverty, the Democratic candidate proposed another $29 billion cut in social expenditures in order to diminish the federal deficit. Instead of supporting a halt to the rate of massive defense spending, Mondale called for annual military increases of 3 to 4 percent over the inflation rate – only slightly less than Reagan’s budgetary projections.
Mondale’s central fallacy, however, was his erroneous belief that the further to the ideological right his campaign projected its image, the greater was his ability to undercut Reagan’s base, especially among white ethnic blue-collar voters and white-collar professionals. The reverse proved to be the case. Mondale probably lost a section of the Hart anti-war constituency by proposing a “military quarantine” against Nicaragua and by attacking Reagan’s failure to “retaliate against terrorists.” Mondale applauded the invasion of Grenada, reversing his previous position, and he promised that he would even be “tougher” in negotiations with the Soviets than Reagan. African-Americans were outraged that the Democratic candidate was virtually silent on the Reagan administration’s détente with apartheid. In short, Mondale took the black vote absolutely for granted, and devoted nearly his entire campaign to courting fractions of the white electorate which historically had voted for Republican presidential candidates.
Several striking parallels exist between Reaganism and classical fascism. Most obvious is the truculently anti-communist foreign policy of the present administration. The invasion of Grenada, the deployment of US troops in Lebanon, and the covert war against Nicaragua were all projected as part of an anti-communist offensive. As Sweezy and Magdoff observed in late 1983, such aggression was not “a literal copy of what went on in the 1930s, but, given the different circumstances of the two periods, it was about as close as you could get.... Nothing could have been more reminiscent of Hitler than the Big Lies and phony excuses Reagan came up with to justify the occupation of Grenada.” Usually the term “fascism” is employed as a rhetorical device by leftists to condemn the actions of US conservatives or the state, and as such lacks any serious analytical meaning. But let us examine this issue more closely.
If we begin with Dimitrov’s definition of fascism as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, most imperialist elements of finance capital,” the Reagan administration clearly falls short. Since the early 1970s, however, there has been a marked degeneration of bourgeois democratic political culture, characterized in part by the breakdown of the New Deal party system and the hegemony of the far right within the leadership of the Republican party. In recent years, a new element has been added: a popular ideology of extreme national chauvinism, described by the media as the “new patriotism.” The Republicans called themselves “America’s Party,” implying that Democrats were somehow less than patriotic. Congressman Jack Kemp charged that Democrats were “not just soft on communism – they’re soft on democracy.” United Nations ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, resurrecting her Cold War liberal past, placed the anti-communism of Reagan firmly in the political tradition of Harry Truman and Scoop Jackson, and argued that Mondale had betrayed this heritage. Barry Goldwater, the party’s presidential nominee and “old warrior” of the ultra-right, also told the convention: “And let me remind you, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Nor were the racial dimensions of the convention far to seek. Only 3.1 percent of the delegates were black.
In the platform adopted by the convention, one half-page specifically mentioned national minority affairs. The only strong statement in the party’s manifesto pertaining to blacks was an explicit rejection of racial and gender quotas in hiring policies. Foreign press observers were repulsed by the spectacle. The British Guardian correspondent noted:
There was something distasteful, almost sinister, in the closing scenes. When the President observed that “not one inch of soil has fallen to the Communists since he took office”, he provoked the first of a number of demonstrations which may have set the pulse racing of those who remember the Berlin Olympics in . Clean-cut youths in gray slacks, white shirts and red bandannas lifted their arms with salutes reminiscent of fascism, mindlessly chanting “four more years, four more years”. They waved the large American flags on wooden poles in a kind of mesmerized unison. This was not the fresh and encouraging patriotism of the Olympic torch as it travelled across the country, but an uglier, more menacing version.
None of this is fully developed fascism. But if a road toward an American form of fascism exists, it will be predicated on the conjunction of several ideological and political factors currently visible. The “new patriotism,” like fascism, is a “vehement nationalist ideology.” As Togliatti commented, “fascist ideology contains a series of heterogeneous ingredients” that serve to “solder together various factions in the struggle for dictatorship over the working masses and to create a vast movement for this scope.” Fascism is a “romantic ideology revealing the petty bourgeoisie’s effort to make the world, which is moving forward toward socialism, turn back.” Also pivotal in both fascist ideology and the “new patriotism” is racism. In Friendly Fascism, Bertram Gross observes that racism “invigorated” the political dynamics of classical fascism by serving “as a substitute for class struggle and a justification of any and all brutalities committed by members of the Master Race against ‘inferior’ beings.” Ideologically, there is the need not simply to identify a public scapegoat — Jews in Hitler’s Germany, national minorities in the US — but to cultivate sharply divergent racial perceptions and conceived racial interests that reinforce the drive to the right. An August 1984 national survey of the Washington DC-based Joint Center for Political Studies presented a disturbing picture of racial polarization in contemporary American political attitudes. The vast majority of blacks, 82 percent, disapproved of “Reagan’s job performance,” compared to only 32 percent of whites. Few whites described Reagan as being racially “prejudiced,” while 72 percent of all blacks defined him as a racist. In general, the poll found that “blacks and whites assess the state of the nation very differently”: 48 percent of whites but only 14 percent of blacks were “satisfied with the way things are going in the country”; 38 percent of all blacks but only 6 percent of whites “think civil rights is one of the most important issues” in the presidential campaign; and 40 percent of all blacks and 15 percent of whites agree with the statement that “white people want to keep Blacks down.”
Classical fascism developed only when the internal contradictions of the society reached a point when “the bourgeoisie [were] compelled to liquidate the democratic forms.” To accomplish this end, Togliatti adds, the “mobilization of the petty bourgeoisie” was imperative. In the USA, the “old” right of the late 1950s was composed almost solely of conservative intellectuals, such as Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, and a small tendency of extreme anti-communists in groups like the John Birch Society. What truly distinguishes the new right from these older formations is its commitment and capacity to build mass movement-style organizations within the American middle classes. The most prominent of these is the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, which has several million evangelical conservative members and supporters. The Moral Majority was instrumental in lobbying against the nuclear freeze-niks, ultralibs and unilateral disarmers.” State affiliates of the Moral Majority have also been active in selecting school texts and library books, screening instructors to eliminate “subversives” and homosexuals, and lobbying to introduce evangelical training inside public classrooms. In Alabama, Moral Majority members clashed with school officials over a textbook which “failed to express adequately the merits of capitalism.” In North Carolina, members created an “Index Prohibitorium” of all books “unfit for young leaders ... anti-family, anti-God, [and] anti-Bible.” One particularly objectionable text was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which Moral Majoritarians characterized as “continued degradation of youth,” adding for good measure that “it would make a nice bonfire.”
Nor can this phenomenon be dismissed as a lunatic fringe. In 1980, the Moral Majority spent $2.5 million and registered one million working-class and middle-class Christians on behalf of Reagan. Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum mobilized thousands of middle-class whites to help defeat the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. The Conservative Caucus, directed by Howard Phillips, claims a membership of 600,000. Richard Viguerie, the “ideological godfather” of the new right, owns six communications companies, is syndicated in 500 newspapers in a weekly political column, and runs a political commentary show on more than 3,400 radio stations. After Reagan’s election in 1980, new formations were created. Viguerie, Phillips, Terry Dolan (chairman of the National Conservative Political Action Committee), and Ron Godwin of the Moral Majority formed the Conservative Populist Tax Coalition (CPTC). The goals of the CPTC are to “attract new constituencies of disaffected Americans including blue collar Democrats and minorities” by advocating a 10 percent flat federal income-tax rate, and emphasizing themes “on patriotism,” a “bootstraps” economy and strong family and traditional values. Millionaire Lew Lehrman, a conservative Republican narrowly defeated by Mario Cuomo in New York’s gubernatorial race, has created the Citizens for America (CFA). The CFA recruits “leaders” from the small business sector to mobilize rightists in congressional races; recently, it has also initiated a campaign to station the National Guard in “high crime areas” of major cities. Both the CPTC and the CFA, like previous fascist groups, “use an appeal to themes stressing the alienation of the ‘common man.’” Both groups project Lehrman “as a national leader and a possible successor to Reagan.”
In Congress, right-wing Republicans led by Georgia Representative Newt Gingrich established the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS) in 1983, with the express purpose of leading an “intellectual-populist revolution” against the Democrats and “moderate” Republicans. Pivotal members of COS include Representatives Jerry Lewis of California, chair of the House Republican Research Committee; Trent Lott of Mississippi, and Vin Weber of Minnesota. Providing research for these forces are several well-funded centers, chiefly the ultra-right Heritage Foundation, formed by brewer Joseph Coors and Paul Weyrich, head of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress. What all of these tendencies have in common, despite their nominal allegiance to the Republican Party, is an absolute contempt for the present two-party system, and a ruthless commitment to building a multi-class, conservative order. For Gingrich, the challenge of the right is to shape “a movement, a party and western civilization” impelled by the “driving force of an ideological vision.” Weyrich adds: “We are no longer working to preserve the status quo. We are radicals, working to overturn the present power structure of this country.”
The growth of a mass radical right in the 1980s has also permitted the renaissance of even more extreme racist formations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, and the coalition of various racist political factions under more “acceptable” labels. A prime example is the development of the “Populist Party” in 1983–84. The impetus for the new Populists came from a merger of the old American Independent Party, formed in 1968 around presidential candidate George Wallace, and the Liberty Lobby, whose weekly tabloid The Spotlight has a circulation of half a million. The guiding force behind the merger was a notorious racist Willis Carto, founder of the Liberty Lobby. Like Gingrich’s COS, Carto has long been critical of US monopoly capitalism, which he defines as “the means of production, money banking, and the political process ... controlled by a small group of oligopolist/monopolist capitalists for their personal gain,” and which “inevitably degenerates to crisis and Marxism.” Carto advocates the development of an authoritarian state apparatus to ensure “the primacy of nation, culture, family, people and race” and to “protect America’s racial integrity.” Under the Liberty Lobby’s leadership, over six hundred delegates from every state attended the founding convention of the Populist Party in Nashville, Tennessee on 19 August 1984. The party’s charismatic candidates were selected to appeal to low- to moderate-income whites, farmers, and small businessmen who had not benefited significantly from Reagan’s economic policies and who were disaffected from both major parties. For president, the choice was celebrity Bob Richards, an Olympic gold medalist at the 1956 and 1960 games. Best known for his breakfast-cereal commercials, Richards has traveled across the nation for two decades as an “inspirational lecturer” for the Chamber of Commerce and civic clubs. Vice-presidential nominee Maureen Kennedy Salaman is also a dynamic public speaker and self-described “freedom fighter.” Her political base is the 100,000-member American Health Federation, which she serves as president. Richards and Salaman project a wholesome, middle-class image — ideal for Carto.
Again, as in classical fascism, the Populist Party’s public agenda is eclectic. As the anti-racist journal The Hammer comments: “Populist literature takes a four square stance against feminism, women’s equality, civil rights for homosexuals, and racial equality.... The Party is extremely right-wing but it is not conservative. It emphasizes free enterprise, but it is not antiunion.” In their initial party documents, the Populists denounced “international parasitic capitalism,” and called for tariffs to protect Americans’ jobs, parity for small family farmers, and federal spending to expand public transportation facilities. They also advocated the repeal of federal income tax, and a non-interventionist foreign policy. But the heart of the Populist program was its demand that “every race” should pursue “its destiny free from interference by another race.” Populist members promised to oppose “social programs which would radically modify another race’s behavior, [and] demands by one race to subsidize it financially or politically as long as it remains on American soil.... The Populist Party will not permit any racial minority, through control of the media, culture distortion or revolutionary political activity, to divide or factionalize the majority of the society...” With this program, party organizers initiated local clubs in forty-nine states within six months. By mid September 1984, The Spotlight announced that the party’s major candidates would participate in the ballot under the Populist label in nine states. However, in Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi, Richards and Salaman obtained ballot access as “Independents”; in Kansas, they were listed as the national candidates of the state’s “Conservative Party”; and in California, they were the candidates of the American Independent Party.
The actual “cadre” of the new Populist Party is nothing but a rogue’s gallery of racists and anti-Semites like Carto. The first national chairman of the party was Robert Weems. In the late 1970s, Weems was Mississippi chaplain of the “Invisible Empire” Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Other party leaders have similar histories. Dale Crowley, national party treasurer and senatorial candidate in Virginia, was a major promoter of the anti-Semitic tract For Fear of Jews. The Populist chairman in Wisconsin State, Joseph Birkenstock, is also a state leader of Posse Comitatus, a rural, right-wing vigilante organization. Retired US colonel, Jack Mohr, a member of the Populists’ national speakers bureau, is also leader of the paramilitary Citizens’ Emergency Defense System, a subgroup of the Christian Patriots’ Defense League. Mohr’s major contributions to the Populists is his extensive contacts in the extreme-right “Christian identity” network, groups of evangelical whites who teach that “Jews are the children of the devil” and that African-Americans are “pre-Adamic” — that is, “false starts before God achieved perfection and made a white Adam.” Kansas Populist leader Keith Shive, who was also nominated for vice president at the Nashville convention, is also leader of the right-wing Farmers’ Liberation Army and has connections with Posse Comitatus. Shive’s speeches to low-income farm communities throughout the Midwest have blamed Jews “as the source of all the world’s ills.”
Two prominent North Carolina Populists are state party vice-chairman, A.J. Barker, and chairman Hal Beck. Barker is the leader of the racist National Association for the Advancement of White People; Beck is a member of the policy board of the Liberty Lobby, and has openly called for a coalition between the new party and the KKK. In Kentucky, state party chairman, Jerrold Pope, is also a member of the neo-Nazi National States Rights Party, founded in 1958. The major Klansman besides Weems in the Populist Party is Arkansas leader, Ralph Forbes, who in 1982 was a featured speaker at a Klan rally in Washington DC. As The Hammer observes: “the new Populist Party operation, combining the spirit of rural revolt, anti-capitalist rhetoric, and the party’s slogan of ‘Power to the People’ is a cleverly packaged job to help Carto consolidate a much larger constituency of people who would be repelled by an open appeal to Nazism under other circumstances.” But the phenomenon of US Populism has rough parallels in Western European politics on the far right: the British National Front, Spain’s Fuerzas Nuevas, the National Political Union in Greece, and especially the French National Front led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, which won 11 percent of the vote in the European Parliament elections in June 1984. Carto’s Spotlight has praised Le Pen’s National Front as “France’s Populist Party,” and US rightists would like to emulate the French neo-fascists’ electoral successes.
I am not suggesting that the Populists have any realistic prospects of becoming a major electoral force. But I am claiming that Reaganism has permitted and encouraged the involvement of blatantly racist and anti-Semitic forces in the electoral arena to an unprecedented degree; that the ideological “glue” in the appeals of these formations to low- to middle-income whites is racism; and that the inevitable social by-product of the ultra-right’s mass political mobilization is terrorism and increased violence. Throughout 1984, literally hundreds of incidents of racially motivated random violence erupted across the USA, directly and indirectly provoked by these forces. Klansmen and racist vigilantes had an especially busy year. On 8 April, several hooded and robed Klansmen, passing out leaflets in Cedartown, Georgia, beat an eighteen-year-old black youth with brass knuckles; on 19 June, racists, leaving the message, “KKK: Nigger go home,” burned the home of an Indianapolis black woman; on August, a black family residing in a predominantly white neighborhood of Daytona Beach, Florida had a cross burned in their front yard; on 27 August, racist vandals leaving the mark “KKK” attacked a black church in a predominantly white Milwaukee suburb; on 7 October, three racist whites, in an unprovoked public assault, left a twenty-year-old black male a quadriplegic in Fontana, California.
Chicago probably experienced the greatest upsurge of racist violence, especially in the aftermath of the election of Harold Washington as the city’s first black mayor. The Chicago Police Department recorded 127 separate “racial incidents” in 1984, an increase of 23 percent over . The most dramatic were the firebombings of the parsonage of a black minister in suburban Hickory Hills on 26 August, and a six-hour-long stoning attack on the home of a black family by dozens of whites, who were said to be celebrating Reagan’s re-election. Racial brutality in the USA is hardly new. What is ominous is that such groups have openly entered the electoral arena in many states, working vigorously for independent rightists and/or conservatives in the major parties. In North Carolina, Klansmen organized white registration drives, and state leader Glenn Miller ran in the Democratic primary for governor “on an open Klan and white supremacy platform.” Klansmen in Georgia and Alabama succeeded in being named as county deputy voter registrars. Although some Klansmen gravitated to the Populist Party, most worked aggressively for Reagan’s re-election. The national leader of the Invisible Empire KKK, Bill Wilkinson, publicly endorsed the president.
Reagan created the social space or political environment for fascist and terrorist groups to operate with relative impunity. One example was the emergence of Taiwan-backed death squads, which since 1981 have assassinated eight prominent critics of the regime inside the USA. In the northwestern states, the Idaho-based “Church of Aryan Nations” has committed public beatings, robberies and several murders. Federal authorities investigating the formation have stated that the “Aryan Nations” maintains a computerized “hit list” that targets for assassination major figures in black, labor, Jewish, and Marxist organizations.
The latest innovation in the right’s vigilante forces is the series of bombings, threats and assaults on abortion and family-planning clinics. There were no bomb threats on such clinics between 1977 and 1980, and only four incidents during 1983. The following year, twenty-seven abortion clinics in seven states were firebombed by evangelical anti- abortionists and right-wing groups, frequently identifying themselves as the “Army of God.” A total of 157 “violent incidents” were reported last year, including assault and battery, kidnapping, vandalism, death threats, and attempted arson. A few neo-fascist groups, such as the southern California-based White American Resistance (WAR), have been formed in part to halt the extension of women’s legal rights to abortion. WAR leader, Tom Metzger, who ran openly as a Klansman for Congress in 1980, and for the Senate in 1982, has publicly attributed abortions to “Jewish doctors” and “perverted lesbian nurses” who “must be punished for this holocaust and murder of white children.” The Reagan administration’s response to these bombings was revealing. A national campaign by the National Organization of Women began on 2 March 1984, demanding that the US Justice Department investigate anti-abortion terrorism. On 1 August federal authorities finally agreed to begin to monitor the violence. However, Federal Bureau of Investigation director, William Webster, declared that he saw no evidence of “terrorism.” Only on 3 January 1985, in a pro-forma statement, did the president criticize the series of bombings as “violent anarchistic acts,” but he still refused to term them “terrorism.” Reagan deferred to Moral Majoritarian Jerry Falwell’s subsequent campaign — to have fifteen million Americans wear “armbands” on 22 January 1985, “one for every legal abortion” since 1973. Falwell’s anti-abortion outburst epitomized Reaganism’s orientation: “We can no longer passively and quietly wait for the Supreme Court to change their mind or for Congress to pass a law.” Extremism on the right was no vice, moderation no virtue. Or, as Hitler explained in Mein Kampf: “The very first essential for success is a perpetually constant and regular employment of violence.”
Read Part III of "Race and Realignment in American Politics"
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