Follow-Up: Part I: Populism and the Religious Right

We had 20 people on Thursday, including new member Jack and his friend (sorry – didn’t catch her name).  We also attracted several people who overheard us and stayed around, including Jonathan.  Semi-regulars Joe, Sharon, Bill, and Raphael rounded out the regulars, I think.

There are a ton of things I could mention for followup, so I’ll probably do more than one post.  For now, I wanted to emphasize one point.  In another post I’ll provide a bunch of links on other topics that came up during the meeting

I think I should have emphasized the religious right more in talking about populism.  Evangelical conservatives have been the major populist movement in the United States of the past 40 years.  They have persisted much longer than the ’60 left-wing movements (they latter were basically dead by 1973) and have had a far, far greater impact.  The reason is not some conspiracy of corporate elites.  It’s that there are so many more of them than the organized left ever attracted.

The religious right is a cultural populism.  Conventional wisdom says that the 1971 Roe v. Wade decision is what galvanized the movement.  This is true, but ignores a wide range of cultural and political changes that galvanized the movement.  Many of these were government/court decisions and policies that threatened the economic and cultural interests of white religious conservatives.  these included:

  • The outlawing of school prayer in 1962.
  • Desegregation in the South, which spurred Christians to create an entire network of evangelical private religious schools to avoid interactions with African-Americans.
  • Fear of escalating crime in the ’60s and 70s, beginning with the close to 150 (yes, 150) urban riots of the ’60s.
  • Feminism and the breakdown of traditional patriarchy.
  • The sexual revolution and its depiction in TV and the movies.

And on and on.  The point is that, in a time of rapid social change compounded by a political system that is embracing that change and accelerating it, many regular people become fearful and a backlash inevitably brews.  Think what you will about the Christian right, but the response by these traditional conservatives is rational, even if the organized movement is taken for a ride by other, more elite forces.

A question for on-line discussion:  Can the embryonic liberal populism of the Occupy movements thrive in the future without appealing to somebody’s cultural resentments?  If they could find some cultural buttons to push, what would they be?  Would that be a good thing, or, as Aaron implied, are cultural resentments like playing with fire — too inherently anti-liberal and anti-modern to base a politics on?

Your thoughts?


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