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The truth about the conservative movement
What's behind the rise of the right?

January 21, 2005 | Pages 8 and 9

IT SEEMS that if liberals and conservatives can agree on one thing about Election 2004, it's that America lurched to the right.

White House strategist Karl Rove claims that millions of previously "unmobilized" evangelical Christians poured forth to the polls for Bush. Bill Clinton declared that John Kerry lost because liberal Democrats failed to engage "the Christian evangelical community in a serious discussion of what it would take to promote a real culture of life."

The talking heads of the mainstream media couldn't agree more. This election, they say, was proof that masses of "overwhelmingly conservative" voters are organizing to "take America back."

But who is leading this new right-wing charge? And does the Bush administration and its agenda really speak to millions of people who are hungry for a new conservative populism? NICOLE COLSON looks at who and what is behind America's "new right."

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JAMES DOBSON has a message for the Bush administration: You owe me, and I'll be calling to collect--soon.

Dobson told a reporter that a "White House operative" called him following the election to thank him for his help in getting out the conservative vote. The founder of the right-wing Christian lobbying group Focus on the Family says he had a warning for the White House: The Bush administration has four years to pass an amendment banning same-sex marriage, to stop abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, and, most of all, to remake the Supreme Court. "I believe that the Bush administration now needs to be more aggressive in pursuing those values, and if they don't do it, I believe they will pay a price in four years," he said.

Dobson has the political muscle to back up his big talk, too. When Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) told fellow Republicans that anti-choice nominations to the Supreme Court might not be able to win confirmation in the Senate, an outraged Dobson launched a campaign to deny Specter the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee--forcing the senator to quickly backpedal on his comments.

How can someone like Dobson--a man who got his start authoring Christian self-help books that encourage parents to paddle their children--have become known as, in the words of conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan, the "social policy director of the White House"?

For a start, an annual budget of $146 million (tax-exempt, of course). Despite the right wing's pose as a "grassroots underdogs," Focus on the Family and other similar organizations have annual operating budgets that run into the tens of millions.

They use this cash to carry out a host of well-organized political initiatives. During this past election alone, Dobson's group set up voter-registration efforts in eight swing states, gave a $60,770 donation in support of an Oregon ballot measure to ban gay marriage, and created a political action committee that staged rallies in North Carolina, Louisiana and South Dakota. The group also mailed letters to 150,000 supporters in eight states saying that senators who blocked a vote on a Constitutional amendment banning equal marriage "had actually planned to vote against the idea that every child ought to have a mom and a dad."

While Dobson's group is one of the best organized, it certainly isn't alone. With names like Concerned Women for America (headed, predictably enough, by a virulently anti-choice man), the Family Research Council and the Traditional Values Coalition, they present themselves as a grassroots movement of conservative populists--a silent majority moved to action by the "liberal" Clinton years.

But in reality, the right-wing machine is well oiled with corporate money and--increasingly--government funding.

Over the past five years, the federal government has handed out an estimated $1.7 billion in "faith-based initiatives"--money that flowed directly into the coffers of groups like Focus on the Family. And according to the Washington Post, the White House is getting ready for a new initiative to persuade states to use an additional $50 billion of federal money to subsidize "faith-based" programs.

The right also controls some of Washington's most influential think tanks. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is a prime example. A leading conservative think-tank, the AEI has an annual budget of about $25 million. More than a dozen people connected to it landed senior positions in the Bush administration.

While the AEI takes up conservative social issues--such as the so-called "culture war" and education "reform"--it can hardly be called representative of ordinary people. Past and present members of the AEI's board of directors include the CEOs of ExxonMobil, Motorola, American Express, State Farm Insurance and Dow Chemical. The group is bankrolled by some of the richest and most conservative corporations in the U.S.--among them, General Electric, Kraft, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Eastman Kodak, Metropolitan Life and Proctor & Gamble.

Famous former members include Vice President Dick Cheney, former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay and ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Not exactly working-class "outsiders" or outstanding examples of "moral values."

But for all their money and organization, the right wing isn't unbeatable--and it doesn't represent some kind of "silent majority." For all the hype about "moral values" deciding the election, it's worth remembering that the percentage of voters who said this issue was most important to them was less than a quarter--and that's among the roughly 55 percent of the population that bothered to vote.

Yet the question remains: How has the right wing gotten away with the charade of pretending that it stands up for the interests of ordinary people?

One part of the explanation is that the rise of privately run, faith-based welfare operations has coincided with the federal government's drive to slash the social safety net. The reason private programs can gain support isn't necessarily because people accept the conservative or religious ideas behind them, but because they offer concrete assistance at the very time with government programs are being cut back.

The way to challenge such developments isn't for progressives to adopt more conservative politics--as Democrats like Bill Clinton counsel--but to fight for government programs that provide what people need.

But if the Democrats no longer champion increased social spending to aid working people--such as a national health care system or a jobs program--it's because the party's corporate backers oppose such measures. That's why Democrats try to compete with the Republicans for a narrow group of conservative voters--playing on the right's own turf.

The right wing succeeded in making gay marriage an issue in the campaign not only because it sank millions of dollars into public scapegoating, but because John Kerry and the Democrats refused to challenge their bigotry. A similar retreat has been underway for years on the issue of abortion rights, and leading Democrats are trying to further "moderate" their position.

The real lesson of Election 2004 isn't that America has turned right, but that the Republicans will be able to get away with almost anything if the Democrats try to be as much like the GOP as possible. When only one side bothers to argue, only one side will win.

The job of building an opposition to the right wing requires the building of genuine grassroots movements that can mount uncompromising resistance to the right wing's agenda.

A cabinet packed with fanatics

AS HE starts his second term, George W. Bush says he plans to spend some of the "political capital" he claims to have won in the November election. He'll have the help of a new crop of right-wing advisers and cabinet members--as well some of the more ruthless holdovers from his first term, like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and newly tapped Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

Alberto Gonzales, Bush's choice for attorney general, is the best known of the new faces. The man who advised Bush on executions when he was the governor of Texas and wrote a memo describing the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war as "quaint" will almost certainly win confirmation as the highest law enforcement official in the land.

Bush's first choice to replace outgoing Homeland Security Czar Tom Ridge, Bernard Kerik, had to withdraw because of a scandal. Now the White House has come up with a second nominee: Federal judge Michael Chertoff, a former U.S. attorney who also spent time as the head of the Justice Department's Criminal Division during part of Bush's first term.

Chertoff has long-standing ties to the right-wing Federalist Society--the pro-tax cut, anti-environment, anti-civil rights group that helped drum up the impeachment scandal against Bill Clinton.

After September 11, Chertoff helped craft the USA PATRIOT Act. And he helped engineer the detention of thousands of foreign nationals on immigration violations and "material witness" warrants. Not a single one was ever charged with a crime related to terrorism.

According to author Stephen Brill, Chertoff argued that if the detainees succeeded in getting hearings, the proceedings "could not only be done in secret, but also could be delayed, and that even after the hearings were held and they were ordered deported, there was nothing in the law that said they absolutely had to be deported immediately. They could be held still longer." Brill reports that, under immigration rules, prisoners "were entitled to call a lawyer from jail, but the lists the INS provided of available lawyers invariably had phone numbers that were not in service."

Perhaps the most fanatical right winger to join the administration is Bush's new chief domestic policy adviser Claude Allen.

Notoriously antigay and anti-choice, Allen, who is Black, was once an aide to racist Sen. Jesse Helms--and stuck by Helms even as he filibustered legislation to make Martin Luther King's birthday a federal holiday. During Helms' 1984 re-election campaign, Allen accused Helms' conservative Democratic challenger, Gov. James Hunt, of having links to "radical feminists" and "queers."

Later, as commissioner of Virginia's Department of Health and Human Services, Allen worked to defeat--and then delay the implementation of--legislation that provided health insurance for children of the working poor. Why? Primarily because it covered abortion services for rape and incest victims under the age of 18.

For the last four years, Allen has been making his mark at the Department of Health and Human Services. According to journalist Doug Ireland, Allen oversaw an audit of department spending on HIV-prevention programs that targeted AIDS service organizations (ASOs) whose staff members had disrupted Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson's speech to the 14th Annual International AIDS Conference in Barcelona.

"These audits were designed to intimidate ASOs into abandoning AIDS advocacy," wrote Ireland. "A number of ASOs, like San Francisco's Stop AIDS Project and half a dozen other California AIDS-fighting groups, were ultimately purged from receiving U.S. funding by the Allen-led witch-hunt because Allen didn't like their science-based sex-education programs."

Now, as domestic policy czar, Allen will, among other things, help oversee and distribute billions of dollars toward "faith-based initiatives."

Paying for Bush's party

WASHINGTON, D.C., taxpayers will have to pay millions of dollars for a party they aren't even invited to.

George W. Bush will celebrate four more years with a blow-out inauguration--including nine balls and festivities costing in excess of $40 million, paid for mainly by Corporate America. But his administration is refusing to reimburse the District for an estimated $17.3 million in security and logistics costs.

According to the Washington Post, the White House informed the District that it should cover the costs of the president's party with some of the $240 million in federal homeland security grants it received in the past three years.

D.C. officials say that fund can cover $5.4 million of the cost. But as for the other $12 million, there's no telling where the money will come from.

In 2000, the District was told to find $8 million to cover Bush's inauguration. This year, the cost to D.C. is more than double that. So in addition to spending nearly $9 million on overtime pay for D.C. police, taxpaying residents are being expected to cover the cost of more than 1,000 officers being sent in from across the country, as well as $3 million to construct stands along the inaugural route.

But while D.C. residents get their pockets picked, Corporate America will be lining up to do the opposite: fling enough cash at the Bush administration to get their voices heard. As the Post commented, "Wall Street investment firms seeking to profit from private Social Security accounts; oil, gas and mining companies pushing the White House to revive a stalled energy-subsidy bill; and hotels and casinos seeking an influx of immigrant labor are among the 44 interests that have each given $250,000 and the 66 that have donated $100,000 to $225,000. And the money keeps pouring in."

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