from the book
Sharing the Pie
by Steve Brouwer
When Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union disappeared at
the end of the 1980s, the frightening vision of "the evil
empire" no longer served to distract our citizens from the
distressing realities of economic inequality. As a short-term
diversion, Saddam Hussein was built up into a Hitler substitute
by the media, but most Americans were never convinced that his
weak regime posed any real danger.
While it is possible that we will again resurrect the Japanese,
the Chinese, or worse yet, Asians in general as the "Yellow
Peril," American anger is likely to be focused in a different,
more ominous direction. Our patriotic fervor is now being turned
inward, in search of evil aliens at home. New authoritarianism,
sanctimonious attention to the flag, and ever-more obvious appeals
to racism were found in the increasingly strident conservatism
that evolved during the 1980s. By the first half of the 1990s,
there was extraordinary enthusiasm for right-wing talk shows featuring
virulent personalities such as Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy.
Popular expressions of anger and hatred were apparent throughout
American culture, sometimes accompanied by eruptions of violence.
* The Religious Right spewed a steady stream of epithets at
advocates of abortion. Attacks against clinics and their personnel
rose from 52 in I988 to 267 in 1993.
* A militia movement using extreme anti-government rhetoric
drew primarily on the marginalized, working-class white population.
Members and supporters stockpiled military weaponry, sent letter
bombs to liberal judges and lawyers, engaged in bank robberies,
and sought to intimidate public officials throughout the nation.
One set of sympathizers, operating on the fringe of the movement,
staged the massive bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma
* Random hate crimes were perpetrated against people perceived
to be "different," particularly Latino and Asian immigrants,
African-Americans, and gays and lesbians. There were arson attacks
on thirty-one African-American churches in the South between 1989
and 1996, fifteen of them occurring between December 1995 and
* In many places the majority of people advocated legal means
of punishing or discriminating against expressions of sexuality.
Teenagers were sent to jail for fornication in Idaho. Citizens
of the state of Colorado passed a referendum justifying discrimination
against gays and lesbians.
By the mid-1990s, the American social and political landscape
had changed so much that forces formerly on the margins of conservatism
were now mainstream. The Christian Coalition, which had fewer
than 5,000 members in 1989, grew to 1.7 million members in a couple
of thousand chapters by 1996, and became the respectable grassroots
organizing mechanism for the Republican Party. When populist economic
issues were raised during the 1996 election campaign, it was the
right wing, not the left, that did the most effective job of exploiting
them. Pat Buchanan, who had written celebrations of free trade
and driven a Mercedes during the 1980s, was now attacking big
business: "General Motors has become a transnational corporation
that sees its future in low-wage countries and in abandoning American
When Buchanan playfully contemplated an attack of "pitchfork-wielding
commoners" against "the castles" of the investing
class, he was eased out of the campaign picture by Christian Coalition
director Ralph Reed and establishment Republicans. This conflict
between populism and authoritarianism within the Republican Party
was not a sign of weakness; rather it demonstrated that ultraconservatives
had taken over a great deal of social and political territory
and that the various forces of the right had plenty of room to
jockey for leadership.
Astute social commentators had been anticipating this rightward
shift since the early 1980s. Bertram Gross predicted, in his book
Friendly Fascism, that the United States might arrive at a gentler
form of the virulent ultranationalism, anti-labor activity, and
racism which coalesced into fascism in Europe in the 1930s.4 Corporate
America would tolerate such a rightward drift, so the argument
went, because more government restrictions on personal freedom
would enhance business efforts to discipline the labor force and
increase corporate profits.
This critique had its counterpart in a well-articulated viewpoint
coming from the center-right. Kevin Phillips's book Post-Conservative
America suggested that populist concern in grassroots America
might be focused either on economic equality or on a reactionary
social agenda. He pointed out the similarities between the ideas
of the New Right in America and the beliefs of the European "Conservative
Revolutionaries" of the early 1900s, which made possible
the rise of fascism. Both were: 1) extremely nationalistic and
patriotic, and partial to authoritarian solutions; 2) anti-secular,
and anti-humanist, taking their inspiration from newly invented
"traditional" religion; 3) anti-liberal and supportive
of a restoration of "old morality." When analyzing the
growing strength of the Republican Party, especially in the South,
Phillips cautioned that "any Sun Belt hegemony over our politics
has a unique potential . . . to accommodate a drift toward apple-pie
Ironically, Phillips, as an adviser to Richard Nixon in 1968,
had helped map out the "Southern Strategy" that was
partly responsible for this shift. Republicans had been impressed
by the strengths of third-party candidate George Wallace in 1968
and decided to cater to the social conservatism of many white
voters, both southerners and northerners, who otherwise were quite
satisfied with the Democrats and their New Deal politics. The
successful Republican strategy, which later stooped to open race-baiting,
lured many southern white Protestants and northern ethnic voters
away from their 150-year allegiance to the Democratic Party. By
1996, the Republican Party was led by southerners: Speaker of
the House Newt Gingrich of Georgia; Senate Majority Leader Trent
Lott of Mississippi; House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas.
Apparently the Sun Belt's move to the forefront of American politics-political
analyst Samuel Lobell called this "the mechanization of the
Southern Baptists"-was complete.
It is possible that the next economic downturn-or stock market
crash-will bring on further developments. During the recession
at the end of the 1980s, ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke gathered
strong support from disgruntled citizens in Louisiana for his
gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races. Voters did not seem to be
bothered by his record, which included plenty of statements like:
"The Jews have been working against our national interest....
I think they should be punished."
Bertram Gross and Kevin Phillips had each foreseen part of
a process that engendered remarkable tolerance for authoritarian
political solutions. Gross correctly identified the kind of authority
that the corporate world wanted to exercise over working- and
middle-class Americans. Phillips was perceptive about the way
ordinary Americans would participate in actually constructing
a more harsh and restrictive social milieu. By the l990s the two
strands were coalescing into something we could call "Authoritarian
Democracy." Today it is clear that the goals of the corporate
rich can be furthered by the enthusiasms of the popular classes,
especially in the realms of religion.
Corporate Power Upheld by the Courts
The Supreme Court has also helped to impose social control.
Although it was a champion of civil and individual rights in the
tenure of the Warren Court, the Court has more often played an
important role in suppressing the rights and welfare of working
Americans by championing the prerogatives of the wealthy. After
the Civil War, as the United States economy came under the control
of corporations and the newly emergent upper class of stockholders,
the Supreme Court acted to protect the freedom of corporations
to invest and make money without hindrance.
During the era of the Robber Barons, the Court made use of
the 14th Amendment, which, ironically, had originally been written
to guarantee citizenship and equal civil rights to ex-slaves at
the end of the Civil War. The Court invoked the amendment to define
the corporation as a "person" under the law. This meant
that government could not interfere with the activities of this
corporate "person" lest it be guilty of abridging citizens'
rights. This interpretation came in response to the fact that
in the 1880s many states and localities were trying to limit corporate
power, protect the rights and health of workers, and encourage
public alternatives to corporate ownership. The Court granted
corporations their almost unlimited power with the Santa Clara
decision of 1886, in which it sided with the Union Pacific Railroad
in its struggle to escape regulation by the state of California.
In the same year the Court invalidated 230 other state laws that
had been passed to regulate corporations. Justice David J. Brewer
clarified the defining issue during a speech to the New York Bar
Association in 1893, when he said: "It is the unvarying law
that the wealth of the community will be in the hands of the few."
From the time of the Civil War to the tenure of Franklin Roosevelt,
the majority of justices, men from upper-class backgrounds and/or
corporate law practices, were sympathetic toward this interpretation
of the Constitution. At the same time the Court was reluctant
to use the 14th Amendment for its original intent, which was to
protect African-Americans, and it was not until the 1954 Brown
v. Board of Education decision that the Supreme Court began to
strike down most of the state and local laws that allowed segregation
and discrimination. According to Justice Hugo Black, writing in
Of the cases in this Court in which the Fourteenth Amendment
was applied during the first fifty years after its adoption, less
than one-half of one percent invoked it in protection of the Negro
race, and more than fifty percent asked that its benefits be extended