Moving Inexorably to the Right Amid a History of Change

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“Don’t mourn, organize!” labor organizer Joe Hill said, which is the point of all political and social action and is somewhat lost in contemporary reality. There are many issues for which to organize action, but the torturous reality is that right-wing and neoliberal pushback has swept much of the US and Europe. The pushback began as a response of power and greed to the New Deal and was fueled by the anti-government actions of the Reagan administration. Instead of adding to programs of social uplift like the child tax credit at the height of the pandemic through the American Rescue Plan (2021), some programs are either pared down or eliminated following their implementation.

“Bolstered by the Rescue Plan, economic security programs overall (including long-standing programs) lifted 12.2 million children above the poverty line in 2021, also an all-time high. (The previous records were 10.7 million children in 2020, and before that, 9.0 million children in 2009.)”

How governments in the US and society in general, in the wealthiest nation, sees fit to punish children is beyond rational comprehension.

The attacks against social welfare programs are never allowed to impact so-called defense spending, well documented at Brown University’s Costs of War project.

Compassion and some measure of understanding must have consensus in a society and that is lacking here. The movement of the three branches of government to the right is obvious in a number of major issues that include the effects of income inequality fueled by a tax system that panders to the wealthy, policing, mass incarceration, women’s rights, war, and the environment. The slavish dedication to war and materialism, two issues in addition to racism that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about in his 1967 Riverside Church speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” are as vital to our survival as a species and other species as they were over a half-century ago. The religious right has adherents who are dedicated to bringing about a theocracy here based on an insane brand of right-wing religiosity and militarism that accepts the possibility of Armageddon as a means of salvation. The fundamentalist movement is light years removed from what came to be known as the Judeo-Christian ethic infused with humanism. Denying the value of my brother’s keeper, the right-wing fundamentalists have gone off of the rail of compassion and instead want punishment or banishment for their perceived enemies that include the political left. Many who have been harmed by the lack of economic sustenance want to punish others, a sort of Golden Rule turned on its head.

David Harris, the war resister from the Vietnam era, writer, and journalist lamented that the Vietnam and 60s’ generation did not expect the level of reaction which would come as a result of our actions and our politics. “No one yet had seen visions warp under the weight of the reactions they would produce.” (New York Times, February 7, 2023). The reaction to 60s’ activism are the culture wars and they persist today with attacks against Black and Brown people, women, environmentalists, those who are against war, and those who remain on the left who speak out and act. War remains popular among a majority in the US. The political right has seized on the US role as the world’s remaining superpower and the popularity of war. The far right will, if it suits the power elite, support war and policing, which in a domestic sense is war on the poor. Self-interest here is subsumed to cant. Most here support the attack of Israel in retaliation for Hamas’ October 7, 2023 incursion into Israel. The rules of war don’t make much difference to many here, and certainly not to the political and economic elite who will tolerate anything in the name of empire, imperialism, militarism, and profit. Sole superpower status following the fall of the former Soviet Union in 1991 left a power vacuum in its wake and the far right and neoliberals filled that void with full-spectrum global military dominance and continued domestic austerity. The latter is like poison to those of goodwill and those left standing from the 60s’ New Left.

The US economy became the plaything of financial elites while industrial centers were hollowed out leaving angry people behind.

The far right likes the benefits of science, but not the scientific method, which is informed by critical thinking and careful testing. That a vaccine denier, Robert Kennedy, Jr., has made hay in his attacks against vaccinations in general and the Covid-19 vaccines in particular, along with his slavish dedication to Israel, has made him the darling of some who wish to see conspiracies under every rock.

Where all of these right-wing trends and movements are going is not easy to discern as the power of international capitalism, driven by the economic elite in the US, doesn’t seem to know where to draw a line in the sand where greed and destruction of the Earth’s climate and any sense of peace and security are left to be scattered to the wind like so many seeds that will not find fertile ground in which to grow.

In the bluest of blue states, Massachusetts, I recently called a solar panel retailer whose signs have gone up in my area. This is the second time in a decade I’ve inquired about reducing our reliance on fossil fuels to heat our home and provide electricity. It would cost about $25,000 to purchase the panels with a substantial federal tax credit and some state and local assistance. The cost, even with the monetary inducements, would have been too much for the benefit gained. We would have lessened our dependency on fossil fuels, but would have derived no benefit, in fact we would have incurred a loss of actual dollars for adding the solar panels to our home. What the thinking here is, I do not know, and the two closest homes that have been fitted with solar panels belong to second-home owners. The Boston Globe (December 16, 2023) reports that Massachusetts, once a leader in solar energy, now lags behind. Western Massachusetts is mountainous and there are hardly any wind turbines on surrounding hills and mountain peaks. Mass Save, a state energy conservation organization, works through regional electric companies that rely on fossil fuels. That state program offers assistance to ensure homes are as energy efficient as possible, but within the downside of the fossil fuel equation. 

The New Left was a product of the Cold War and comfort for most. Early in its history there was a push for generational excellence within the rhetoric of anticommunism that would undergo radical realignment during the barbarous wars in Southeast Asia. The idea of a better world, no matter how naive in a landscape filled with bigotry and hate, was our loadstone. Environmentalism was yet to emerge as an issue, but it was near. Betty Friedan had critiqued women’s roles in society in The Feminine Mystique (1963), and we were on the cusp of the women’s movement. The civil rights movement for the soul of the US had already logged significant victories in Montgomery, Alabama and in the Supreme Court. David Halbertam’s The Fifties (1994) catalogued the important societal changes of the 1950s that would awaken many in the 1960s. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament moved from Britain across the world in the 1950s. The New Left moved from the Four Freedoms of the New Deal and wanted a new deal for those left behind by society: it was the simple ideal of a better and newer world.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).