The company they keep

The company they keep

You might be surprised at what many on the right actually believe

There is a bit of common wisdom in modern American culture about the intersection of the debate between progressives and conservatives. It's often voiced by politicians, members of the media and a lot of average folks. You may have even espoused such a view yourself. It goes something like this:

"Both sides of the debate have their crazies – people out on the fringe. If you listen to what the advocates on both sides are saying, though, you can usually find a middle ground that takes some of the best ideas from both points of view and arrive at a moderate position."

At one level, the logic behind this statement makes a lot of sense. The basic tenets of the American experiment – democratic government, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, a broadly capitalist economy – clearly lie somewhere in between the extreme views espoused by neo-Fascists and religious theocrats on the right and Marxist collectivists on the left. From 30,000 feet above the scene, the truth of this characterization is hard to deny.

Zoom in a little closer, however, and the accuracy of this statement starts to wane – especially in recent decades. Check out the debate between progressives and conservatives here in North Carolina for example, and one cannot help be struck by the difference in the "extremism quotients" of the two sides.

The modern "left"

There is no doubt, that there have been times in America in which people on what might fairly be characterized as the "left" have enjoyed at least some notoriety and influence. In the lowest depths of the Great Depression, Socialist candidate and Presbyterian minister Norman Thomas polled around 2% of the vote in the 1932 presidential election. In the 1960's, when the Vietnam War was at its worst, an array of avowedly left grassroots movements like Students for a Democratic Society made some inroads in pushing the national political pendulum. Those old enough to have experienced the 1970's can remember that there was a time in the United States in which Richard Nixon flirted with the idea of replacing "welfare" with a guaranteed national minimum income and in which one could safely discuss nationalizing the oil industry without fear of physical assault.

Today, however, there is no organized "left" in the United States – much less in North Carolina. Indeed, none has existed for decades. While there are certainly a few left-leaning public figures – muckrakers and iconoclasts, ready to poke at the corporate establishment and its hirelings – there is no organized, ideologically driven movement.

Look no further than the virtual pages of Progressive Voices – where NC Policy Watch collects and displays the latest thinking of the state's progressive advocacy groups and their leaders. Read these essays and their modest pleas for government reform, an end to discrimination against women and minorities, tax fairness and some limits on environmental degradation. Most of these pieces are about as far "left" as a suburban PTA meeting.

The nutty right

Now compare this to what emanates on a daily basis from the right's propaganda shops and the cadre of lower rung academics on whom they rely for ideas. Listen to Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Savage, et al. Visit World Net Daily.

Unlike progressives, with their tepid and cautious calls for "reform," the right goes for the jugular. Where the "left" talks about "reform," the right calls for radical change: an overhaul of the U.S. Constitution, eradication of the wall between church and state, new definitions of citizenship, a revival of "state's rights" and "nullification." 

Next week, the Locke Foundation will sponsor an event it's calling "A Citizen's Constitutional Workshop." From all indications, this will be the group's latest worshipful homage to its favored selection of old, white men in wigs. This is from the official description:

"This workshop provides today's Patriots with the intellectual tools to restore original intent and repair the damage done. It explains what the framers meant by phrases such as the ‘general welfare,' ‘necessary and proper' and other so-called ‘elastic' clauses….By examining the important role of the states in the nation's beginning and providing constitutional commentary based on the founders' words, this workshop is a must for Americans interested in preserving the United States and a federal form of government."

In other words, you can be sure they'll spend some time at this event discussing and promoting "state's rights" – the extreme right-wing idea promoted by antebellum pre-Confederates and mid-20th Century segregationists, that America is not really a nation, but merely a collection of states that are free to "nullify" federal laws with which they disagree and even to secede.

If you think this is a joke or an exaggeration, then read some of the things that one of the "scholars" listed in the group of official endorsers of the event has to say, a "History Instructor" at Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Alabama named Dr. Brion McClanahan.

McClanahan, it seems, is a fairly prolific contributor to a number of groups and websites that promote some pretty far out ideas. On the "libertarian" site,, McClanahan wrote an article in which he derided Abraham Lincoln and the idea that the 16th president saved the union. According to McClanahan, the notion that Lincoln fought to save the union was a "shield…widely used in the North during the War for Southern Independence as a propaganda piece."(Emphasis supplied). He goes on to quote a Delaware state senator who once called Lincoln a "tyrant" and claims that Lincoln "forged a new centralized despotism."

On McClanahan's own site, he approvingly posts without comment a 1930 article by H.L. Mencken in which the brilliant but frequently unhinged old coot discusses "The Calamity of Appomattox." In it, Mencken writes optimistically of how much better the country would have been had the Confederacy emerged victorious from the Civil War.

"Whatever the defects of the new commonwealth below the Potomac, it would have at least been a commonwealth founded upon a concept of human inequality, and with a superior minority at the helm."

Lest you conclude that McClanahan's link to Mencken is some sort of lame attempt at humor, check out this article in which he quotes confederate patron saint John C. Calhoun and argues with a straight face that African-Americans in Alabama and Mississippi would be better off had those states been free to nullify federal laws or even secede.

We are not making this up.

Reality check for today's policy debate

Just about every day in North Carolina, mainstream news reporters and commentators hold up the staff of the Locke Foundation and their fellow travelers in the stable of Raleigh conservative think tanks as the voices of modern conservatism. This is a phenomenon that has been going on for the better part of two decades.

In some ways, this is understandable. These groups are certainly prolific and somewhat polished. They do a good job of playing the role of respectable researchers and experts. In truth, however, this image is an illusion. Dig just an inch or two beneath the surface and you quickly discover that these groups and the folks with whom they cavort are frequently out on (or aligned with) the wackiest, confederacy-celebrating, Constitution-rewriting, U.S. government-hating, extreme right-wing.

And while progressives certainly have their share of wacky individuals, conspiracy theorists and the like, North Carolina has no left equivalent – no movement of neo-Stalinists or Maoists yearning for the "good old days" even as they affiliate with or pretend to be mainstream analysts and commentators. One can only imagine what would occur if such a thing existed.

Let's hope that in the days ahead, more and more North Carolinians come to learn about the company that the "conservative" and "free market" think tanks keep. If they do, they might just rethink the way they look at the political spectrum.     

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.