5 Keys To Defeating the New Right

Not such a bad week, huh? Thank you, American People!

There I was, trying to choose the subject of my blog post from a list that included: A) celebrating the deliciously humiliating defeat of the Trump-Ryan bill to repeal the ACA/Obamacare; B) celebrating Senate Democrats announcing they will filibuster the Gorsuch SCOTUS nomination; C) celebrating the House intelligence committee chairman’s meltdown over reported FBI surveying of Trump during the campaign and the transition–which proved Trump lied (again) in having blamed Obama for wiretapping, and which actually implicates Trump himself in what are possibly treasonous dealings with an antagonistic foreign power; D) celebrating that the above is due to superbly incompetent governing by the Trump regime and Trump GOP—and due even more to the rallies and town halls and phone calls made by you, the American people.

Oh, and: E) celebrating that the Nevada legislature endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment—35 years after the Congressional deadline for passage (Ooops again for Congress) but a heartening sign for the ERA’s renewed drive.

Women’s work is never done.

Instead of overdoing celebration, I decided to look at some other countries facing their own New Right surges—because it’s pertinent to our struggle here. And I decided to view this through an electoral lens, because of a personal loss this past week.

Leticia Ramos Shahani died on March 20, at age 87, in Manila, The Philippines. She was a former Philippine senator (the first female president pro tem of that Senate), and she was an ambassador, representing the Philippines in Romania, Hungary, the then-GDR of East Germany, and also in Australia. When she spoke out against corruption once too often at home, the international arena became a safer work venue. So Letty became a major official of the United Nations, chairing the UN commission on the Status of Women in 1974, becoming Assistant Secretary General for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs 1981-1986, and in 1985 serving as Secretary-General of the Third United Nations World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya. She was soft-spoken, had a sharp intellect, and was given to such wry understatements as “The world of diplomacy is not a woman friendly profession. We have to compete with the men—which I think I did quite successfully, if I may say so.” Although she had been born into a prominent family (former Philippine President Fidel Ramos was her brother) she fought her own battles, and she didn’t forget details, like having promised to build a new pigsty for the women farmers’ collective of a mountain village in Bontoc. She mentored an entire generation of younger women, and she was a tireless feminist, a sister, and a friend.

Although I’m a creature of the pen, and of organizing and street activism, Letty, like our own great Congresswoman Bella Abzug, never let me forget or dismiss the importance of electoral politics. Which brings us to today’s subject.

In case you missed it, the Netherlands center-Right Prime Minister Mark Rutte won against Geert Wilders, a virulent Right-wing extremist with a puffy blond mop reminiscent of you know who. Wilders campaigned for closing mosques, sealing the borders against Muslims, outlawing the Koran, and levying taxes on women who wear headscarves in public. With 28 parties on the ballot, Wilders could have won a plurality, which would have put wind in the sails of Europe’s other nationalist-populist New Right candidates, including France’s Marine Le Pen, who faces voters in April, and German Right-wing nationalists who will challenge Angela Merkel in the fall. This, after a squeaker three months ago in Austria, when the Right almost triumphed—but didn’t.

There are lessons here, especially for those of us who cling to the Bernie-Sanders-economics-only analysis to explain our own election. Europe’s New Right, which has emerged over the past decade or so, casts a much wider net than economics—focusing on fear, nostalgia, ethno-nationalism, and resentment of so-called elites (sound Trumpian?). Even more tellingly—and Marine Le Pen is a perfect example of this—these far Rightists have repositioned themselves, making public breaks with symbols of the past, distancing themselves from skinheads, homophobes, and neo-Nazis. They’ve tried to co-opt some of our rhetoric, policies, and constituencies. They defend a strong welfare state and the protection of social benefits, and pretend to embrace secularism, women’s rights, and same-sex rights. Then they target foreigners, especially Muslims, as the main threat to these issues.

Make no mistake, this is effective. It means groups that previously wouldn’t be caught dead voting for a far Right party–feminists, young people, gay and lesbian people, the Jewish community, etc.–might actually join many of Europe’s working-class or less educated voters to strengthen a new, authoritarian, nationalist Right. On top of this, these parties are cleverly fielding front-women.

Marine Le Pen is the best known, but Germany’s Frauke Petri, a former businesswoman; Norway’s Siv Jensen, a wannabe Thatcherite; and Denmark’s Pia Kjaersgaard, founder of the Right-wing Danish People’s Party and currently speaker of the Danish Parliament; all these women are leading or recently have led what were once fringe parties. (Pauline Hanson, an Australian MP whose anti-Muslim One Nation party was just beaten back by the center-left Labour Party, is another.) These women don’t support women’s rights, oh no. No prioritizing reproductive or employment rights, no linkage with ethnic, racial, and other human-rights constituencies, although women are half of all oppressed groups.

Instead, the new European Right wields gender like a hammer against immigration—claiming that attacks on women in some Muslim communities are evidence of Islam’s existential threat to European principles (as if Europe has always been a paradise for women). Le Pen famously said, “I am scared that the migrant crisis signals the beginning of the end of women’s rights.” Yet violence against women and, for that matter, sexism and women’s rights in general never concerned these Rightists before—unless as issues they denounced for being “anti-family.” Now, however, they position themselves as defenders of women (meaning “their” women) against sexual assault and harassment by “the Other”–refugees, immigrants, Muslims. Conveniently, they ignore the migrant women fleeing countries left broken by European colonialism to begin with.

The populism of Europe’s nationalist Right doesn’t draw that many female voters—yet. But Somini Sengupta reported in The New York Times that a study of 17 European countries found women avoided voting for the radical Right less because of ideology than because of its rough, overbearing, mean-spirited political style—that is, the Right’s association with historic violence, and its general stigmatization by the public. After all, Europe has experienced populist dictatorial power for real, in all its Hitlerian/Mussolini/Franconian/Salazarian/Stalinesque horror. Today’s New Right knows that, too, so this is where the candidate’s sex can make a difference, since female politicians are represented as softer. Le Pen’s prospects depend hugely on her ability to woo women, which she openly acknowledges as a priority.

This means a number of things for us here in the U.S. Not necessarily in order of priorities—because these days everything is a priority—I offer the following five key points. (I reserve the right to add to this list later on. You should too!)

5 Keys To Defeating the New Right

1) We must face the reality that the basic, underlying reasons for our own election’s results were sexism and racism, although economics—along with our weird electoral college system, Russian interference, James Comey’s letter dropping a week before election day, Bill Clinton’s brainless meeting with Loretta Lynch on an airport tarmac, and a zillion other elements—fed into those results.

2) We damned well have to field our own women, real feminist candidates, hordes of them—and fund them, support them, be them ourselves—across this country in unprecedented numbers. We need to do this because of the policies they/we stand for, and yes, for their “style,” by which I do not mean their fashion sense. And we need to relentlessly connect our candidates (female and male) with their positions on women’s and all other human rights, and relentlessly point out the anti-feminist politics of faux feminist politicians. It’s the values, Stupid, not the vagina.

3) We have to address—and here feminists, like other progressives, have been asleep—knee-jerk dogmatism on the Left. Like Leftist reflex opposition to globalization, which winds up blurring with Right-wing ethno-nationalism. Like anti-First-Amendment protests that turn violent against campus speakers, however odious they are. Like some students refusing to read Mark Twain because of his portrayals of racism or to read Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple because of a feared rape “trigger effect.” (Trigger effects, an important psychological discovery, have been in some circumstances misused, wielded as bludgeons against exposure to soul-expanding literature.) These may be understandable tyrannies exercised by young people who otherwise feel powerless—but they’re corrosive and counterproductive as tactics. When we allow shrinkage of our thought we weaken our own arguments and add fuel to Rightist attacks on so-called political correctness.

4) We need to get seriously pluralist, which means respecting and defending each other’s individual belief systems, but also seriously secularist in our politics—as the Framers intended. In fact, the pluralism is made possible by the secularism. This also means that we need to get honest, and stop saying that Islam is at heart a religion of peace, when–like every other patriarchal religion—it’s not. For one thing, when well-meaning non-Muslims unambiguously defend Islam, they undercut progressive Muslims struggling against their own fundamentalists. For another, it’s unarguable that some Islamic texts—like those in the Torah and the Bible’s Old Testament and some of the New Testament; like many Hindu texts; like teachings of all other patriarchal religions—endorse violence. These religions were formed by rudimentary beliefs of the tribal cultures from which they all sprang–patriarchal cultures that fought for territory and supremacy. The problem is religion–which I grant is harder to confront but ultimately must be engaged. At the very least, though, we need to continuously put into context any violence committed in the name of Islam with violence committed in the name of Christianity by the KKK, the Timothy McVeighs, and the American Christian Militia movement, and with Hindu fundamentalist violence encouraged by the Modi government in India, with Zionist violence at the founding of Israel and by today’s Settler movement militants, with religious violence in contemporary Japan, even with Buddhist violence in south Asia, and so on, ad nauseam.

5) We feminists need to get sharper, faster, less accommodating, edgier, more audacious. We need to present voters with the real thing, exposing Right-wing fake versions. We need to recognize our numbers, our appeal, our energy, and our strength, all of which are evident in the phenomenon of sustained grass-roots uprisings and citizen actions taking place across the United States, the substantial majority of which have been organized and are being led by women.

We need to recognize the enormity of our own politics—and carry ourselves accordingly. We’ve been the answer all along.