ALTHOUGH it’s unlikely the US Family Protection Act(FPA) will ever see the light of day, that doesn’t mean Americans should sit back and forget about it It may sound like an innocuous piece of legislation. In fact the Family Protection Act provides us with the agenda of a growing right-wing movement in the US. This ‘pro-family’ lobby believes social stability and free enterprise are based firmly on a strong nuclear family which it claims is being threatened by misguided liberals and other ‘deviants’.
The FPA was originally launched by Republican Senator Paul Laxalt in September 1979. Laxalt who one year later would be Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager, already had the support of a growing pro-family movement busily stirring up publicity and churning out letters of support for the bill. But, apart from the converted, few people took much notice. However the 1980 elections, which parachuted Mr Reagan into the Whitehouse and put a new Republican majority in the Senate. suddenly forced people to examine the growing clout of this new political force.
In the guise of defending traditional values the’ New Right’ has organized a vast network of conservative organisations with the aid of modern computer technology. They have also managed to release the fears and frustrations of millions of ‘plain folks’ and turn them against convenient targets supposedly in defense of ‘God, Family and Country’. Lesbians and gays, feminists, Blacks, Jews, labour unions and radicals: all are targeted as the cause of so-called social chaos and moral laxity.
The New Right is distinguished from the old by its emphasis on social over economic issues, many of which have been lumped together under the pro-family banner.
The FPA makes it clear that the New Right wants to protect parents’ power over children and husbands’ power over wives. They claim to oppose government intervention. In fact they are against Washington intervening to protect the rights of women and children. For example, the FPA would lessen federal regulation of state child-abuse programs and forbid the Legal Services Administration from providing legal assistance in divorce cases.
Family protection also means undermining the autonomy of publicly funded schools. The bill would strengthen the ability of community groups to censor books and curricula they deem offensive. It also includes a provision forcing textbooks and educational materials to depict men and women in clearly-defined sex roles. Antiabortion and anti- homosexual measures spice up the package.
But rather than attempting to pass the whole FPA package, pro-family advocates are breaking it down into individual bills, hoping to divide and conquer. Right-wing strategists see the potential of single-issue groups to create a mass base for their views. This has given birth to many new conservative single-issue organizations like the National Right to Life Committee, an antiabortion group. And it has also boosted the memberships of older organizations like the National Right to Work Committee, an anti-union group.
New Right leader Richard A Viguerie says the movement sparked to life in 1974 when ex-President Gerald Ford picked Nelson Rockefeller as his vice-president For Viguerie and his friends, this was the last straw. A liberal Republican, Rockefeller represented the heart of the Eastern Establishment they loathed. Real conservatives, they reckoned, needed new leaders leaders who were determined to win.
And Viguerie had the perfect machines to back them up: computers. He slotted his own ‘direct mail’ business a small company with just one client (Young Americans for Freedom) into the very nerve centre of the new social movement Traditionally used to sell magazine subscriptions and raise funds for charity, direct mail marketing was now used as a political weapon. Viguerie’s clients, all conservative organizations, began by giving him their mailing lists and hiring him to send letters asking for contributions. Over the years he added additional lists, cross-indexed and referenced them. By 1980 his computers held an estimated 4.5 million names all with a history of giving to conservative causes.
After tapping into already-politicized single-issue groups, New Right leaders turned their attention to the Christian fundamentalist revival taking root across the US. They developed alliances with ‘media ministers like Rev. Jerry Falwell, encouraging them to promote the New Right political platform in their sermons. Three nation-wide political pressure groups were organized:
Christian Voice, Religious Roundtable and Falwell’s infamous Moral Majority. These groups contribute to the zealousness of the New Right by giving people the self-righteousness of believing God is on their side.
Their God is highly partisan. One New Right leader maintained, ‘God does not hear the prayer of a Jew’. Another spokesman suggested capital punishment for homosexuality.
If God is used to defend the nuclear family, so is the nation. In introducing the bill to Congress Laxalt argued that countries without a nuclear family structure were weak. New Right literature makes defending the family seem like a national defence strategy. Just as the FPA seeks to restore the father to his rightful place as ruler of the family the New Right would like to restore US control over the rest of the world. Their platform promotes nuclear families and nuclear arms.
New Right leaders meet biweekly to coordinate policy and strategy. Decisions are enacted by the individual groups: the Heritage Foundation does background research; political action committees allocate money to right-wing candidates: the media preachers spread the word; and Viguerie’s computers spew out letters to the single-issue group members soliciting money and support.
Despite this sophisticated network, the New Right has failed to bring social issues to to forefront of the Republican agenda Recent filibusters have stopped them from pushing through voluntary prayer and antiabortion legislation for the time being.
Business’s position on the social agenda of the New Right is ambivalent The status quo of unequal wages for women clearly favours the corporate sector but support for the nuclear family is not so clear cut As the service sector and high-technology industries come to dominate the US and world economies the demand for women workers increases. Business men may want these women in the office but the New Right wants them back in the kitchen.
They have made a lot of noise, hut does the New Right really pose a threat? Their record does show some legislative victories. With the help of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazis the New Right is creating a climate where hatred and even violence against feminists, lesbians, gay men, Blacks. Chicanos, Vietnamese, Jews and radicals is acceptable. This is reason enough to worry.
But the New Right also holds other lessons. Their campaigns have touched something deep for millions of Americans who yearn for something to believe in. The Right answers this need with traditional institutions: the Nation, the Church and the Family. While the Left may criticize these institutions, that is not enough. To gain widespread support it needs convincing alternatives that provide real meaning in people’s lives.
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