"Berlet and Lyons show how large numbers of disaffected Americans have embraced right–wing populism
in a misguided attempt to challenge power relationships in U.S. society.
Highlighted are the dangers these groups pose for the future of our political system"
Publisher Blurb (2000)
Winner—Outstanding Book Award, Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America
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What are the Core Elements of Right-Wing Populism?
Populism: Progressive or Regressive?
Progressive Populism can challenge the status quo and out-organize elites with mass movements that accomplish real change by working outside of political parties to force fundamental changes in economic, political, and social structures.
Regressive Right-Wing Populism claims to defend “the people” against a threat by crafty elites or sinister subversives. Throughout history, however, right-wing populism has been manipulated by demagogues to attack a demonized scapegoated group. This mobilizes a mass base that merely replaces one faction of the 1% with another.
Michael Kazin calls populism a style of organizing. A populist movement—as opposed, for example, to one-shot populist appeals in an election campaign—uses populist themes to mobilize a mass constituency as a sustained political or social force.
Canovan argues: all forms of populism “involve some kind of exaltation of and appeal to ´the people,´ and all are in one sense or another antielitist.” We take these two elements—celebration of “the people” plus some form of antielitism—as a working definition of populism.
A populist movement—as opposed, for example, to one-shot populist appeals in an election campaign—uses populist themes to mobilize a mass constituency as a sustained political or social force. Our discussion of populism will focus mainly on populist movements.
Populist movements can be on the right, the left, or in the center. They can be egalitarian or authoritarian, and can rely on decentralized networks or a charismatic leader. They can advocate new social and political relations or romanticize the past.
Especially important for our purposes, populist movements can promote forms of antielitism that target either genuine structures of oppression or scapegoats alleged to be part of a secret conspiracy. And they can define “the people” in ways that are inclusive and challenge traditional hierarchies, or in ways that silence or demonize oppressed groups.
Repressive Populism and Right-Wing Populism
We use the term repressive populist movement to describe a populist movement that combines antielite scapegoating (discussed below) with efforts to maintain or intensify systems of social privilege and power. Repressive populist movements are fueled in large part by people’s grievances against their own oppression but they deflect popular discontent away from positive social change by targeting only small sections of the elite or groups falsely identified with the elite, and especially by channeling most anger against oppressed or marginalized groups that offer more vulnerable targets.
Right-wing populist movements are a subset of repressive populist movements. A right-wing populist movement, as we use the term, is a repressive populist movement motivated or defined centrally by a backlash against liberation movements, social reform, or revolution. This does not mean that right-wing populism’s goals are only defensive or reactive, but rather that its growth is fueled in a central way by fears of the Left and its political gains.
The first U.S. populist movement we would unequivocally describe as right wing was the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, which was a counterrevolutionary backlash against the overthrow of slavery and Black people’s mass mobilization and empowerment in the post-Civil War South. Earlier repressive populist movements paved the way for right-wing populism, but did not have this same backlash quality as a central feature.
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