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In Memory of Jean Hardisty, Political Scientist and Activist

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It’s heartbreaking when we lose such a visionary in politics and social justice. Jean Hardisty, political scientist and activist, died this year on March 16 after battling Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. She founded Midwest Research in Chicago in 1981, which became Political Research Associates (PRA) in 1987 when it relocated to Boston. 

Hardisty founded PRA to produce investigative research and analysis on right-wing movements to support social justice advocates and defend human rights. It specializes in reproductive justice, civil liberties, economic justice, LGBTQ rights, and racial/immigrant justice. Social change activists, in fact, knew Jean as a public intellectual concerned with feminist and lesbian issues. In order to understand conservative leaders’ influence on voters, Hadisty sought to learn what made right-wing supporters click rather than demonize or scapegoat them. It was her goal to expose the leaders of the Right. 

She found the Left’s response to the rise of the New Right during the Reagan presidency inadequate and misguided. During her tenure as Executive Director of PRA, she taught Left activists not to underestimate the clout, finances, and the unifying vision of the Right. Patiently, she led her staff through analyses of elections, events and incidents on the local, state, and national level, and the work of the Right. Although the historical perspective she brought could be challenging, it was always reassuring. She matched the rigor of her research with the compassion, mentorship, and sense of humor her friends and colleagues cherish to this day. Those whose lives she touched will miss her dearly.

To honor her legacy and scholarship, we’re presenting an excerpt from Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers. The following passage is a shining example of her prescient insight and the hard work she put into advancing social justice causes.

image from www.beacon.orgLessons From The Right

The progressive movement can learn important lessons from the right’s success. First, dramatic social change can be achieved through the electoral system. It is not necessarily true, as many progressives have believed, that the electoral system can only deliver minor changes in the status quo. Second, moving into political dominance means recruiting new constituencies or winning to your side opposing and undecided constituencies. Third, movement-building institutionalizes a social movement and prevents the movement from collapsing during periods of electoral setback. Fourth, multiple strategies—both a national and a state/local focus, both religious and secular organizing, both an electoral and a movement-building focus, both single-issue and broadly ideological public education—protect the movement from electoral vicissitudes. And fifth, a movement must resonate with the public mood, so that its messages can “hitchhike” on it. While an effective movement helps create that mood, it is difficult to swing completely against the tide of dominant public fears and aspirations.

Ironically, many of the techniques the right has used so successfully have characterized the liberal/left protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. As social and economic conditions changed, the right adapted these techniques to support its own reactionary agenda. Phyllis Schlafly, for instance, borrowed from the feminist women’s movement many of the techniques she used to organize right-wing women. Such cooptation, like the use of the title “Civil Rights Initiative” for California’s anti-affirmative action proposition, is a form of political compliment.

But the right has not only successfully appropriated much of the language and many of the organizing techniques of social change activism, it has courted liberalism’s base, debunked liberal solutions, and caricatured liberal ideology. Much of the public now sees a “liberal” as a big-spending, high-taxing, socialist-leaning, government-supporting, bleeding heart. Policy discussions do not even consider socialist solutions. And the right’s spokespersons now appear in the mainstream media as just another centrist voice.

In response, the progressive defense of social programs has been sincere, even impassioned, but ultimately ineffective. As the right has used stereotyping and scapegoating to attack low-income people, progressives have been unable to mount an effective counterattack. As a result, the right has picked off programs like public housing, welfare, and legal aid, one by one. Progressives have been unable to convince the country that it is losing the only recourse to social justice now available.

A center/left coalition that has defended and expanded New Deal social programs was split apart in the 1980s by the right’s promotion of “traditional values” as a wedge to divide those with common economic interests, especially in the South. Now the right has caricatured members of that coalition as obsessed with “political correctness” and derided feminists as “femi-nazis.” Further, many (though not all) of the sectors that make up the broad base now known as the progressive movement have diminished in both numbers and left activism since the early 1980s.

Widespread acceptance of the right’s caricatures, and the use of their language even by some progressives, illustrates how far the progressive movement has fallen. Liberalism has become a scapegoat for an economic reordering in which the average person has less and the wealthy and the corporate sector have more. Liberalism’s constituents—low-income people, workers, immigrants, welfare recipients, women—have become scattered and confused, at times seemingly unsure of their own interests. For many people, politics has become a matter of “cutting an individual deal,” rather than identifying with a movement.

Progressives have lacked a ready response. Using a marginalized group as a scapegoat is not an option for us. For progressives, the villains are racism and anti-Semitism, an unjust economic system, sexism, homophobia, and foot-dragging, miserly federal programs—an analysis obvious to us, but not to the general public. Without the cooperation of the media and a public receptive to this message, we could not effectively rebut the right. The result was the spread of the right’s disinformation, loss of popular support for liberalism, and electoral defeat.

Progressives must face head-on this bleak picture of our current political context. In order to craft an effective response, we need an accurate understanding of existing conditions. Although the situation is not hopeless, only clearheaded thinking based on reality, not denial, is a firm grounding for political recovery. We must examine the vision—the goals and principles—on which we have based our movements, identify the weaknesses exposed by the right’s success, and identify strategies to move forward.

Some are tempted to believe that progressives could simply emulate this right’s strategies and enjoy similar political success. But even if we could or would, the country has moved deliberately and cruelly to the right, creating an environment in which progressive messages are nearly shut out. As we continue to sort out what went wrong, we must press forward with the search for new solutions to the social problems we face. This search must include a wide spectrum of progressives: frontline activists, researchers, theorists, the spiritually motivated, the electorally inclined, and especially those whose voices have too often been marginalized within the progressive movement—such as low-income women or gay Black men—and who live with double and triple forms of oppression.