Radical Right

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RADICAL RIGHT. The radical right is a term applied in the United States to sociopolitical movements and political factions and parties that develop in response to supposed threats against American values and interests. Such backlashes usually stem from rapid social or economic change that sparks a reaction among groups seeking to maintain or narrow lines of power and privilege. They justify their actions by discounting the legitimacy of their opponents, seeing them as agents of an un-American conspiracy not deserving of political respect or constitutional protection.

Threats to the religious values of the traditional evangelical groups gave rise in the late 1790s and again in the late 1820s to efforts to eliminate perceived irreligious elements and liberal forces. Fear of the Masons, for example, culminated in the formation of the Anti-Masonic party in 1830. For the next century, the most important source of rightist backlash in politics was anti-Catholicism, particularly among the Methodists and Baptists, who had become the dominant Protestant denominations.

Nativist movements sought to preserve existing institutions and traditional values against the threat of change—a threat that was attributed to the increased number of immigrant Catholics, and even to conspiracies directed by the Vatican. Groups espousing such nativism included the Native Americans of the 1840s, the Know-Nothings of the 1850s, and the multimillion-member Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. The decade of the 1930s—with its massive depression, unemployment, and political pressures linked to events in Europe—gave rise to many extremist movements. The most potent on the right was an anti-Semitic, pro-fascist movement led by a Catholic priest, Charles E. Coughlin.

After World War II the radical right turned its concerns from anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism to communism and racial issues. The most prominent movement of the early 1950s followed the line of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's investigations into alleged communist infiltration of the government and the key opinion-forming and policy-controlling institutions. Right-wing resistance to the Civil Rights movement first centered in the postwar South in white citizens councils. Subsequently the largest and most important racially motivated rightist movement emerged in the presidential campaigns of Gov. George Wallace of Alabama. Wallace had strong showings in primary and general elections from 1964 to 1972, as he effected a coalition of disparate right-wing forces in support of the American Independent party.In the 1990s radical right-wing sentiment focused on the presidential campaigns of the columnist and television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan.

Characteristically, radical-right movements, from the Anti-Masonic party to the American Independent party, have drawn their major support from poorer, less educated, more provincial, and more religiously traditional elements of American society. Lacking a power center, they have generally been taken over by the conservative elite, as when the Anti-Masons merged with the Whigs after the election of 1836. Thus, most of the mass-based radical-right groups have been short-lived, generally lasting about five years. Intense factional struggles, propensities to become more extreme and thus alienate moderate supporters, gradual solidification of opposition to their extremism, and occasional policy concessions in their direction by more established forces all reduce their capacity to maintain their strength.


Bell, Daniel, ed. The Radical Right. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964.

Davis, David Brion, ed. The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971.

Lipset, Seymour M., and Earl Raab. The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790–1977. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Nash, George. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. Wilmington, Del.: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1996.

Reeves, Thomas C. The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography. Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1997.

Seymour MartinLipset/a. g.

See alsoAnticommunism ; Anti-Masonic Movements ; Conservatism ; Fascism, American ; Immigration Restriction ; McCarthyism ; Radicals and Radicalism ; Republican Party .