How the Right Took Power and the Failure of Liberal Infrastructures

The political right took power in the United States due to a failure of liberal and centrist institutions to appreciate the threat to democracy and human rights.

The complete right-wing network strategy was outlined by progressive, liberal, and even some conservative journalists and scholars starting in the late 1970s.

Here are the main components of how the Right took power:

  • National Think Tanks
  • State Policy Institutes
  • Training of young conservative journalists and scholars
  • Funding of strategic and tactical mass media
  • Funding of national and regional conferences where researchers, ideologues, activists, politicians, and funders could meet each other and develop tactical projects.
  • Funding of national and grassroots social movement activism and SMOs—designed to put pressure on the Republican Party to move it to the Right. (See Scholzman 2015)

This all followed the Powell Memo outline, but was built organically by numerous organizations and individuals over 20 years.

So let’s talk about progressive movement building.

Resources for Challenging the
Right-Wing Juggernaut

Social movements should pull politicians and political movements toward them. It should NEVER be the other way around.

The Obama campaign learned from decades of Democrats losing elections that with a strong infrastructure, lots of resources, a mass movement mobilization, and a clear vision, progressive campaigns can win. But as progressives who welcome an Obama Administration, we can’t rest on our laurels, because the nature of our democracy is a constant struggle over power. The Political Right in the United States has not vanished, they just lost one election. They are already planning their comeback.

The U.S. Human Rights Network observes, “human rights are protected through building social movements.” That has been the clear message of progressive social movements throughout U.S. history, and we should pause and recall some of our past victories and moments of strength:

  • The movement for the abolition of slavery in the 1800s
  • The struggle to gain the vote for women
  • The organized labor union movements of the early Twentieth Century
  • The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-1960s
  • The Student Rights Movement
  • The Women’s Movement of the 1960s-1970s
  • The Environmental Movement
  • The movement to secure equal rights for the LGBTQ community
  • The movement against globalizing corporate power.

Since the election of Ronald Reagan who took office in 1980 we have a practical demonstration that human rights can be undermined through building right-wing backlash counter-movements. The Christian Right is simply the largest movements in this network.

Central to the conservative plan was their understanding that social movements pull politicians and political movements toward them, not the other way around. Social movements are often involved in politics, but they step outside the limits of the electoral and legislative system to use other means ranging from demonstrations to civil disobedience and beyond.

Conservative strategists studied how the Labor Movement had yanked the Roosevelt Administration into crafting a social safety net in the 1930s. They studied how the Civil Rights movement had whacked the Democratic Party in the north into pulling away from the segregationist demands of the southern Democratic Party “Dixiecrats.” So conservatives decided to build a right-wing social movement to pull the Republican Party to the right. It worked.

Now we have a chance to put the country back on track toward progressive social change, but only if we have learned from history.


The Democratic Party is not democratic, and is not interested in progressive social change.

The Democracy Alliance raises funds secretly, won’t disclose to whom the funds go, and refuses to let journalists and scholars see the highly-touted Rob Stein PowerPoint that purports to explain how the right took power.  Why can’t we see the slideshow? What if the slideshow content is wrong?

Studying Social Movements

Starting in the 1970s, many sociologists rejected the idea that militant political and cultural activists were engaged in irrational collective behavior, and instead began studying social movements as collections of people with complaints who develop a plan to make the larger society respond to their needs. Since then there has been a tremendous number of studies on what it takes to build a strong social movement.

Chip Berlet: Social Movements Need an Infrastructure to Succeed

 Jean Hardisty: My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism

How the Right Took Power and the Failure of Liberal Infrastructures

Progressive Movement Building

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