Left Behind

The Radical Right Got Wired Fast. When Will Progressives Catch Up?

The scariest thing on the Internet today may not be the ILOVEYOU virus worming its way around the world, but a virtual road map for online organizing drawn up by white supremacist David Duke.

The erstwhile political candidate and grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan spells out for his readers why the Web is the most powerful medium the world has ever known for disseminating the message of the radical right.

"The alien, anti-White media has been my unrelenting enemy," Duke writes in an essay posted at duke.org/writings/internet.html.

Long before the world was Internet-ready, hard-line conservatives were taking advantage of each era's latest technology, using it to turn public fear into commercial opportunity.

"It has been yours as well, because it supports every pernicious liberal program that you can imagine. Up until now, unless someone met me personally, or read my material, the only way they could judge me is by what the liberal-biased media says. Now, that situation has changed. Millions of people are going online in America. Now if they want to find out about me and my ideas and issues all they have to do is go onto the search engines and search for 'David Duke.' Hundreds of sources will show up. There they can access my site and read my writings and reference material, and even hear my radio program which is broadcast 24 hours a day to the four corners of the earth."

Duke may be preaching to the converted. For long before the world was Internet-ready, hard-line conservatives were taking advantage of each era's latest technology, using it to turn public fear into commercial opportunity. They built a rich and wide-ranging network of talk radio, think tanks, and mailing lists—a network progressives can't afford to ignore.

And for years now, right-wingers have labored to move that network, intact, onto the Web.

At times, voices of extremists like Duke have threatened to drown the political discourse, dashing hopes that the Net would spark a more democratized debate. "The Internet won't have that much effect," says Charles M. Kelly, author of The Great Limbaugh Con. "And there are so many damned right-wing think tanks producing so much material."

Left-wingers may yet be able to push aside the colorless, centrist, corporate liberals of today and add a truly populist voice to the political arena—both the real one and the one that exists online.

But be warned: There is no nice way to do it.

Power of Babble

There were yahoos before the Internet. Like the Reverend Billy James Hargis, the most colorful religious-right crusader of the 1950s and 1960s. Hargis and his Christian Crusade battled immorality, Communists, homosexuals, the Beatles, liberals, journalists, and the National Council of Churches. Before Hargis lost his empire in 1976 in a highly publicized sex scandal, the beefy, belligerent, and highly skilled orator had created his own multimedia propaganda mill, peddling his hate and resentment through radio, TV, record albums, pamphlets, newspapers, barnstorming musical tours, and trips around the world.

Aside from his faithful, who regularly sent him money, most people removed from his Ozarks base made fun of him as a perfervid hick. But Hargis was a great promoter, aided by a young marketing wizard named Richard Viguerie, an early enthusiast of computerized databases. Viguerie devised mass mailings for Hargis, attacking commies and liberals. The two of them built up a large list of donors and potential donors, establishing a technique the far right continues to perfect and ensuring a steady flow of money and publicity.

Viguerie, driven by ideology and marketing, went on to create fund-raising appeals for gun lobbies, antiunion movements—a host of right-wing candidates and causes from George Wallace to Orrin Hatch to Rudy Giuliani.

Owing its existence to a keen sense of digital advantages, and backed by wealthy conservatives, the movement Viguerie helped start was poised to seize the next great technology: interactive satellite TV. In the early 1990s, brewing heir Joe Coors threw his financial support behind National Empowerment Television, an ambitious attempt to create a virtual community of far-flung activists. Small groups of people would gather around the country to watch a satellite feed of conservative leaders talking with other right-wingers in the studio and by phone. NET taught people how to work on local and federal issues, even providing extensive instructions on writing letters to the editor.

Though the lure of satellite hookups faded, talk radio continued to draw conservatives by the millions. Right-wing talk programs, like those headlined by Rush and Dr. Laura, became a thriving industry carefully nurtured not only by the Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973 on Coors money, but by the Republican Party.

By the mid '90s, the conservative network had gathered enough might to alter legislation almost instantly. They claimed a major victory in 1994, when radio evangelist James Dobson's worldwide Focus on the Family empire, now online at fotf.org, flexed its muscle in favor of the home-schooling movement. Congress had considered requiring certification for teachers of stay-at-home kids. After appeals to action on Dobson's show and other radical-right talk shows, including Pat Robertson's 700 Club and Rush Limbaugh's show, 800,000 phone calls blistered members of Congress. The home-schoolers won. 1

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