(This interview with PRA founder Jean Hardisty was published in our Fall/Winter 2011 newsletter, celebrating PRA’s 30th anniversary. It is republished here in honor of Jean, who passed away in March.)
What motivated you to study the political Right?
I spent eight years in academia in the 1970s as a political scientist and my field was contemporary political philosophy. I’d become quite interested in neo-Conservatism (Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Norman Podhoretz, Jeanne Kirkpatrick) and saw that this ideology had the potential to catch on in the U.S. It had a focus on individualism, supported capitalism, was avidly anti-communist, and was not entirely incompatible with Christian fundamentalism, so it seemed to me that it would have appeal at that time of growing backlash against my own historical period—the 1960s.
I was motivated by intellectual curiosity and a growing disillusionment with the wisdom of the voting public. In 1978 I left academia, feeling that the campus life was too isolating. I went to work for the ACLU for a year, then, in Chicago, where I lived at the time, I opened was was then known as Midwest Research. Very quickly we grew to a staff of three!
What were PRA’s founding principles?
Our opening occurred on the heels of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. I had followed the growth of the New Right and could see its influence in his campaign and administration. I felt its increasing power as a serious threat to everything I had spent my life working to support—efforts to advance equality, the women’s movement, gay rights, reproductive rights, anti-racism, militarism, and workers’ rights, to name a few. Meanwhile the Left and other progressives seemed to dismiss the New Right as a band of “hillbillies” and “rednecks.” My colleague Chip Berlet and I knew them to be White, middle-class business people, who were excellent political strategists. Our only goal at Midwest Research was to correct this misperception, on the grounds that if it were not corrected, the progressive movement would make serious and destructive mistakes in opposing New Right inititiatives.
Chip, Peggy Shinner, our board and I all agreed on a founding set of principles:
- We would remain independent. In the past, most fight-the-right groups had been part of a left party or formation. We wanted and sought no affiliation, though we have developed innumerable collegial ties with other groups in the progressive movement.
- We would back up everything we said with documentation and avoid rhetoric or inaccessible language.
- We would operate with transparency and make our materials, including our substantial library, available to the public.
- We would track only on leaders of the Right, not followers, and we would educate the public on the difference.
- We would not promote hate, but instead would work to advance understanding.
- We would defend free speech and other civil liberties, even when the speech itself was hateful.
Why did you feel you and your tiny staff were qualified?
Although I have always found it helpful to have a Ph.D., that alone is not a qualification to do this work. Rather, it requires an ability to think analytically, to work with great care and attention to detail, and to keep an open mind. In Chip’s words, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.” The learning curve at PRA is very steep for incoming staff, and the work requires people who are not daunted by that. It also helps to be brilliant, as was the late Margaret Quigley. Surina Khan, Nikhil Aziz and Palak Shah all brought enormous skills and talent to PRA over the years.
What were your greatest hopes?
On a personal level, I wanted to do work that allowed me to look in the mirror in the morning and feel that I was doing my best to promote social justice. I felt that every that at PRA, which is not to say that the work wasn’t also frustrating, complex, and challenging. But to do this work in the way it should be done—with care and a certain amount of compassion—always made me proud, especially of the staff. We never felt that an olive branch was the best answer to the Right, but excellent public education is something to be proud of.
On an institutional level, I wanted PRA to play a constructive role in the progressive movement and to guide our supporters and colleagues with wisdom and how to understand the Right. I saw PRA as an organization that existed to serve the movement and the public, and I believe we did, and continue to, accomplish that. Our early work predated the Internet, but we were one of the first progressive organizations to have a high quality website.
What are you most grateful for?
Of course I am deeply grateful to our donors, some of whom have been with us since the beginning. It takes a profound understanding of movement structure and movement building to appreciate the role that PRA plays. Our supporters have had that understanding. Both individuals and foundations have been aware of the threat posed by the Right, even when the general public believes that the Right was “over” or “defeated,” as was the case with the election of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
As organizations struggle today with inadequate funding and our donors struggle with fewer resources to support us, we see smaller organizations going under every day. Further, there is a generational change in leadership of the movement that is both exciting and requires new thinking on the part of us older folks. I am grateful to live in “challenging times” and glad that I did not spend my life on the sidelines as the country has been ravaged by right-wing ideology, the Right’s devious tactics, and the mobilization of religion for political purposes.
What do you most regret?
I am tremendously disappointed that the progressive religious community has not stepped up in a more assertive way to stand against the Christian Right. And, of course, I regret that PRA has had to struggle for financial stability over the years and still does, despite wide acknowledgement of the high quality of its work. Fundraising would be easier if PRA were to trim its sails and speak less truth to power. I am proud to say that such a change is unlikely, if not to say out of the question.
How do you see PRA now that you are gone?
I think PRA is a better organization now than it was when I was the Executive Director. The material the organization generates is of greater volume and even more impressive, and the impact of PRA’s work is greater. While the transition was a bit rocky, it is now on very solid ground—with principles completely intact. Fundraising is still a challenge and is the one thing that may be PRA’s “Achilles heel.” But if there is any justice, PRA will be doing its work for years to come, as I become increasingly its proud godmother.