Soon after Barack Obama’s electoral victory in 2008, conservatives began depicting the event as a triumph of cosmopolitan and secular intellectuals, people of color, liberal pieties, and “socialist” hopes. Grassroots organizing accompanied an agenda of legislative sabotage led by the Republican congressional hierarchy. Media demagogues stoked the flames of resentment. President Obama was mockingly called “The One” and excoriated as an Arab, an imam, even the Antichrist. Posters identified him with Hitler, placed his head on the body of a chimpanzee, implied that he was a crack addict, portrayed him with a bone through his nose, and showed the White House lawn lined with rows of watermelons. Six years later, the fury has hardly subsided: Thousands of young people check on racist websites like Stormfront every month, anti-Semitism is again becoming fashionable, Islamophobia is rampant, and conservative politicians are suing President Obama in the courts for his supposed abuse of power while their more radical supporters are labeling him a traitor.
Most of these people don’t see themselves as bigots. They long to reinstate the “real” America perhaps best depicted in old television shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. This completely imaginary America was orderly and prosperous. Women were happily in the kitchen; gays were in the closet; and blacks knew their place. But this world (inexplicably!) came under attack from just these (ungrateful!) groups thereby creating resentment especially among white males on the political right. They feel persecuted and wish to roll back time. Their counterattack is based on advocating policies that would hinder same-sex marriage, champion the insertion of “Christian” values into public life, deny funds for women’s health and abortion clinics, cut government policies targeting the inner cities, protect a new prison network inhabited largely by people of color, eliminate limits on campaign spending, and increase voting restrictions that would effectively disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged citizens.
Neanderthals still exist along with blatant examples of old-style prejudice and hatred. But the bigot is adapting to a new world. The bigot now employs camouflage in translating his prejudices into reality. To forestall criticism, he now makes use of supposedly “color-blind” economic and anti-crime policies, liberal notions of tolerance, individualism, the entrepreneurial spirit, local government, historical traditions, patriotism, and fears of nonexistent voter fraud to maintain the integrity of the electoral process. The bigot today is often unaware either that he has prejudices or that he is indulging them.
Unfortunately, popular understandings of the bigot remain anchored in an earlier time. His critics tend to highlight the personal rather than the political, crude language and sensational acts rather than mundane legislation and complicated policy decisions. Many are unwilling to admit that bigotry has entered the mainstream. It is more comforting to associate bigotry with certain attitudes supposedly on the fringes of public life. Words wound but policies wound even more. Everyday citizens grow incensed when some commentator lets slip a racist or politically incorrect phrase. But they are far more tolerant when faced with policies that blatantly disadvantage or attack the bigot’s traditional targets whose inferiority is still identified with fixed and immutable traits: gays, immigrants, people of color, and women.
Reactionary movements and conservative parties have provided a congenial home for true believers, provincial chauvinists, and elitists of an aristocratic or populist bent. Not exclusively: Liberals and socialists—though usually with a guilty conscience—have also occasionally endorsed imperialism, nationalism, racism, and the politics of bigotry. But while the connection between right-wing politics and bigotry does not hold true in every instance, it is true most of the time. It is certainly true today. Ideologues of the Tea Party provide legitimacy and refuge for advocates of intolerance while the GOP provides legitimacy and refuge for the Tea Party.
Not every bigot is a conservative and not every conservative is a bigot. Yet they converge in supporting an agenda that aims to constrict intellectual debate, social pluralism, economic equality, and democratic participation. Either the bigot or the conservative can insist that his efforts to shrink the welfare state are motivated solely by a concern with maximizing individual responsibility; either can claim that his opposition to gay rights is simply a defense of traditional values; and either can argue that increasing the barriers to voting is required to guarantee fair elections. Whatever they subjectively believe, however, their agenda objectively disadvantages gays, immigrants, women, and people of color.
Reasonable people can disagree about this or that policy as it applies to any of these groups. Any policy, progressive or not, can be criticized in good faith. But ethical suspicions arise when an entire agenda is directed against the ensemble of what President Reagan derisively termed “special interests.” No conservative political organization today has majority support from women, the gay community, or people of color. There must be a reason. It cannot simply be that the conservative “message” has not been heard; that members of these groups are overwhelmingly parasitical and awaiting their overly generous government “handouts;” or that so-called special interests are incapable of appreciating what is in their interest. A more plausible explanation, I think, is that those who are still targets of prejudice and discrimination have little reason to trust conservatism’s political advocates.
Is the conservative a bigot? It depends. Is the particular conservative intent upon defending traditions simply because they exist, supporting community values even if they are discriminatory; and treating political participation as a privilege rather than a right? Critics of the bigot should begin placing a bit less emphasis on what he says or feels than what he actually does. That conservative can always rationalize his actions—platitudes come cheap. But then perhaps, one day, he will find himself looking in the mirror and (who knows?) the bigot might just be staring back.
Stephen Eric Bronner is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. He is also director of global relations for its Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights and on the executive committee of the UNESCO Chair in Genocide Prevention.