Is American conservatism inherently bigoted? Many conservatives would be enraged by the question. Many liberals suspect the answer is yes.
These different reactions stem, in part, from different definitions of bigotry. Conservatives tend to define it in terms of intention: You’re guilty of bigotry if you’re trying to harm people because of their race, gender, or the like. Liberals are more likely to define it in terms of impact: You’re guilty if your actions disadvantage an already disadvantaged group, irrespective of your motives. You may genuinely believe that Georgia can’t afford to expand Medicaid. But given that the Georgians affected by this decision are disproportionately poor people of color—and that they lack coverage in large measure because they are poor people of color—your opposition to expanding Medicaid perpetuates a history of state-sponsored bigotry. As a conservative, you may feel an impulse to conserve the past. In a country whose history is marked by the subordination of blacks, women, and LGBT people, however, many liberals believe that conserving the past maintains that subordination.
The debate over conservatism and bigotry is not new. But the argument has become particularly fierce in the age of Donald Trump. As a result of Trump’s denigrating comments about Mexicans and Muslims, and his equivocal condemnations of white supremacists, outrage at perceived conservative bigotry now animates American liberalism more than it did in the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, or Obama years. In an August 2016 Suffolk University/USA Today poll, 76 percent of Democrats said Trump is a racist. Meanwhile, outrage at political correctness—fueled by the conviction that charges of bigotry are used to shut down legitimate discussion—has become more central to American conservatism. When the website clearerthinking.org examined voters’ responses to 138 different statements, it found that agreement with the claim “There is too much political correctness in this country” was one of the three most correlated with support for Trump.
Liberals and conservatives may never agree on whether or how deeply bigotry infects American conservatism. They don’t need to. What America needs is a conservatism whose devotees feel less stigmatized, and who earn that lack of stigma by trying harder to disentangle their support of small government and traditional morality from America’s history of bigotry. To make that possible, liberals and conservatives each need something from the other.
Conservatives need liberals to stop abusing their cultural power. Although conservatives dominate America’s elected offices, liberals wield the greater power to stigmatize. In the 1950s, conservatives could exile liberals from polite company by calling them Communists. Being called anti-American can still sting; ask the NFL players who kneel when the national anthem is played. But in most elite institutions, being accused of bigotry is now more dangerous than being accused of insufficient patriotism. In 2014, Brendan Eich was forced out as the head of the tech company Mozilla for having donated to an anti-gay-marriage initiative. He probably would not have been forced out for donating to, say, a campaign to eliminate the Pledge of Allegiance from California’s schools.
Conservatives feel their cultural vulnerability acutely. In 2011, researchers at Tufts University observed that conservatives consume more “outrage-based” political radio and television than liberals do. One reason, they suggested in a follow-up paper, is that conservatives are more fearful than liberals of discussing politics with people with whom they disagree, because they dread being called a bigot. “When asked how they feel about talking politics,” the researchers noted, “every single conservative respondent raised the issue of being called racist.” Liberals expressed no comparable fear. As a result, they felt less need to take refuge in the “safe political environs provided by outrage-based programs.”
Obviously, political correctness did not create white supremacy, patriarchy, or homophobia. But as the Tufts researchers showed, shaming people for their views can backfire. In a 2011 study, three social psychologists then based at the University of Toronto gave college students two different pamphlets meant to combat prejudice. The first emphasized the value of nondiscrimination (“It’s fun to meet people from other cultures”). The second emphasized social norms that discourage discrimination (“People in my social circle disapprove of prejudice”). The second pamphlet was not only less effective than the first in reducing bigotry; it actually led manifestations of bigotry to spike. The scholars concluded that pressuring people to accept a nonbigoted belief can engender resentment that leads them to express more bigotry than they did before.
Liberals would be wise to recognize this vicious cycle, and to use the nuclear epithet more sparingly. Yes, Fox News and company will likely describe political correctness as a menace to white, straight, Christian men no matter what. But liberals can make Sean Hannity’s work harder by resisting the temptation to deploy the label bigoted, or one of its synonyms, when describing an idea they consider stupid or immoral.
Liberals don’t resist this urge enough. In 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center called Maajid Nawaz, a British activist who embraces a hard line against Islamism, “an anti-Muslim extremist.” The charge was outrageous. Nawaz may ignore important differences between violent and nonviolent forms of Islamism. He may support policies that violate civil liberties. But as The Atlantic’s David A. Graham has pointed out, describing him as anti-Muslim is unfair, not only because Nawaz is Muslim, but because he has fought Islamophobia.
Last fall, following Steve Bannon’s appointment as chief White House strategist, Salon called his website, Breitbart News, “anti-Semitic,” while Media Matters for America decried “its rampant anti-Semitism.” Their primary evidence: an article whose headline described the Weekly Standard editor and Trump critic William Kristol as a “renegade Jew” and an article that said of the American-born columnist Anne Applebaum, who lives in Poland: “Hell hath no fury like a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned.” Sounds bad. But the author of the Kristol attack, David Horowitz, is Jewish himself, and he was accusing Kristol of betraying Jewish interests by opposing Trump, who Horowitz said would safeguard Israel. That may be dumb, but it’s not anti-Semitic. The author of the Applebaum attack, Matthew Tyrmand, is Jewish too. He claimed that Applebaum was upset not to be “Poland’s first Jewish-American first lady” (her husband had briefly run for president), then made his barb about her being “a Polish, Jewish, American elitist.” There’s nothing else about Applebaum’s Jewishness in the article.
Has Breitbart trafficked in other forms of bigotry? Its menacing headlines about Muslims and Latinos (“Political Correctness Protects Muslim Rape Culture,” for instance) suggest the answer is yes. But that doesn’t justify accusing it of anti-Semitism on flimsy evidence. Once liberals decide an individual or institution is reprehensible, they’re often too quick to throw another log on the fire.
Sometimes, in their zeal to oppose bigotry, liberals defame entire groups. In an analysis of the 2012 election, a political scientist named David T. Smith noted that liberals were significantly more likely than conservatives to say they would not support a Mormon for public office. Why? Smith speculated that the Mormon Church’s support for California’s anti-gay-marriage initiative, along with Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, had “firmly entrenched a perception among liberals that Mormons … have an authoritarian religious agenda.” That is, the liberal impulse to oppose discrimination had fostered a discrimination of its own.
Before calling conservatives bigots, liberals should remember something about their own ideology: Progressivism is progressive. It seeks ever-greater moral advance. That means that if liberals have their way, the list of things considered discriminatory will continue to grow. In August, as a rash of localities debated whether to take down statues of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Trump was mocked for tweeting, “Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson—who’s next, Washington, Jefferson?” But it’s logical to suspect that liberals, seeking to make America ever less racist, might go from uprooting statues of the generals who fought to defend slavery to challenging the uncritical veneration of the slaveholders who founded America. Indeed, just three days before Trump’s tweet, Al Sharpton had suggested that the Jefferson Memorial be denied public funds.
Given conservatives’ instinct to conserve, liberals cannot reasonably expect them to instantly declare bigoted something they have long considered acceptable. John Corvino, a philosophy professor at Wayne State University, defines bigotry as “stubborn and unjustified contempt toward groups of people, typically in the context of a larger system of subordination.” The word stubborn is key: What matters is how willing people are to shift their views in response to new information. Liberals have the right to ask that conservatives, when confronted with evidence of the irrationality and immorality of their opinions about, for instance, gay Americans, move toward supporting equal rights. But liberals don’t have the right to expect conservatives to move at the same speed they do. Therein lies the unfairness of Mozilla’s forcing Eich out for having donated to an anti-gay-marriage campaign in 2008, four years before even Barack Obama fully endorsed gay marriage.
Because progressivism perpetually raises the antibigotry bar, today’s liberals likely espouse views that future liberals will consider prejudiced. In August, Canada began including on its passports an option for people who identify as neither male nor female. Few American liberals currently see the absence of such a category on U.S. passports as discriminatory. In the future, many likely will. When they do, and find conservatives unwilling to jump on board, they should consider how they would have felt had someone called them a bigot back in 2017.
If nurturing a less bigoted conservatism requires liberals to become less promiscuous in crying bigot, it requires conservatives to become less willfully naive. In theory, the conservative principles of individual responsibility and traditional morality are color-blind. Indeed, as the scholars Christopher Alan Bracey and Leah Wright Rigueur have detailed, they enjoy significant popularity among African Americans.
But race often distorts their application. When conservative politicians talk about reducing “dependency” on government, they usually mean reliance on programs like food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, housing assistance, and Medicaid, all of which disproportionately benefit African Americans. They pay less attention to the roughly $20 billion a year that the federal government pays farmers. Or the 1872 law that allows mining companies to lease federal land for $5 an acre and keep whatever they dig up. Or Supplemental Security Income, otherwise known as disability. These forms of dependency, which offer outsize benefits to white people, elicit comparatively little right-wing outrage.
Similarly, many conservatives demanded harsher sentencing during the largely African American crack epidemic, yet now show far less enthusiasm for imprisoning opioid addicts—most of whom are white. For years, conservatives tried to preserve the traditional family by outlawing same-sex marriage. They didn’t try to outlaw heterosexual divorce. Senator Ted Cruz has called defending religious freedom his “life’s passion.” But not when it comes to Muslims. In 2015, he reintroduced the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act, which could have, among other things, empowered the government to close mosques.
There are, to be sure, right-leaning intellectuals who would welcome the uniform application of conservative tough love. But advocating the mass imprisonment of white opioid users, the end of farm subsidies, and a crackdown on easy divorce would likely break the Republican Party. So GOP politicians often end up demanding more self-reliance and moral responsibility from black, female, LGBT, and immigrant Americans than from their own white, male, straight, native-born supporters. “Racism,” Ta‑Nehisi Coates has written in these pages, “is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” It is exactly this racialized disparity in sympathy and skepticism that plagues many conservative policies today.
Prominent black Republicans have said as much. In a speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention, Colin Powell noted that “some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education, but you hardly hear a whimper when it’s affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax code with preferences for special interests.”
Conservatives wishing to disprove charges of racial bad faith have an obvious place to begin: GOP efforts to make voting harder for minorities, under the guise of preventing voter fraud. In theory, voter fraud is a legitimate, nonbigoted concern. The problem is, a mountain of evidence suggests that in the United States in 2017, it barely exists. Moreover, throughout U.S. history, white politicians have tried to prevent African Americans from voting. And that’s exactly what some Republicans are trying to do today.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found last year that North Carolina’s Republican-dominated legislature had “restricted voting and registration” in ways that targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” In 2016, a former GOP staffer in the Wisconsin state legislature reported, “I was in the closed Senate Republican Caucus when the final round of multiple Voter ID bills were being discussed. A handful of the GOP Senators were giddy about the ramifications and literally singled out the prospects of suppressing minority and college voters.” Too often, that’s what conservative “color blindness” looks like when the cameras are off.
Conservatives sometimes deny there is anything they can do to convince liberals they aren’t bigots. But when conservatives acknowledge bigotry’s persistence, liberals do take notice. In a remarkable August 2015 interview on Fox News, Marco Rubio was asked for his thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement. He said he understood the frustration with the police that fueled it. “I have one friend in particular who’s been stopped, in the last 18 months, eight to nine different times,” Rubio explained. “Never got a ticket for being stopped—just stopped. If that happened to me, after eight or nine times, I’d be wondering, What’s going on here? I’d be upset about it.”
Breitbart slammed Rubio’s comments as anti-cop. But liberals responded with admiration. “Marco Rubio shows other Republicans how to respond to Black Lives Matter,” proclaimed Vox. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie tweeted, “Marco Rubio just gave the best answer on Black Lives Matter that I’ve seen from a Republican.” Rubio, it’s worth noting, hadn’t endorsed the Black Lives Matter agenda. He had simply acknowledged that the law-and-order policies conservatives generally support can place a special burden on black people.
Is it politically shrewd for an ambitious Republican like Rubio to admit these ugly truths? Maybe not. But American debates over race, gender, sexuality, and religion have become as noxious as they are because Donald Trump took risks. By nakedly appealing to white rage and fear, he risked alienating moderate voters. His risks paid off.
Halting the downward spiral will require other politicians to take risks as well. And it will require scores of commentators, activists, and voters to support them when they do. Liberals and conservatives each know the other side is capable of hatred and scorn. They both need to demonstrate that they are capable of empathy and courage, too.