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.