Taking Another
Look at Bigotry

Bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices. Especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance. (Merriam-Webster)

Bigotry is on the rise all across America. Our increased attacks against each other based on our race, ethnicity, religion, gender, lifestyle, politics, values, etc. are hard to deny. While President Trump is often blamed for this increase, bigotry is a bit more complicated than that. Trump certainly pushed many of us over the edge, but the groundwork was laid well before he came onto the scene.

As an ancient instinct for survival, we all feel safer by avoiding things that are unfamiliar to us and by avoiding people who are different than us. Likewise, we feel safer in familiar surroundings and with similar people. These behaviors are exaggerated when we are experiencing fear or anxiety as our brain goes into “fight or flight” mode or assumes a highly suspicious and defensive posture – again, this is all normal human behavior. 

Psychology and DemocracyBigotry, however, is often cultivated by actors within society who manipulate us by exaggerating our differences to create perceived threat. These folks use the tried-and-true exploitation of anxiety and low self-esteem to pit us against each other and control us. Reading this article is strongly recommended to better understand how these can deeply affect us and increase bigotry.

Anxiety and low self-esteem are key drivers of emotional vulnerability and they are in abundance because of our massive wealth gap, the offshoring of jobs, a runaway and one-way free market, a growing reliance on the “gig economy”, the availability of affordable health care, etc. In general, many of us know that we are now in a rigged system and that we are a pink slip or diagnosis away from financial disaster.  Climate change and the pandemic add to the feeling that things are slipping out of our control. 

There’s also plenty of additional anxiety created by inaccurate reporting and bogus crises that are continuously delivered right into our living room by Fox News and other conservative media sources for years. So if you haven’t been left behind by our evolving society then you have been convinced that you are about to be left behind.

All of this keeps us in a steady state of anxiety which creates an environment for bigotry. We begin to instinctively distrust anyone unfamiliar to us and seek safety with those like us. This is a dangerous combination that has been exploited and made far worse by conservative voices giving us specific things and people to fear.

Identity Politics: The Bigotry Magnifier

Identity politics is causing the Democrats to lose ground and it must be dealt with quickly. It is a nasty trap that the Right has been springing on the Democrats for decades.

The Left is continuously scrambling to defend minorities and the vulnerable from the endless attacks from the Right. A shortened list includes: “the southern strategy”, “Welfare Queens”, an unfair criminal justice system, banning gays from the military, gay marriage battles, transgender rights, dismantling voting laws, immigration, “the “wall”, CRT, white replacement theory, white supremacy groups, banning selected books, and even abortion. Each of these certainly warrants a vigorous response from the Left, but many Americans perceive this defense of everyone other than white male Christians as the only thing the Left stands for.

One of the main reasons this is so effective is that millions of rural and working-class Americans are vulnerable to manipulation because of the economic and societal issues identified above. These issues have largely been created by conservative economic ideologies, but conservative media is quick to point out that blame does not rest on conservatives, but on “the takers” who are stepping in and taking what is “ours”.

So the failure of Identity Politics works like this:

  1. The Right tilts the playing field against the working class
  2. The Right frames minorities as scapegoats for the working class sliding down that tilted playing field.
  3. The Right further attacks minorities to maintain the festering anxiety and anger
  4. The Left spends the majority of their time defending their fellow human beings (and trying to get their vote)
  5. The Right can spend all their time talking about the woes of the rural/working class, populism, the evils of wokeness, and how the Left is “out of touch” and only helps the takers take everything from, and someday even replace hard-working, white, God-fearing, real Americans. 
  6. Repeat

The result is the Left wonders why the Right keeps voting against their own best interests while the Right, convinced by Republicans and Democrats, believes that they are voting in their best interests and their safety. This includes some minorities voting Republican because of their own biases and because Conservative manipulation is that good. 

This leads to another dangerous side effect of Identity Politics which is that the Right has used it to associate the Left with supporting “white replacement theory” – although contrived, this is an existential threat to many and it is further dividing the nation and will lead to violence against not only scapegoated minorities but against the Left in general.

Democrats can start unwinding this by talking more (a lot more) to rural/working-class folks about their problems and how they are going to address them. Point out what Republicans have done to them and that they are the actual enemy to rural/working-class Americans. Lastly, calling out the actions and words of folks as racist is not useful when they believe they are in a fight for their future – this will only push them further away.

Democrats are often counterproductive as their words and actions trigger our destructive subconscious reactions while simultaneously providing a steady stream of talking points for Republicans to exploit for years. Each of these only makes people dig in their heels, retreat to their safe havens for reaffirmation, and further increases our divide.

In other words, the Left often pushes people away while simultaneously providing more ways for the Right to lure people in. If we don’t know how to push back against bigotry then we are probably making things worse.

What to Do

If Democracy is going to survive, we must start bringing folks “back to the table”. The motivation for the below is driven by the need to start restoring their self-esteem and decreasing their anxiety in order to reduce their perceptions of threats. Once that is accomplished then discussions about bigotry and inclusive society can be had in a less combative and more constructive manner. 

Many Americans are repulsed by bigotry and they don’t need further convincing by the often emotional discussions about an inclusive society. At the same time, it is much more important for other Americans to hear these discussions in a way that minimizes fear triggers. It is important to remember that these folks, at least for the moment, have been convinced that an inclusive America will exclude them.

Because we want to calm people down, care should be used when talking about an inclusive society. The main point is to not make folks feel that a rapidly evolving society is being forced upon them. Once the perceived threat is decreased (and replaced with more constructive ideas) then these discussions can be revisited with the energy that they certainly deserve. Topics to discuss carefully include:

  • An inclusive society
  • Racial equality
  • Religious freedom
  • Immigration
  • LGBTQ

Hopefully, improvement to these issues will be an end result of calming people down, but for now, they need to be carefully addressed. It is more constructive to approach these issues by changing the conversation to be about working together for positive change or working against the actual forces that are hurting so many of us. Folks need to be constantly reminded of the existing common issues that are impacting us all. Working together on these issues will not only measurably improve our world, but it will also create a sense of community and camaraderie that has been proven to increase our self-esteem and reduce our prejudices. Below are some simple examples of reframing certain conversations with certain demographics – these are simple notional ideas, intended only to provide context:

  • America has always done better when we work together
  • The great thing about our Democracy is that none of us lose any of our rights if the guy across town has the same rights as us.
  • We need as many people as possible contributing to our economy to keep money flowing through our communities and to create jobs. 
  • The more of us that are better off, the more of us will spend money – and that’ll help out on Main Street.
  • A handful of billionaires are taking our money and power while they tell us to blame each other. We need to work together to take back what was ours.
  • The big secret? it’s really about rich vs. poor – they just want you to think it’s about black vs. white.
  • The only people taking your money are millionaires, billionaires, and Wall Street.
  • The economy will not work if wealthy people take all the money and don’t pay their share in taxes.
  • The billionaires are forcing more and more of us to share that last, shrinking slice of pie.

If we can improve self-esteem in folks then we will reduce their sensitivity to fear, their need to belittle others, and their vulnerability to the Trumps of the world. People will come back to the table if they see things are heading in the right direction – they just need to see that there is a way out.

For the near term, Democrats need to continue producing tangible results on their working-class agenda and, importantly, keep getting the word out. They need to do this not only in terms of what they are doing but also what the Republicans are not doing — two things the Democrats seem unable to convey. It is important for Democrats to understand that only ramping up efforts during campaign season or touting a major accomplishment in a few speeches will never match the relentless 24/7/365 barrage from conservative voices who have a much wider reach.

Working together on common causes can increase self-esteem and has been shown to reduce prejudices. It doesn’t matter what the common cause is — it doesn’t need to be (in fact it shouldn’t be) related to bigotry. Bi-partisan activities at the community level can include restoring or improving medical services in rural areas, working to protect local natural resources from climate change, efforts to save Main Street, etc.

The same goes for playing with each other. We need to provide more opportunities for people to physically engage with society again. Public events or festivals that celebrate the community as a whole (not a particular group) can bring people in and reconnect them with society (something their subconscious already deeply desires).

Other proven techniques to reduce anxiety and bigotry include practicing kindness, gratitude, and humility. Efforts to provide reminders, examples, and exercises that will rescue these human traits from the abyss would be very useful. In a deeply divided society, it is important to be reminded that we are social creatures.

What Not to Do

The biggest obstacle to bringing folks back to the table is that conservative voices will be continuing with their manipulative and divisive rhetoric. One thing that can be done to at least reduce this is to stop providing them with talking points. There have been some obvious and very unintentional gaffes from Democrats in the recent past. These are the ”gifts that keep on giving” for conservative media and they will exploit these for months and years. It is important to know that these are more than just “talking points” gifts for the right – for many Americans, they are seen as existential threats, and this is not helpful at all. The following, as everyone already knows, are recent examples of what not to say or do:

  • Basket of Deplorables – That was received by many as a direct attack on their intelligence and character. While not directly related to bigotry, this pushed many vulnerable people away from Democrats.
  • Allowing non-citizen immigrants to vote – There has never been a greater gift from Democrats to Republicans. For every one vote gained in local New York elections, Democrats lost thousands of votes in swing states and gave Republicans years of talking points.
  • Defund the Police – Quickly, robustly, and continuously reverse course on “defunding the police” — the police provide safety, thus reducing fear and opportunities for those highly damaging fear-mongering talking points. The message is to refund organizations that can help or unburden the police
  • Takedown the NRA – No, just takedown those that committed the crimes at the top. The NRA has millions of responsible and long-standing members and the majority of them want some sort of gun control. Pull them in and make them part of the decision or at least make them feel valued, not attacked.
  • Confederate Statues – As good as tearing the statues down may make you feel, leave them alone. Things were better before these symbols were not being ripped down. The time will come – pick your battles…

Summary

None of this is about giving bigotry a pass — there are plenty of cases where it must be addressed head-on. This is more about, to the extent possible, calming at least some people down and bringing them back to the table. We will never get them all, not even close — but we have to start or our divide will just get bigger and our society will degrade to the point where we will lose Democracy. This is only a matter of years, or perhaps months, away…