American liberals have been justifiably outraged by the recent surge in legislation that explicitly or effectively targets gender and sexual minorities. In Mississippi last week, Republican governor Phil Bryant signed a law protecting the “religious freedom” of businesses (including councillors and adoption centers) to refuse service to queer people, following the lead of states like Arkansas and Indiana, with similar laws pending in 10 other states. And in a more devastating move, several weeks ago North Carolina’s governor Pat McCrory signed a law explicitly banning gender-nonconforming people from using bathrooms that are not reserved for their birth sex. These laws come at a time that more than half of all Americans say that Islam is “at odds” with our way of life, at a time when the Republican front-runner has said “there is no such thing as racism” while calling Mexican immigrants “killers and rapists,” and his leading challenger cackles gleefully about seeing “sand can glow” in Iraq and Syria after his carpet bombing. As the gap between “liberal” and “conservative” appears to grow, the GOP has decided to pander directly to the sector of the population that has seen a rise in bigotry and religious radicalism in recent years: working class white people. The Democratic candidates have certainly capitalized on the liberal backlash to this bigotry, painting themselves as alternatives to a regressive, xenophobic state.
The public rise of the religious right wing (which, while it has existed since the dawn of our country, has not been this engaged in national politics since the 19th century) is alarming. Their impact on public policy has already proven catastrophic, from the anti-trans bathroom bills to the nationwide push to restrict women’s right to control their reproductive rights. And the sensationalist publicity lent to fascist hopeful Donald Trump can be directly linked to a recent surge in mass shootings by white Christian radicals, and a surge in racial and religious terrorist groups in our country. The radical insurgency of the far right in American politics is also the strongest argument to support the imperialist Democratic Party. Even an anarcho-communist who believes Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are both (to different extents) guilty of massive crimes against humanity must acknowledge that, for the sake of women’s rights alone, there is a difference between the Democratic and Republican frontrunners. Radical conservatism is an extremely visible (some might even say sensationalized) and very frightening threat, and it is used by the establishment to demand compliance from the left.
While it is extremely satisfying for those of us threatened and disgusted by these hate-based laws to cheer for mainstream liberals and their travel bans to the states enacting them, and to label rural poor white people as “rednecks” and assume that bigotry runs in their blood, the right wing will not be extinguished or even weakened by voting for neoliberal Democrats. The culture wars between “liberal” and “conservative” are constructed by corporate propaganda to distract both sides from their true enemy: the ruling class. If they looked beyond the propaganda, liberals pursuing social justice for themselves and their loved ones and conservatives seeking stability in a rigged socio-economic structure could easily be united in the struggle against capitalist oppression. Bringing about a just, equitable, and sustainable structure in the United States will require cooperation from every part of the population, and this will only be achieved by an empathetic outreach to the disenfranchised people who have been manipulated into bigotry by the forces of neoliberal capitalism.
As I have written before, the white working class’s push to far right is the direct result of the anti-worker policies that have been status quo since the dawn of the neoliberal era in the 1970s. For the first time in American history, the quality of life for the overwhelming majority of people has been on a downward trajectory for decades. While the (Democrat-leaning) white bourgeoisie has gained wealth, the quality of working class jobs has plummeted in the face of neoliberal economics that prioritize globalization of labor. As has historically been the case in the face of spiking inequality, the ruling classes have developed a complex propaganda network with the sole agenda of distracting the working classes from the causes of their disenfranchisement by placing the blame on scapegoat minorities. In the United States, this means queer people (who are portrayed as the results of a cultural degradation at the hands of educated elites), Latino immigrants (apparently stealing American jobs, despite the fact that they overwhelmingly work in the same slave-like conditions they have occupied for decades), Muslims (blamed for terrorism, they have become the most hated minority group in the country), and black people. Corporate evangelical churches, which have always been the strongest organizing force in rural America, have fused with mass media and with the Republican Party specifically to prevent a worker’s revolution.
This is not just leftist conjecture. The Republican Party began its outreach to evangelicals in the 1980 election, when neoliberal godfather Ronald Reagan relied on the endorsement of multi-millionaire and religious lobbyist Jerry Falwell to gain the presidency. Previously, the devout white Christians had been highly skeptical of politics and been an erratic voting bloc at best. Falwell was largely responsible for the corporatization of Christian talk radio, which had been a staple of working class American live for generations, and by the mid-90s, celebrities of the Reagan-Falwell religious media complex found work in Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, today the most watched cable news network in the country. The corporate religious media have spent decades radicalizing the white rural working class by convincing them their culture is under attack by minorities who are framed as responsible for their increasing poverty. The parallels with the propaganda spread throughout pre-Nazi Germany are chilling, down to the same Wall Street funding.
The bigotry and pro-neoliberal political mindset spread by corporate religious media is not inherent to religious people, or even evangelical media. Don’t forget that evangelical churches were the backbone of the largest populist movement in American history, the Civil Rights Movement fronted by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The revolutionary labor movements of the 1930s was similarly reliant on evangelical churches for their organizing power. Radical Christianity actually aligns profoundly with radical socialism, an observation that even a militant antitheist like Karl Marx acknowledged. Furthermore, religiosity is a non-negotiable reality for many if not most disenfranchised people, both here and around the world, as it offers peace and hope in the face of hopeless structural constraints. A barrage of condescending attacks on extremely important parts of their identity will not make bigoted people more tolerant, it will reinforce the conservative narrative that they are losing an elitist culture war. If the left is going to resonate with the significant portion of our population that is working class white evangelicals (and in order to be a true revolutionary movement we must), it will be through appeals to our shared experience of humanity and through the constant illumination of capitalist oppression. It will take queer, black, Latino, and Muslim people directing their legitimate anger by cooperating with white evangelicals, seeking to understand before being understood. And as Gandhi united Muslims and Hindus to expel British imperialists in India, as university students worked with sugar farmers to overthrow pro-American fascists in Cuba, we have to understand that this coalition is completely possible.
The solution does not rest with the presidential candidates of the Democratic Party. Your vote for the Democratic candidate in November, if you live in one of eleven swing states, may delay the most overt threats to body autonomy (although the Republican Party’s anti-democratic self-sabotage and the Democrats’ delegate manipulation has basically sealed the race for Hillary Clinton, whatever you do). But the economic processes that push more and more Americans into hopelessness will not change, and the media outlets that convert that desperation into hatred still exist. Hillary Clinton’s lifelong record indicates that she will not only fight against pro-worker politics, but she will actively defend mega-corporations’ imperialist exploitation of foreign labor that her husband originally facilitated. Bernie Sanders at least has a strong record of resisting economic neoliberalism, but in the highly unlikely scenario that he gains the nomination, he has already proven that he is too beholden to political viability to institute revolutionary economic change. And revolutionary change is the only way to reverse decades of policy devastating the working class. Until the status quo is radically altered, inequality will worsen, and as more and more people find themselves newly disenfranchised, the radical right wing will only grow in its appeal and its extremism.
Of course, homophobia is older than neoliberal capitalism. Religious fundamentalism existed long before America’s market-based state interventions. The racial resentments and cultural focus on gender that have a hold on many Americans are more complex than the post-Reagan propaganda industry. And liberals, especially wealthy white liberals, have as much cultural prejudice to overcome as more overt bigots. But the instinct of human interaction is one of empathy and compassion even above self defense; this much is scientifically understood to be the basis of our survival as a social species. Racism, sexism, and religious intolerance are social constructs that contradict our human nature. They rely on constant maintenance by cultural propaganda, from overtly hateful sources like Fox News, but also from politicians (including Democrats) who rely on the Culture War narrative to avoid accountability for their oppressive politics. We, the left, must then target our animosity not at the people whose geographic and economic situations have rendered them bigots, but at the structures of neoliberal capitalism that coerced them into bigotry. To do any less is hypocritical.