Are conservatives prehistoric humans?

Politicians who call themselves “conservative” are usually the politcal beneficiaries of racial prejudice, because their opponents are, more or less correctly, identified in the public mind as favoring the interest of ethnic minorities, and in particular African-Americans. (During the Civil Rights era, “conservative” in the South meant primarily “anti-integration,” while “liberal” meant basically “pro-integration.”)

Some politicians on the right make deliberate appeals to such prejudice, and few are willing to distance themselves from racists even if they don’t directly appeal to racism themselves.

Liberals like to point that out, as for example when Haley Barbour turned out to be palling around with the successor-in-business of the old White Citizens Councils. Conservatives think, reasonably, that liberals sometimes get over-enthusiastic, and make charges of racism when the evidence is lacking.

So conservatives have figured out what to do about it: charge liberals with racism whenever possible, and set up situations where liberals wind up opposing some individual African-American or Latino so as to be able to charge them with racism for doing so. (See index under “Thomas, Clarence, lynching charge.”)

NewsMax has rolled out a new version of this old canard. (See Michael Strange’s account at Strange Doctrines.)

Now pay attention, please. This one is a little bit hard to follow, because the charge of racism is so completely absurd.

During the Goldwater-for-President campaign, or perhaps a little earlier, the term “Neanderthal” came to be applied to extreme conservatives. (I recall hearing “cave-man” and “troglodyte” as alternatives.)

If I had to try to unpack the metaphor, I’d guess that the idea was (1) to mock the conservative fascination with what they (largely falsely) believe to be the ancestral ways of doing things by raising the question of how far back the ancestral chain they really want to go and (2) to suggest that the aggressive anti-intellectualism of the Birch Society types reflected a lack of intelligence or culture characteristic of pre-humans or early humans.

As a teenager, I didn’t reflect much on that usage; evaluating it today, I’d have to rate it as somewhat uncivil. But calling someone a “Neanderthal conservative” means primarily that the target is on the extreme right; there’s no actual suggestion of uncouth appearance or lack of IQ, merely the (largely unfair) suggestion that the ideas in question are somehow primitive.

But when Ted Kennedy hauled out the label “Neanderthal” to characterize those Bush-nominated judges whom the Senate would not confirm, NewsMax sprung into action. They knew that Kennedy wasn’t talking about people who think that the Supreme Court decisions of the New Deal era were comparable to the Bolshevik revolution:

…the belief in and the impulse toward human perfection, at least in the political life of a nation, is an idea whose arc can be traced from the Enlightenment, through the Terror, to Marx and Engels, to the Revolutions of 1917 and 1937. The latter date marks the triumph of our own socialist revolution.

No, their secret decoder rings tell them that Kennedy was referring specifically to that small subset of Bush’s African-American and Latino nominees whom the Senate has not confirmed. Kennedy, you see, meant to imply that they are racially inferior. “Overtly racist language,” huffs NewsMax.

If these folks and their allies weren’t in complete control of the federal government, it would be funny.

[This latest nonsense reminds me of an earlier flap about the term “extra-chromosome conservative.” That coinage, which I recall being by Reagan’s quite conservative political adviser Ed Rollins but which I’ve also seen attributed to the elder President Bush, was meant to suggest that the more pugnacious elements of the wild-eyed right resembled men with an extra Y chromosome. Those XYY males are somewhat more aggressive and somewhat more likely to engage in violent crime than those of us with only a single Y chromosome. (However, the difference, about a 50% increase in violence, isn’t nearly as great as the difference between men and women, which is almost tenfold: the second Y chromosome isn’t nearly as criminogenic as the first.)

When some liberals picked up the phrase, some conservatives turned around and accused them of making fun of people with Down Syndrome, which is a trisomy of a different chromosome set.]

This tactic is can’t-lose for the right wing. No doubt some people will believe the charge of racism, or making fun of kids with Down Syndrome, or whatever. But, more importantly, those who recognize them as false, malicious, and silly charges will be gaining practice in regarding charges of racism and other forms of prejudice as false, malicious, and silly, which make those charges less powerful against the Republican politicians who are in fact guilty of pandering to bigotry.

Similarly, the lunatic Clinton-baiting financed by Scaife et al. convinced some people that, for example, Bill Clinton had arranged to have Vince Foster murdered, but it also convinced more sensible people that sensational charges against Presidents are likely to be lies concocted by their enemies. Then when President Bush’s closest political adviser coordinates the outing of a covert CIA officer, it’s hard to get anyone to believe “crazy conspiracy theories.” Rather beautiful, really.

We now return you to our regularly sponsored madness.

Update: It’s not just NewsMax. Tony Snow of Faux News is on the case as well. Updated update John Cole at Balloon Juice adds his bit of hot air.

Second update: Tbogg nails this one.

Third update: Jacob Levy writes:

“Troglodyte” was the official Buckley-National-Review term for the anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-intellectual isolationist right, back when they were fighting that fight in the 50s. (Retroactively it gets

applied to racists as well, though NR in the 50s clearly wasn’t distancing itself from racism.)

Again, I’m not defending the practice of associating one’s political opponents with cave-men. But to try to make a racial issue of it is just dishonest.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: