03/03/2012 03:19 pm ET Updated May 03, 2012

A Fury of Bigotry in an Unhinged Primary Season

This past week more than any other in memory has reinforced for me how hard it is to sustain social progress, even around matters that by any measure seemed to have been settled. Can it be that all of the Republicans in the United States Senate save one voted for an amendment to a highway bill that would give employers and insurers the right to deny women insurance coverage for contraceptives, an amendment that by the way would also potentially deprive women of additional benefits like prenatal care and childhood vaccinations and cancer screenings, including mammograms -- merely on the grounds of the claim of a conscientious objection?

It is consoling perhaps to read that even two-thirds to three-quarters of America's Catholics oppose such fanaticism. Yet the alarm bells are ringing, and in a year when a disproportionate number of Democrats are up for re-election the Senate is only a few seats away from being controlled by people whose political base listens to Rush Limbaugh, watches Fox News, seriously considers Rick Santorum's candidacy for president, and would blithely legislate that women must endure the forcible entry of a state-authorized probe before terminating an unwanted pregnancy.

Political campaigns at their best are a kind of morality play, in which the sentiments that linger beneath the surface are flushed out into the open despite the best efforts of the handlers and the spin-doctors to keep a lid on things, and now a primary season that was supposed to be about the economy has suddenly erupted into a fury of bigotry and religious zealotry.

Unguarded ideological attacks in the legislature and courts on immigrants and gays and people of color have been long been a demoralizing staple of our national politics. Yet in these past few days a window opened onto a place where the party of individual liberty passed laws requiring women to submit to a sonogram before undergoing a legal abortion, a place where the party of Lincoln convened a Congressional panel composed exclusively of one gender to prescribe the rights of another, and a place where the host of the most widely successful talk show in American radio would call a young college student a slut and a prostitute for speaking out on the health and social benefits of contraception.

It's time to revisit Gloria Steinem's memorable admonition that "If men could have babies, abortion would be a sacrament" and to understand that this election, in Jesse Jackson's trenchant observation, is a choice between "a new America and a return to the old South." And unlike our fellow citizens in states controlled by the party that was formed in the 19th century out of concern for the welfare and protection of minorities but which in the 21st century has enacted voter-suppression laws in order to prevent poor people and people of color from going to the polls -- you do get to choose.