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How To Tell The “Culture Wars” Are Not Over

A Response To Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart had an article in the Washington Post the Sunday before Election Day arguing that the culture wars are over; according to Beinart, Sarah Palin was failing to connect with voters because

Palin’s brand is culture war, and in America today culture war no longer sells….Although she seems like a fresh face, Sarah Palin actually represents the end of an era. She may be the last culture warrior on a national ticket for a very long time.

Beinart is wrong – completely wrong. We can tell that the “culture wars” are not over because Democrats and liberals are still fighting them. We know culture warriors won’t disappear from national politics because one of them just won the presidential election. And if Beinart means that conservatives are losing the culture wars, that’s far from a certain bet, and one the Democrats would be ill-advised to take.

I. It Takes Two Sides To Have A War

A. The False Narrative

At its core, Beinart’s thesis is grounded in one of the familiar tropes of passive-aggressive liberal pundits: the idea that the “culture war” – political battles over cultural and social issues ranging from abortion to crime to immigration to racial preferences to same-sex marriage to guns to the role of religion in the public square – consists entirely of conservatives picking fights against liberals who just want us all to get along. In this narrative, two things are true: (1) that liberal positions on, say, economic issues are popular but liberal candidates keep losing elections over cultural issues that shouldn’t matter in elections; and (2) that conservative positions on cultural issues are outside the mainstream and doomed by their unpopularity. Of course, it’s logically impossible for both of these things to be true (unless liberals win all the time, and it will take more than two bad election cycles to prove that), but that’s not really my point.

The point is this: we have political conflict over social and cultural issues because we have two sides that disagree on a broad range of issues, and neither is willing to change its position. If these issues were actually unimportant or indefensible, the side that was losing elections on them would throw in the towel and adapt its positions, as for example happened with the end of the political battles over segregation and Prohibition. And if cultural liberals disdained conflict, they would never start battles on these issues – yet they do so all the time. Indeed, abortion wasn’t an issue in national politics until Roe v. Wade; the NRA wasn’t a force in politics until liberal politicians pushed increasingly intrusive gun-control measures.

Pundits like Beinart like to frame these issues as a “war” promulgated by only one side because they can pander to the sensibilities of voters who think it’s rude to fight about these issues. It’s a political strategy designed to seize the moral middle ground. But Beinart and his ilk can’t possibly be so insular as to believe that any of this this is true. Let’s do a little thought experiment to show the unreality of this entire theme.

B. Imagine There’s No Culture War. It Isn’t Hard To Do.

Let’s imagine that Beinart was right. Let’s imagine that social and cultural conflict are political losers. Let’s imagine that the wise Democrats who were just swept into power last week have no intention of using government power to alter the social and cultural landscape. Consider what things would be true if that were the case:

(1) Not only would Barack Obama make Supreme Court and other federal judicial nominations entirely without regard to how his nominees might handle hot-button issues like abortion, but Obama would face no significant pressure from interest groups on the Left to choose nominees who would uphold Roe v. Wade, roll back restrictions on racial preferences, etc. These issues simply would not come up at confirmation hearings. In fact, we know that the Democrats raised such hot-button issues in the confirmation hearings of numerous nominees for the Supreme Court and lower federal courts (probably the single Democrat who pressed these issues most frequently was Joe Biden), we know that Democratic candidates were quizzed on the issue throughout the primaries by liberal interest groups, and we know that there is absolutely zero chance that Obama would nominate a Supreme Court Justice who he suspected of being less than 100% committed to upholding Roe.

(2) The Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress would not seek to push change on social and cultural issues through new legislation and executive orders. Yet there is extensive evidence that they will do just that. Obama promised in 2007 that “The first thing I’d do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That’s the first thing that I’d do” – and FOCA is all about abortion, sweeping and comprehensive new federal legislation to repeal the ban on partial birth abortion, preempt every single state law placing even modest limitations around abortion – “effectively nullify informed consent laws, waiting periods, health safety regulations for abortion clinics, etc.” and remove legal protections for doctors and hospitals who refuse as a matter of conscience to perform abortions. Obama’s people are talking about rolling out a battery of new executive orders that will go into effect immediately, including on stem cell research and federal funding for abortion providers overseas. (In fact, Obama has said in the past that he opposes the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of taxpayer money to subsidize abortions in the U.S.). The wish-list of “progressive” actions on social issues is likely to get a lot longer in the weeks to come, and every time you see an Obama Administration or Democratic Congress pushing new laws or new regulations or executive orders on these topics, ask yourself if the Democrats really aren’t interested in a battle over the culture.

(3) Democrats would not run campaign commercials seeking to gain political advantage on social and cultural issues. Yet where they believed that they could gain advantages by doing so, they did. Obama was so eager to run ads attacking the GOP for its unpopular opposition to embryonic stem cell research (a big electoral winner for the Democrats in 2006) and attacking Republican opponents of immigration that he cut radio ads claiming that John McCain opposed stem cell research and was anti-illegal immigration *, in both cases the polar opposite of McCain’s actual position. Obama ran, in some jurisdictions, ads about abortion, as did many Democrats nationwide (even in a State Senate race in my part of Queens).

(4) Speaking of Sarah Palin, Democrats would not have attacked her on cultural grounds. As Ramesh Ponnuru noted in response to Beinart:

[T]hat bit about Palin’s brand is, I think, incorrect. It’s not culture-war crusading that made Palin the most popular governor in America. And while it’s clear that her being pro-life was a prerequisite for her getting on the ticket this year, I doubt McCain put her on it in order to fight the culture wars: He probably saw her pluses as 1) she’s a fresh female face, 2) she’s a popular governor, 3) she has a record of fighting corruption, including Republican corruption, and 4) she’s acceptable to the party base. The resulting ticket has not done much to elevate the issues of same-sex marriage and abortion.

Palin became a culture-war flashpoint, first, because of the reaction to her by liberals and the counter-reaction by conservatives and, second, because of her adoption of the traditional attack-dog (with lipstick!) role of a vice-presidential candidate.

If you don’t believe Ramesh, go back and read Palin’s convention speech or her speech when McCain introduced her as his running mate and compare the amount of time she spent talking about hot-button social issues as opposed to economic issues, government reform and national security. It was Obama’s supporters who pushed attacks on Palin over things like book-banning, the teaching of evolution, sex education and rape kits, none of which were things Palin set out to talk about in this race.

I’m not suggesting that Palin never engaged in cultural wedge politics, just underlining the fact that an awful lot of the social and cultural wedges driven over Palin came from her opponents, which would not have happened if the culture wars were over as Beinart imagines.

(5) The Democrats would not have picked a culture warrior of the Left as their nominee. Obama is the furthest thing possible from the kind of anodyne, Mark Warner-ish technorat who is concerned only with economic issues and the functioning of government programs. Look back at Barack Obama’s career, from the State Senate up through the Democratic primaries, and you’ll see that this is a guy who put a disproportionate amount of his time and energy into issues like abortion, sex education, racial profiling, gun control, the death penalty, drivers’ licenses for illegal aliens, racial preferences, and race-specific redistricting. His long affiliation with the divisive Jeremiah Wright was, plainly, an effort to play to the cultural sensibilities of his State Senate constituents. The millions of dollars he poured through Bill Ayers into things like “Afrocentric” public education in Chicago was certainly all about cultural politics. (This is aside from the extent to which Obama’s “historic” campaign marketed Obama as one big walking racial-politics issue). As noted above, Obama picked as his running mate a guy best known to the country from the Bork, Thomas, Roberts and Alito hearings, and Obama himself voted against Roberts and Alito on strictly ideological grounds. The Democratic Congressional leadership is studded with culture warriors – there are many more Nancy Pelosis there than Harry Reids.

(6) The Left wouldn’t have an active infrastructure for pushing its side on social issues in election campaigns. Yet we have, for example, TIME Magazine reporting with a straight face on the existence of a “Gay Mafia” (their term, not mine) pouring money into races over gay issues – “Among gay activists, the Cabinet is revered as a kind of secret gay Super Friends, a homosexual justice league that can quietly swoop in wherever anti-gay candidates are threatening and finance victories for the good guys.” (I swear, these are actual quotes from the article). We have Emily’s List, “dedicated to building a progressive America by electing pro-choice Democratic women to office.” Heck, in North Carolina the Democratic Senate candidate accepted the endorsement of “Godless America PAC.”

(7) The Left would accept its losses and move on. Instead, we have fierce battles to take to the courts whatever the cultural Left loses at the ballot box, most recently the lawsuits filed to enjoin Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban. A lengthy and concerted campaign also knocked the Arizona Civil Rights Initiative, an anti-racial-preferences proposal, off the ballot.

There is simply no way to look at the Democratic Party as presently constituted, and the interest and pressure groups that support it, and argue with a straight face that they are disinterested in fighting a culture war. They have their positions, they’ll fight to win, and they make political hay when they can. It’s insulting to our intelligence to claim otherwise.

II. Is Beinart’s Side Winning?

The alternative reading of Beinart’s argument, which he’s not quite willing to come right out and say, is that yes, his side is waging a culture war – and winning. Obviously in the aftermath of a decisive election victory by a candidate like Obama, with increasing margins for the Democratic majorities in Congress and in a number of state legislatures, that’s a tempting claim to make. But I’d suggest that there are some cautions before the cultural Left engages in triumphalism here.

The first is the referenda – even if Republicans were quite unpopular on this Election Day, socially conservative positions did a lot better in referenda. Besides Proposition 8 passing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in gay-friendly deep-blue California, you had similar ballot initiatives pass in Arizona and Florida. A ban on racial preferences passed in Nebraska and a similar measure lost only narrowly in Colorado. (Pro-life initiatives did less well in some places like South Dakota where they were poorly funded). These are not the results you would expect from a nation that has suddenly taken an abrupt left turn.

Second, while the Democrats are still intent on fighting a culture war, their behavior over the past 3-4 years suggests that they nonetheless recognize that there are serious downsides to them doing so. Even with the nomination of Obama, the national party has run away as fast as it can from its previously aggressive agenda on gun control, which is just as bad politics for the Democrats in most districts as stem cells is for most Republicans. Obama did try to avoid talking much about a bunch of the wedge issues he’d used throughout his career. And at the Congressional level, we’ve seen a lot of putatively pro-life, pro-gun, and even anti-illegal-immigrant Democratic candidates, a nuber of whom have been elected. Only time will tell if these rank-and-file Democrats will have any impact in muting the culture-warrior inclinations of the party’s base and leadership, but the fact that they were supported by the party at all suggests that a more conservative stance on many social issues is still necessary to get elected in many parts of this country.

Third, Beinart’s own analysis suggests that we shouldn’t read too much into 2008:

In 2000, in the wake of an economic boom and a sex scandal that led to a president’s impeachment, 22 percent of Americans told exit pollsters that “moral values” were their biggest concern, compared with only 19 percent who cited the economy. Today, according to a recent Newsweek poll, the economy is up to 44 percent and “issues like abortion, guns and same-sex marriage” down to only 6 percent.

Most analysts of politics and history would find bizarre Beinart’s argument that social and cultural issues are off the table during times of economic stress (tell that to Jerry Falwell, who started the Moral Majority during the pit of the Carter years). But an economic crisis eight weeks before a national election is another matter. So social and cultural issues don’t seem to have mattered much in this election – well, neither did national security, yet nobody would seriously argue that national security is no longer an issue in American politics. It just happened that we had a race unusually dominated by a sudden economic crisis. Democrats who build a long-term strategy on re-creating those conditions will end up disappointed.

Has the political landscape on social and cultural issues moved left? Certainly the Left is now empowered. But ironically, the status quo argument of pundits like Peter Beinart will become completely and openly indefensible if the next few years are characterized by broad-ranging efforts to use the federal government to impose change on the social and cultural landscape; voters who hate hearing about these issues may discover they’re not fond of a party that wants to spend its first month in office pushing taxpayer funding for abortion. If the Democrats believed the culture wars were over, they’d leave them be. If they push their agenda and hit stiff resistance from the American people, they may find out that their side of the war isn’t as popular as they’d like to believe. And ironically, their doing so may be the ticket back to the top for Republicans who lead the resistance.

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