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Friday, January 23, 2009

Are the culture wars over?

The Republican domination of American politics in the past thirty years was built on three core planks: fiscal conservatism (meaning tight monetary policy, deregulation and privatisation); foreign policy aggression (the party that ‘defends America’); and social conservatism.

The Obama victory occurred because the financial crisis played havoc with this calculation in all manner of ways. First, the Wall Street elites abandoned their commitment to keeping government out of business when they discovered that government was the only thing that could keep them in business. Meanwhile, the public exposure of corporate greed made the public as a whole question its commitment to free markets uber alles. And – in the longer term, over a decade – the Democrats became increasingly dominated by centrists who accepted many of the more sensible principles of fiscal responsibility, or at least appeared more sensible than the Bush Republicans were on the matter.

Not only did the financial crisis mean that the importance of items two and three on the list was sharply reduced, but it also put the failure of eight years of aggressive foreign policy into stark relief. Money that should have been going on constructive growth projects creating jobs and businesses in America was lining the pockets of Bechtel and KBR, or being poured down the sink through the manufacture of self-destroying bombs and bullets; and yet the product of all this ridiculous spending was a world that was more and more suspicious of American power.

This left cultural conservatism as the sole plank on which to build a Republican majority, and it starkly failed to work in the last election. Partly this was because the Obama campaign did a good job of avoiding any number of red flag issues; and partly because in the context of the looming destruction of the economy ‘values’ issues came to be depicted as little more than a cynical attempt by politicians to sucker the electorate: a bait and switch of the worst kind. And once cultural politics started looking like a political tactic, it suddenly became counter-productive ... by definition, since the essence of the argument was that it was a conflict over sincerely held values.

But there might be a deeper trend going on here as well: namely, that it seems that the world has moved on since the splits of the 1960s. Andrew Sullivan was on the television the other day over here in the UK, and argued that people just don’t care about these issues as much as the activists – that there was a basic consensus emerging in America on cultural issues. Namely, most people don’t like abortion but they don’t want people going to prison for it; and most people aren’t gay but don’t really care if other people are. To some extent the role of activists in the structure of primary voting had disguised how far the public as a whole had moved on on this issue.

So here’s my question: is it really true that the culture wars are dying out? In Europe, so many of these things are such non-issues that it’s hard to credit their persistence in the US. But they've lasted a hundred years already. And given that culture wars remain – for the next four or more years at least – the one part of the Republican triumvirate of power that may still hold traction with some voters, it’s an important question whether the consensus has genuinely shifted toward social liberalism or whether social conservatism is just in hiding whilst the maelstrom of economic crisis and foreign policy failure drowns it out…

What makes me wonder was a recent feature in the New Yorker on congressman Barney Frank – a figure heavily involved in the horse-trading over the financial bailout but known to many Americans simply as the openly gay congressman. Frank complained that Obama’s decision to place Rick Warren on the inaugural programme reflected a real problem: the new president's reluctance to admit that ideological differences can’t always be negotiated away, that sometimes they need to be confronted. He also laid out his legislative agenda for the forthcoming year: “We’re going to do three things in Congress,” he told me. “First, a hate-crimes bill—that shouldn’t be too hard. Next, employment discrimination. We almost got that through before, but now we can win even if we add transgender protections, which we are going to do. And finally, after the troops get home from Iraq, gays in the military. The time has come.”

Obama’s reference in his acceptance speech to tolerance for straights and gays suggests he may support this agenda; but his invitation to Rick Warren suggests that he might try and duck these issues, since they offer an opportunity to revive cultural conservatism. What he decides, and how the public reacts, therefore, could turn out to be a critical underlying issue of his administration. Compare FDR, for instance: the first term was so dominated by economics that the old fashioned version of the culture wars (anti-communism) took a back seat. But it came back resurgent by 1938. And on the even bigger issue - an anti-lynching law - FDR ducked the question entirely, knowing that it held the potential to split his party.

So, two questions:
  • Are the culture wars really dead? Has America moved on about this stuff?
  • Will the desire of the Democratic left to win these victories for personal rights provide a stick with which to beat Obama in the way that gays in the military was used against Clinton?
These two questions might prove to be very important indeed…

Alex Goodall

Papamoka’s European Contributor
From A Swift Blow to the Head

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Blogger by Michael Boh said...

Alex - Great post! You asked: "Are the culture wars really dead?" I hate to sound cynical, but my answer would have to be not as long as they can be used as wedge issues for manipulative political parties, politicians and special interests. You also ask: "Has America moved on about this stuff? Will the desire of the Democratic left to win these victories for personal rights provide a stick with which to beat Obama in the way that gays in the military was used against Clinton?" Interesting, but cynical. That "stick" is an important part of politics in my opinion - it's the carrot that's hard to come by. Hopefully Obama will only be "beaten" when necessary. Personal rights? I suggest "personal freedoms." Politics is about life, not just livelihood. That's my belief at least - MB

8:31 PM  
Anonymous Infidel753 said...

Wars end when one side wins them. We (liberals) are winning the culture wars. Abortion is mostly accepted outside fundamentalist circles (or, at least, as you say, Americans don't want people punished for it, which in practical terms is the same thing). Homosexuality too is generally accepted outside the highly-religious subculture. The majority against gay marriage is rapidly eroding. Like interracial marriage 40 years ago, it will become legal and over time people will get used to it.

Yes, the Republicans will try to use these issues as a stick to beat the Democrats, but it will be an increasingly ineffectual stick.

6:12 AM  
Blogger B.J. said...

Alex, Michael & Mat: I assume you get comments emailed to you. I’ve spend some time this Monday morning (after a busy weekend) catching up on your various posts. It’s always good to come away from such efforts better informed. Thanks for the hard work! BJ

6:52 AM  

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