In mid-2009, I published a report called The Coming End of the Culture Wars. Four years on, how is my prediction holding up?
First, let’s review some history. The term “culture wars” dates back to a 1991 book by academic James Davison Hunter who argued that cultural issues touching on family and religious values, feminism, gay rights, race, guns and abortion had redefined American politics. Going forward, bitter conflicts around these issues would be the fulcrum of politics in a polarized nation.
For a while, it did look like he might have a point. Conservatives especially seemed happy to take a culture wars approach, reasoning that political debate around these issues would both mobilize their base and make it more difficult for progressives to benefit from their edge on domestic policy issues like the economy and health care. This approach played an important role in conservative gains in the early part of the Clinton administration, the impeachment drama of the late 1990’s, which undercut progressive legislative strategies, and, of course, the 2000 and 2004 victories of conservative George W. Bush.
Lately, though, these issues have been conspicuous by their absence. Looking back on Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008, culture wars issues not only had a very low profile in the campaign, but, where conservatives did attempt to raise them, these issues did them little good. Indeed, they were probably more hurt than helped by such attempts–witness the effect of the Sarah Palin nomination.
Since then, attempts to revive the culture wars have been similarly unsuccessful. Sarah Palin’s bizarre trajectory, culminating in her surprise resignation from the Alaska governership, only made culture wars politics appear even more out of touch. And culture warriors’ shrill attacks on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor conspicuously failed to turn public opinion against her.
More recently, the air has been running even faster out of the culture wars balloon. Take the culture warriors’ signature issue of opposition to same sex marriage. Back in 2009, I noted that support for same sex marriage, while a minority position, was increasing steadily at a rate of about a percentage point a year. In the last four years, that rate of change has accelerated to more than 2 points a year, so that we now see plurality and frequently majority support for same sex marriage in public polling. Indeed, the 2012 exit poll found a 49-46 plurality in favor of legalizing same sex marriage, support that extended, as a recent report has noted, across a wide range of demographic groups.
Of course, in the actual 2012 campaign, culture wars issues were “the dog that didn’t bark” as candidate Romney attempted to stay far, far away from these issues. This was despite President Obama’s historic decision to come out in support of legalizing same sex marriage. Romney, despite his party’s continued opposition to freedom to marry, did not feel he could safely push that opposition in a general election context.
The culture wars as we have known them are therefore likely coming to an end. Demographic change is undercutting both the level and salience of conservative cultural views, thereby reducing the effectiveness of such politics. And no, abortion rights is not an exception: in the 2012 exit poll, 18-29 year olds were 2:1 pro-choice on abortion, the highest of any age group.
These changes will not prevent conservative activists around particular culture wars issues from continuing to press their case. Indeed, reaction to their current desperate plight may lead them to intensify their efforts in some states, especially where demographic change has been slow or where local right wing culture wars institutions retain strength. But there will be diminishing incentives for politicians to take up these causes for the very simple reason that they are losers.
The winding down of the culture wars will also not end the clustering of those with progressive and conservative cultural views at the progressive and conservative ends of politics. It will still be the case that voters will be attracted to the political “home” where they feel culturally most comfortable. Conservatives will attempt to capitalize on this by giving a cultural overtone to non-cultural issues like taxes and government spending.
Sound familiar? That, of course, has been the conservative playbook for the last several years. But the aggressive use of specifically cultural issues to divide voters will become less and less common. And the country will be a better place for it.