The Waning of the Culture War?

Peter Beinart says public interest in “culture war” issues is on the wane, not just as a transient phenomenon of the financial crisis, but as a turning of the great wheel of history. He says this isn’t the first time:

This won’t be the first time a culture war has come to a close. In the 1920s, battles over evolution, immigration, prohibition and the resurgent Ku Klux Klan dominated election after election. And those issues played into that era’s version of the red-blue divide, pitting newly arrived, saloon-frequenting, big-city Catholics against old-stock, teetotaling, small-town Protestants. In 1924, the Democratic convention split so bitterly over prohibition and the Klan that it took more than 100 ballots to nominate a candidate for president.

Then, says Beinart, that era came to a close in the 1930s driven to an end by a combination of economic problems and generational turnover. Beinart says something similar is happening today:

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. It’s no coincidence that Palin’s popularity has plummeted as the financial crisis has taken center stage. From her championing of small-town America to her efforts to link Barack Obama to former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, Palin is treading a path well-worn by Republicans in recent decades. She’s depicting the campaign as a struggle between the culturally familiar and the culturally threatening, the culturally traditional and the culturally exotic. But Obama has dismissed those attacks as irrelevant, and the public, focused nervously on the economic collapse, has largely tuned them out.


Palin’s attacks are also failing because of generational change. The long-running, internecine baby boomer cultural feud just isn’t that relevant to Americans who came of age after the civil rights, gay rights and feminist revolutions. Even many younger evangelicals are broadening their agendas beyond abortion, stem cells, school prayer and gay marriage. And just as younger Protestants found JFK less threatening than their parents had found Al Smith, younger whites — even in bright-red states — don’t view the prospect of a black president with great alarm.

I think we should be suspicious of arguments that seem to assume that US political history operates as a series of repeating long cycles. Realistically, the number of cases Beinart is working with here are somewhere between one and two, not nearly enough to use as the basis for meaningful predictions. It’s definitely true that the economic downturn is making GOP culture war attacks relatively ineffective. But something similar was true in 1992. Elections that take place during recessions are dominated by a desire to punish the incumbent party. But that doesn’t mean people don’t care about these issues anymore. What’s more, I would say that part of the reason the McCain-Palin camp’s culture war politics seems so lame is that McCain’s record has left him unable to campaign on Federal Marriage Amendment or the need to rounp-up immigrants and deport them. Unlike praise of small towns and vague condemnations of “fake” Virginia, those are real issues — genuine subjects of legislative activity that I can imagine people running and winning on. Not, to be sure, amidst a recession and with a hugely unpopular conservative incumbent. But I have a feeling both of those issues will be back soon enough.