Bill Scher has an article at Politico on How Republicans Lost The Culture War. While it might be premature to say they lost and the war is over, a subject I’ll get into later, he does have some good points as to what went wrong for the Republicans.
Scher makes three main points. First, Republicans stopped being savvy on abortion. Rather than taking the purist position which they actually favor, legislatively the Republicans had concentrated on more narrow victories. Although late term abortions are rare, they made a lot of noise about “partial-birth abortions.”
While Scher sees this as no longer being savvy, I think that the change in Republican tactics was inevitable. They were never satisfied with stopping the rare late term abortions and were bound to ultimately push for what they really want–a complete ban on abortions.
They might have been more open in pursuing this partially due to a misreading of the polls which show Americans to be more ambivalent on Row v. Wade. The problems is that many people in this country don’t really know what Roe v. Wade means, but that doesn’t stop them from saying yes or no to a pollster. However, when the real question is posed, Americans do not want to make abortion illegal, and a majority agrees that women should have the right to first trimester abortions. Americans do not want to ban abortions, and imprison either women or the doctors involved.
Misreading the polls might have been a problem for Republicans, and this was compounded by moderate Republicans being forced from the party. The far right wing ideologues who now dominate the GOP would push for their position regardless of how unpopular, just as they push for restrictions on birth control, the second item on Scher’s list–Republicans got weird about birth control. If Americans would not go for Republican opposition to legalized first trimester pregnancies, they certainly did not accept their opposition to forms of birth control which prevent implantation, along with wider attempts to reduce access to contraception.
Hysterical Republican cries of “baby killers” are even more absurd when applied to a fertilized egg which lacks a central nervous system and consciousness. The Republican position here makes no more sense scientifically than Republican attitudes which deny science regarding evolution and climate change. This also helps debunk the false Republican frame of making the pertinent question be when life begins. Certainly a fertilized egg is alive, but it also is not deserving of rights which trump the rights of a woman to control her own body. The Republican attitude on contraception only acted to expose their fallacious views regarding abortion, not to mention destroy any false claims they might make for being the supporters of limited government and greater freedom. This seems especially absurd to thinking people as providing easier access to contraception is one obvious way to reduce the number of abortions.
His final point is that Republicans bet wrong on gay marriage. Attitudes in this country certainly have changed rapidly. As James Joyner put it, “As we’ve become more educated, appeal to tradition and cries of “We’ve always done it this way!” are simply less persuasive. Ultimately, the arguments for excluding people from marrying others of the same sex were revealed to be provincial at best and simple bigotry at worst.”
However, while liberal Democratic voters might have supported legalization of same-sex marriage, many Democratic leaders were also behind the country on this one. Still, it is Republicans who made a major issue of trying to again intervene in the private lives of individuals, while Democratic leaders were at least ready to get out of the way as the country changed. While Republican have lost on this issue, Democrats also lost the opportunity to win respect by clearly standing for liberal principles before becoming politically safe.
While the country has been becoming more liberal on social issues, and I see this as a gradual process, not a sudden victory, this does not necessarily mean the culture wars are over. This country still consists of those of us who live in the modern world, and a sizable number who continue to reject science and reason and follow conservative ideas.
Fortunately such ideas are diminishing as fewer young support such conservative attitudes, but they are not disappearing entirely. Young people are far more likely to be influenced by the fake news of Jon Stewart than the fake news coming from Fox. Republicans now will have a hard time winning a presidential election if they do not change their views, but with a two party system we cannot exclude the possibility of another conservative Republican president. Democrats have a significant edge in the electoral college, but not a lock.
The presidency is only one branch of government. The Republicans still have the Supreme Court, although they have decided it best to stay out of the marriage issue now that conservatives are clearly on the wrong side of history. Republicans will continue to have an influence in Congress due to structural issues which keep it from being a truly representative democratic institution. Republicans have a tremendous edge in the Senate as the small states receive the same two Senators as the much more populous blue states. The framers of the Constitution never envisioned such a vast difference in population between the large and small states.
Part of the Republican edge in the House comes from gerrymandering, but even without gerrymandering the Republicans benefit from the concentration of Democratic voters in cities, unless districts are made to account for this. Republicans also benefit from a higher turn out by their voters in midterm elections, and they attempt to increase this edge with laws directed towards making it more difficult for minorities and young college students to vote. The right to vote itself might be the next big division between the parties as Republicans continue to pursue voter suppression as a tactic.
Republicans also dominate in a significant portion of the country, primarily but not limited to the deep south. The culture war is bound to continue there, with Republican candidates also seeking to promote their views elsewhere. As Eleanor Clift wrote, the Republican War on Women continues, just more quietly. We might not be hearing comments such as Tod Akin on women’s bodies shutting down in case of legitimate rape, but have heard plenty of other outrageous statements this year. Republicans might be trying to be more quiet on social issues, but they are failing, and this certainly isn’t coinciding with a change in their views. It is also hard to say that the culture war is entirely over when Republicans have been successful in multiple state legislatures to make abortion more difficult, even if the most draconian Republican proposals have failed.