For more than three decades, an alliance of evangelical Christians and Republicans has used social and personal issues to win away Southern evangelicals and Midwestern and Northern working class whites from the Democratic Party. Emphasizing race, religion, and sexuality, the alliance has used issues like abortion, school prayer, welfare, affirmative action, and gay rights as a wedge to place the Democrats on the defensive. Most of them tried to switch the discussion to economic issues, where they thought they could hold on to their working class support.
The low point of these culture wars occurred when Republican political strategist Lee Atwater attacked Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election by running a nefarious ad blaming him for the crimes of a black Massachusetts convict. The convict, Willie Horton, had raped a white girl and tied up her boyfriend after escaping from prison while out on a weekend pass. The ad promoted the idea that Dukakis was a liberal soft on crime, and blatantly played on racial stereotypes, stirring white fears of black criminality. It helped George H. W. Bush defeat Dukakis in the 1988 election. (Before his death in 1991, Atwater apologized for the scurrilous and negative campaigning he had engaged in.)
The culture wars were also pursued by right-wing politicians like Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan, along with religious leaders like Donald Wildmon and Pat Robertson when they launched a concerted attack on the National Endowment for the Arts for supporting artists and venues engaged in "anti-Christian bigotry." They had some success passing legislation forbidding the NEA from funding artists and institutions that "promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent materials."
That aspect of the culture wars didn’t make much progress, and conservatives began to understand how little political capital could be gained by attacking supposedly subversive and profane works of art. The American public has just never cared enough about museum and gallery art to get politically disturbed by its content, and prurient sex plays a prime role on network television, while porn is a multi-billion dollar business.
In the last month or so cultural issues -- gay marriage, gun control, immigration, and on a state level even the loosening of prohibitions on pot use -- are in the news again. But this time the Democrats have taken the lead in trying to pass legislation on these issues, and have the general support of the young, minorities, and the growing number of religiously unaffiliated voters. And the momentum of history is on their side, since white blue-collar voters are in decline, and the nation’s new demographic reality is that the fastest growing populations are now Hispanic and Asian.
In 2013 a majority of Americans favor stricter gun control, but the greatest leap of support is in the area of gay rights. For the first time, Gallup Polls show a majority of Americans support full marriage equality for gay couples, while in 2003 most Americans (58 percent) were opposed to allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, and just 33 percent were in favor. That’s just one piece of American society’s growing acceptance of homosexuality.
It’s been an utter reversal from the time when Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 and few politicians were willing to stand up for gay rights. Of course, positive poll numbers don’t mean that the Roberts-led Supreme Court in late June will strike down the constitutionality of anti-gay marriage legislation. But if there is no sweeping decision for gay marriage, the results will still probably bring encouraging changes for its advocates.
What will ultimately happen with the immigration and gun control bills is hard to predict. But an immigration reform bill has gained the agreement of the bipartisan Gang of Eight, and hopefully if it passes will both boost border security and put 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally on a path to citizenship.
Gun control is another matter. Expanded background checks have the support of 80 percent of the population, and are probably the only response to our rampant gun violence that can eventually get through Congress. Other elements of gun-control legislation like a ban on rapid-firing assault weapons and limits on the capacity of ammunition magazines seem to have little chance, given a gerrymandered House whose members are elected by "love-our-guns" districts that demand that they toe the line on gun-control. It’s hard to make headway when a defense of guns is seen as a defense of a way of life.
Obviously, a grand cultural revolution is not in the offing, as there are just too many red state legislatures passing bills banning abortion and regions that will be fighting rear guard actions. But a tipping point has been reached, and thankfully the country is moving in a different cultural direction. One pessimistic right wing commentator wrote: "Conservatives have largely lost the culture war, and it can’t be won back by passing some landmark piece of legislation. Instead, it’s going to be a long, hard slog."
But if there is hope for cultural change through legislation, there is little sign that the congressional stalemate on creating jobs by rebuilding our infrastructure, providing preschool for every child in America, and tying the minimum wage to the cost of living will be broken. It’s just much harder to take on the corporations and break from our reflexive distrust of big government than to change our sexual attitudes.
As political commentator Michael Tomasky writes, Obama’s congressional campaign in 2014 should stress that "the Republicans are the problem and you must throw them out. Give me a Democratic House -- it’s the only way we’ll get anything done in the next two years."
Leonard Quart can be reached at Cinwrit@aol.com