Joe Biden isn’t floundering alone in the current culture war. The Democratic Party’s brand has chosen the wrong side of some hot-button issues, ranging from “soft on crime” policies to COVID-19 shutdowns to critical race theory. It has gotten so bad that, according to Politico, the Democratic Party’s congressional campaign arm is warning their candidates that “they risk losing significant ground to Republicans in the midterms.” If Dems don’t adequately respond to Republican attacks on these culture-war issues, party operatives say “the GOP’s lead on the generic ballot balloons to 14 points from 4 points…” This could be the difference between a wave and a tsunami.
It’s tempting to dismiss the culture war as ginned-up or phony. But the problem with brushing off the culture war writ large is that culture is everything. Democrats should not dismiss people’s concerns about their culture being threatened as beneath them because it encompasses a person’s way of life—including their institutions, worldview, and sacred values.
Native Americans struggled against colonists and settlers to preserve not just their lives but their way of life. Today, conservationists fight against overdevelopment to conserve not just their environment but their culture. There is nothing inherently ignoble about this, except to those who view these fights as hindering progress. When it comes to “social progress,” we call these folks progressives.
Now, because some forms of change, like most technological advancements, are both salutary and inexorable, progress has a positive connotation. But when change is either perceived as harmful to a person’s way of life and/or is radically thrust upon people, you can expect a visceral backlash. Such is the case in American politics today.
You might wonder how the Democratic Party preemptively and prematurely picked a culture war fight they couldn’t win. I believe it’s because a) ideology is blinding, and b) they assumed a “coalition of the ascendant” would counter any attrition that might come from working-class voters defecting. (This is not an endorsement of “replacement theory.”)
The latter obviously hasn’t panned out for them. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m more interested in the former.
The loudest voices on the left today are very online–young, educated “woke” white progressives. As Democratic data guru David Shor noted last year, “as Democrats have traded non-college-educated voters for college-educated ones, white liberals’ share of voice and clout in the Democratic Party has gone up.”
“And since white voters are sorting [based] on ideology more than nonwhite voters,” Shor continues, “we’ve ended up in a situation where white liberals are more left wing than Black and Hispanic Democrats on pretty much every issue…”
In their minds, they are on the right side of history; and that history must be constantly progressing. And because progressives are always pushing for progress, they are the aggressors in the culture war. Or, as Kevin Drum, the liberal journalist formerly with Washington Monthly and Mother Jones, put it last year, “It is not conservatives who have turned American politics into a culture war battle. It is liberals.”
That’s because, according to Drum (who charted changes in public attitudes on issues like abortion, guns, gay marriage, taxes, and religion), “Since 1994, Democrats have moved left far more than Republicans have moved right.”
Not surprisingly, this shift is most acutely felt in rural and small-town America, which tends to be more non-college white and culturally conservative. “The [Democratic] party’s brand is so toxic in the small towns 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh,” the AP tells us, “that some liberals have removed bumper stickers and yard signs and refuse to acknowledge publicly their party affiliation.”
Progressives sometimes lament the fact that working-class and/or rural Americans vote against their self-interest, by which they generally mean economic self-interest. To the degree their premise is correct, it comes down to culture. The materialists can’t fathom how intangibles like honor, respect, tradition, loyalty, religion, status, or identity so often trump pecuniary concerns. The truth is that not only will people often vote against their presumed self-interest to preserve their way of life, they will sometimes even die for it. This can be noble (as is the case with a war hero willing to die for his country) or even silly (think of the Americans who were so wedded to the anti-vax tribe that they would rather die than get a vaccine).
Of course, sometimes these culture war issues are not so esoteric. In some cases, the worry is not about losing one’s way of life, but about losing one’s life. Progressives can try to dismiss the “defund the police” phrase as a culture war slogan, but violent crime is a serious issue. What is more, it’s plausible that some of the problem is the result of a left-wing political culture where district attorneys are increasingly soft on crime and police officers feel like we have abandoned them. The crime issue isn’t going away, and the latest front in this ongoing culture war seems to be bail reform.
As National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar pointed out, this week we saw the man who allegedly stabbed a 35-year-old Asian woman to death in New York City released without bail, and a local Black Lives Matter chapter posting bail for a man accused of attempting to murder a Louisville, Kentucky, mayoral candidate. “Part of the political problem for Dems is that they’re months behind in appreciating how damaging their positions at the time are,” Kraushaar tweeted.
It might be too obvious to say that the Democratic Party had better change if they want to mitigate their looming electoral losses in the coming November midterms. But if they want to remain a viable party in the near future, they better pump the brakes on “progress” and ease up on stoking the left-wing culture wars.