Republicans are Losing the Culture War ...Badly
The recent Wisconsin election is more evidence that the GOP is on the losing end of the culture war
Ever since Donald Trump used his Twitter account and Mark Zuckerberg’s nihilist greed to put divisive cultural issues at the top of the agenda, conventional wisdom called the “Culture War” the GOP’s secret weapon. Stoking fear about immigrants, gay and trans people, and crime allows Republicans to fire up their base and peel off persuadable voters. Democrats, on the other hand, succeed when the focus is on jobs, wages, Social Security, and other “kitchen table” issues.
The 2021 Republican victory in Blue Virginia was credited to the GOP’s ability to center the campaign on “Critical Race Theory.” In 2022, the incorrect predictions of a “Red Wave” focused on the rising salience of crime as a top-tier issue.
On paper, this idea makes some sense. In politics, you want to direct the debate toward issues that unite your coalition and divide your opponent’s. Some “culture” issues like immigration and crime split the Democratic base. On the other side of the aisle, there is a chasm between the pro-corporation policies of Republican leaders and the populist leanings of their largely working-class base.
Over the last many years, Democrats dedicated time and energy to defuse, avoid, and pivot away from these “devastating” Culture War attacks and refocus the electorate on economic issues.
But what if that conventional wisdom is wrong — or at least outdated? The results from the midterm elections and last week’s Supreme Court race in Wisconsin show that the Republicans are losing the Culture War.
Culture War Defined
The “Culture War” is a broad term, but it highlights divisive issues centered around identity — race, gender and sexual orientation. Crime and immigration fall into this category because Republicans use them as none-too-subtle proxies for race. Cultural wedge issues have sat at the center of GOP strategy for more than a half century — Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad, and George W. Bush’s homophobic crusade against marriage equality. For decades, abortion has been THE prototypical wedge issue. Republicans used it to rev up their voters and Democrats worked overtime to change the subject or sand down the differences with focus-grouped phrases like “safe, legal, and rare.”
All of that changed in recent years. As the Republicans squeeze more turnout from a shrinking base, the party’s position on cultural issues drifts further and further from the mainstream. Extremist, less electable candidates pushing unpopular policies has become the norm. And the Republicans are paying a significant price. Abortion and marriage equality are now points of strength for Democrats. There are signs that Democrats can make similar progress on other issues, including crime and the GOP’s anti-trans agenda.
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