Notice: I was interviewed for a podcast (“What the Gerrymander”) that will drop at midnight tonight. You can find it here, if interested: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/what-the-gerrymander/id1668429440
Wanda Sykes has the ability to be both funny and a dead-on critic of social insanity. A recent quip making the rounds on social media will illustrate: “Until a drag queen walks into a school and beats eight kids to death with a copy of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ I think you’re focusing on the wrong shit.”
The quote perfectly encapsulates what frustrates and angers the vast majority of Americans– people posturing as “pro life” and insisting that their censorship and homophobia are intended to “protect children,” while adamantly opposing rational gun regulation.
The priorities of the Right don’t just seem incompatible to most of us, they increasingly seem incomprehensible. But a book I recently read, suggested by a commenter to this blog, gave me a better understanding of the context of today’s culture wars and those who fight them. It was Stephen Prothero’s Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections).
Prothero filled in some details of U.S. history that I’d previously missed. For example, I knew that Thomas Jefferson was criticized for his departures from orthodox Christianity, but I had not previously understood how incredibly widespread and vicious that criticism was. As a member of a marginalized minority, I was aware that American Catholics had also been subjected to significant discrimination–but I had no idea of the extent and duration of America’s anti-Catholicism. A colleague who studied Mormon history had clued me in about anti-Mormonism, but–again–I had been unaware of the extent of the cultural animus focused on Mormons.
These and other revelations really did provide a context–and predicted outcome– for our current cultural battles.
As Prothero points out, it is almost fore-ordained that the “liberal” side (the forces militating for inclusion and acceptance–i.e., the “woke” side) will win such conflicts. That’s because these “wars” only begin when the people waging them realize they are already close to losing–that the social environment is already significantly changed from the certainties with which they are comfortable, and within which they are privileged.
For some number of Americans, that loss is terrifying and unsupportable.
In analyzing partisan jockeying for the upcoming election, Jennifer Rubin identified positions being taken by the GOP–on abortion, guns, and LGBTQ+– issues that clearly repel a majority of Americans, and explained that “Voters enthralled with turning politics into primal scream therapy don’t much care about a viable agenda or electability.”
Together, Rubin and Prothero explained what I previously found incomprehensible. For those of us who expect rational behavior by partisans engaged in an electoral contest, the recent trajectory of the Republican party has been mystifying. After all, it isn’t that Republican strategists don’t know that abortion bans, for instance, are costing them elections; as a recent Roll Call article reported.
The generic ballot has shifted toward Democrats, with Republicans losing ground among independents on the abortion issue, according to a new polling memo from a GOP firm that fell into Democratic hands.
“There has been a 6 point swing in the last year on the Generic Senate ballot from R+3 to D+3. This movement is [led] overwhelmingly by Independent and NEW voters that identify abortion as one of their top issues,” according to a “National Issue Study” by co/efficient, which was in the news recently as one of the pollsters for Kentucky Republican gubernatorial nominee Daniel Cameron.
The poll, conducted April 20-24, had similar findings on the House side. “There has been a 10 point swing in the last year on the Generic House Ballot from R+6 to D+4. This movement is [led] overwhelmingly by Independent and NEW voters that identify abortion as one of their top issues,” it said on slide seven. “Reproductive Freedom is the #1 issue among those that DID NOT vote in 2020.”
Other polling has confirmed the negative response of voters to efforts to demonize drag queens, attack trans youth, censor books and turn librarians into felons. These are not rational policy positions for a political party aiming to win elections. Given sufficiently large turnout by opposition voters, not even extreme gerrymandering and the Electoral College can save GOP control.
Prothero’s book, Sykes’ quip, and Rubin’s observation all point to the same conclusion. As Prothero put it, America’s intermittent culture wars only begin when the warriors realize they are on the cusp of losing.
What we are experiencing right now is their “primal scream.”
“Woke” folks will win the culture. The danger, however, is the considerable harm that will be done in the meantime in places like Indiana where Republicans pandering to the screamers remain in power.
Absent massive turnout by Democrats, independents and new voters, rational Americans can still lose the vote.