Back in the late 1960s, conservatives like Reagan and Nixon learned that they could make political hay with the massive cultural changes altering American life. Both positioned themselves as defenders of "traditional values" against the countercultural wave, whether it was Reagan's put downs of Berkley students or Nixon's appeals to the "silent majority." During the 1970s, in the wake of Roe v. Wade, women's liberation, and the gay rights movement, religious conservatives mobilized like never before, and managed to bring together conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants, two groups that used to hate each other. The Christian Right provided conservative with a powerful new grassroots support, and used social issues to grab the votes of the kind of blue collar folk who once made up the backbone of the New Deal coalition.
As recently as 2004, less than a decade ago, George Bush's campaign used the specter of gay marriage to mobilize his base and win a closely contested election. That same year, ballot initiatives banning same sex marriage passed in states across the nation. In the aftermath, everyone was talking about "values voters" as the key to his success. At the time, observers like Thomas Frank explained the incongruity of middle and working class whites voting for the party of rapacious capitalism by saying that moral issues trumped economic ones for many of these voters. It seemed as if the culture wars, with us for over forty years now, were still being waged because they always seemed to benefit conservative politicians.
That was the old conventional wisdom, at least. The contours of the culture wars have changed, and the public response to oral arguments in the Supreme Court today on the subject of gay marriage register a remarkable difference from the past. A majority of Americans now support it, and the nation is abuzz with the hope that the Supreme Court might at least strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. On my wife and I's Facebook feeds we have been happily surprised at how many of friends and family who rarely have anything political to say have voiced their support for equal rights today.
Even the Republican establishment has started to read the writing on the wall that the public is swinging definitively towards equal marriage rights. In recent weeks, many prominent conservatives have publicly declared their support for same sex marriage, in a perhaps vain attempt to keep their party from committing suicide. I hope the memory of their deliberate villainization of gay people, not least in the 2004 election, is not allowed to perish.
The problem for Republicans is two-fold. In the first place, they have achieved power by relying on Christian conservatives, and that very powerful constituency has effective veto power over the presidential nominee. I don't think that a Republican who supports gay marriage will be able to get the nomination in 2016, which means the party faces either a civil war or looking extremely retrograde in the eyes of the electorate. In the second place, they failed to realize that when they placed their bets on the culture wars backlash in the 1970s that their winning hand was time-sensitive. You can't stop progress, and over time many of the more shocking social changes wrought by the 1960s have become commonplace. New generations have been growing up living in new realities. Supporters of the backlash are literally dying off. The party that resisted positive social change might finally have to pay for their short-sighted and cynical strategy. In future years, I hope progressives fight a different kind of culture war, and fight it hard.