The culture wars have raged long and hard in American politics, at least back to the 1970s. I certainly can’t remember a time when they weren’t. Growing up in the 1980s in the John Paul II Catholic Church with its obsession with abortion and sexuality, I knew plenty of people who voted almost completely based on culture war issues. In that era while there was no question that a majority of Americans were not in favor of banning abortion, it was obvious that the issue was a big winner for conservatives, since it mattered a lot more viscerally to their base. Around the time I was in high school in the early 1990s it seemed like culture war issues were inescapable, from attacks of “political correctness” to wars over the American past.
By the early 2000s some on the Left began to see these issues as a trump card for conservatives, who could get working and middle class voters to go against their interests. That was basically the thesis of Robert Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas, which appeared to have been vindicated in the 2004 election, when Republicans engineered anti-gay marriage state initiatives and consequently got their base to the polls. Exit polling showing “values” as the biggest issue for a plurality of voters just confirmed this feeling even more.
Last week, when Mike Pence signed a gay discrimination bill into law (please don’t insult my intelligence by calling it a “religious freedom law”), he was hitting that culture war bong one more time. I’m sure he thought it would be a mostly symbolic gesture that would get the Bible thumpers on his side without making much of a splash otherwise. Oh how he was wrong.
It has been a catastrophe for him, and also is beginning to show a major problem for conservatives. Namely, they are not going to win the culture wars. Appealing to people opposed to massive social changes with roots in the 1960s is a matter of diminishing returns with an aging population. Whereas the 1960s and 1970s saw a major revival in evangelical Christianity, America today is becoming much less churched. They have been exploiting the backlash against a massive social change, and as strong as that backlash has been, the tide of reaction has been steadily receding over the years.
The culture wars are also hurting other conservative initiatives. Conservative state governors have been on a mission to get companies to relocate from California, the Northeast, and abroad by promising cheap wages, low taxes, and union busting. Now Mike Pence is hearing those precious corporations come at him hard. Many companies now seem less inclined to relocate their gay and lesbian employees to places where they will be treated as second class citizens. Now that Wal-Mart is expressing its opposition to similar legislation in Arkansas, it looks like the governor there might be having a change of heart. The diminishing returns at the polls from evangelical voters might no longer be able to justify retrograde policies that are increasingly anathema to mainstream American society.
Of course, that doesn't mean that the culture wars will soon be over, or that liberals will be able to turn the tables and get a trump card of their own. In many respects, the culture war as a conservative political strategy dates before the influx of Christian conservatives in politics in the late 1970s. Richard Nixon's campaigns in 1968 and 1972 fought a very different, but no less effective culture war. In 1968 it was the resentment of the "Silent Majority" against the protest movements of the day. Nixon cultivated the "hard hats" and built them up as the antidote to hippies. In 1972 the culture angle was much more pronounced, portraying his opponent George McGovern as the avatar of "acid, amnesty, and abortion." In effect, it was a kind of white middle class identity politics.
While direct appeals to Christian voters might need to be tabled by conservatives, they can still hope to get those same voters by fighting on a different from in the culture war. The Right has already been amping up its appeals to racial resentment, mostly in the form of attacks on the welfare state. I am willing to bet that in the next five to ten years appeals to anti-gay voters will fade outside of the most fervent zones of the Bible belt, and that white identity politics will be much more pronounced. If not, the onetime Republican trump card may wind up being its downfall.