Monday, February 13, 2012

Why Progressives Need to Go On the Offensive in the Culture Wars

Having been born in the 1970s, raised in the 1980s, and having reached adulthood in the 1990s, the culture wars have been raging across America's political landscape for as long as I can remember.  The explanation is two-fold.  In the first place, the monumental social changes in the 1960s and 1970s prompted a considerable backlash by reactionaries, and then the Right learned to harness that zeal, getting the masses to vote for their plutocrat-friendly economic policies as long as they occasionally threw out some social issue red meat to feast on.  For almost all of this time, conservatives have been the culture war instigators, from rolling back abortion to "intelligent design" in schools to referendums against same-sex marriage.

With Rick Santorum seeping his way into the front-runner position and the support given to the Catholic Church's refusal to cover contraception for its employees, the GOP appears, inexplicably to me, to have gone all in on the culture wars in this election year.  This is a turn of events that ought to be welcomed by progressives across the country, mostly because the Right's positions on many culture war issues are very unpopular, and if progressives pin these issues on conservatives, they stand to lose support from moderate voters unhappy with the nation's economic state.  By fighting the culture wars on the offensive, progressives can also expose some of the fundamental fissures in the conservative coalition, and thus help divide their enemy.

Case in point is New Jersey governor Chris Christie.  The state legislature is about to approve a bill allowing for same-sex marriage, but Christie has pledged to veto it.  Of course, he is trying to weasel out of having to veto the bill, preferring to have the issue decided by a voter referendum.  Why is he being so cowardly?  Essentially, because he is stuck in a tough bind.  On the one hand, if he votes in favor of the bill, he might get broad support in New Jersey, but doing so means the end of his national political aspirations, because the social conservatives in the Bible Belt will abandon anyone who supports gay marriage.  On the other hand, if he votes against the bill, he retains national support, but stands to lose a lot of support from New Jersey voters, endangering his reelection.  American attitudes towards same-sex marriage have changed dramatically in the last decade, and the young upcoming generation is much less hung up on it than their elders.  For the GOP to be branded the party of homophobia means lasting damage to their image for years to come.

Much the same could be said when it comes to reproductive rights for women.  Instead of just harping on the abortion issue, where some of the candidates for president ascribe to a highly unpopular ban on abortion even in cases of rape or incest, conservatives have upped the ante by going after contraception.  Now that they have done so, progressives need to hold conservatives' feet to the fire, and constantly push them on their stance on contraception.  As with gay marriage, moving to the right will kill their chances with moderates, moving to the left erodes support among the base.  It's really a win-win for progressives: either Republicans placate their base, or they take more progressive stances on the issues.

This post might sound a little crass, but time has taught me that politics is a street fight, and if the other side brings a gun, you best not be fighting with a knife.

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