By Farooq A. Kperogi
With less than two months to the presidential election, America’s politically tinged culture wars—bickering over “hot-button” cultural issues like abortion, gay rights, gun control, religion and, lately, global warming—have reemerged and are threatening to overshadow the hitherto dominant concerns over a troubled economy and an unpopular war in Iraq.
Given the history of the effect of the intrusion of culture wars into American presidential elections, this is a potentially bad turn for the Democratic Party. Because culture wars put substantive issues on the backburner, many otherwise unelectable politicians exploit this moment to escape critical scrutiny and get elected into office. It was the culture wars that got President George Bush elected in 2000 and that got him reelected in 2004.
Many of the flash-point issues that trigger the culture wars in America would strike many non-Americans as trivial, even pointless. The masses of the people, most of whom are disaffiliated from the vast economic prosperity in the country, get worked up over wedge issues like religion, homosexuality, abortion, gun control, and so on and consign economic issues to the background. American journalists have called this the obsession with “God, gays and guns.”
Non-Americans who find Americans’ obsessive investment in these trifling cultural issues inexplicable have good company in Thomas Frank, a well-regarded American scholar who, in 2004, wrote a famous book on the subject titled, What’s the Matter with Kansas?
In the book, Frank wants to find out what motivates Americans on the lower end of the social scale (who ought to be supporting unions, liberals, and intellectuals that advocate policies that are congenial to the interests of poor people) to vote against their interests by jettisoning the Democratic Party in favor of the Republican Party, which is unashamedly pro-business and anti-poor.
He finds the answer in the fascination that the American poor have for issues like abortion, guns, and gays at the expense of pressing economic problems. An economic study by Larry Bartels, a professor of political science at Princeton University titled Unequal Democracy demonstrates that when Democrats are in the White House, lower-income American families often experience more economic prosperity than upper-middle class families.
The same study shows that the reverse is often the case when Republicans are in power. This means if Americans were to vote for their economic interests, Democrats would hang on to power in perpetuity since upper-middle class families don not constitute a majority of the population.
The Republican Party, which suffered a crushing political defeat in the Clinton years, and realizing that they cannot win elections on the substantive issues, decided to anchor their campaigns for the recapture of the White House on cultural issues that evoke strong passions in Americans: God gays and guns.
Since the late 1990s, the party has strategically aligned itself with evangelical Christians and social conservatives of all hue. They pushed discussions on gay marriage, abortion, gun control and the teaching of creationism (the belief that God created the world and that we did no evolve from apes) in schools, etc to the forefront of political debates—and then stayed on the Right side of this debate. The stance of the Republicans pushed Democrats to the Left side of the debate.
This means the Democratic Party supports gay marriage, supports some restrictions on gun ownership (the American constitution gives every citizen the right to bear arms), supports the right of women to abort their pregnancies if they so desire, and oppose the teaching of creationism in schools.
However, most Americans are culturally conservative and can’t bring themselves to support the Democratic side of the culture wars. And that is why Republicans win elections when culture wars define presidential elections.
In other words, Republicans have, for the past eight years, persuaded most people to vote against their economic interest through trite lifestyle issues. "Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends," Thomas Frank concludes.
However, after being in power for eight years, the Republican Party has not lived up to its promise to ban gay marriage and institutionalize the cultural issues on the basis of which they won elections.
This had led many social conservatives to feel disillusioned and duped. In fact, last year the National Review, America’s most influential conservative news magazine, published an article titled "A Farewell to Culture Wars."
But it turned out that they were wrong. The culture wars are back again with a renewed vigor.
Republicans shoot the first salvo
The first symbolic salvo in the renascent culture wars was the nomination of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as McCain vice presidential nominee. Evangelical Christians and social conservatives had been reluctant to support John McCain’s candidacy because of positions he had taken in the past that put him at odds with the American conservative movement.
For instance, McCain supports abortion in cases of rape or incest. Sarah Palin (and American conservatives) will not allow abortion under any circumstance.
And there is no more powerful proof of Palin’s conservative, anti-abortion credential than her decision to keep her baby even when she discovered early in her pregnancy that the baby would have Down syndrome. But more than that, she’s also on the Right side of the new addition to the culture wars: environmentalism.
While Democrats (and liberals) believe that global warming is man-made and can be stopped, or at least minimized, if humans reduce gas emissions, and protect wild life, and stop drilling, etc, Republicans (and conservatives) don’t believe global warming is man-made.
As governor of Alaska, Palin has supported drilling activities in her oil-rich state and has dismissed the idea that global warming is man-made, although she is equivocating now. John McCain is, however, unequivocally pro-environment— to the displeasure of many conservatives. This is why Palin’s choice has energized the conservative movement in America. It is seen as a compensation for the deficits in McCain’s conservative credentials.
McCain would get the conservative vote precisely because of Palin. As Polico.com put it, “Conservatives see [Palin] as a kindred spirit who lives her anti-abortion words in the most profound way: by giving birth to a child she knew would be born with Down syndrome. Gun owners see her as authentically one of them: a hunter with a passion for the outdoors and gun freedom.”
This was why Palin’s acceptance speech dwelled on only two themes: culture wars and vicious attacks on Obama. She extolled her “small-town” values of simplicity and compassion and talked about her family and her mentally-challenged newborn baby in attempts to stir the culture wars. Since then, the presidential campaign has taken a new tone.
After the acceptance speech, she not only fired up American conservatives; she also brought back culture wars into the presidential campaign in more ways than political pundits had anticipated.
For instance, shortly after her speech, a Christian organization called the Saddleback Church organized a forum during which it invited both Obama and McCain to answer questions on many flash-point cultural issues.
Obama was asked when life begins—an attempt to gauge his opinion on abortion. Not wanting to alienate his liberal base, which supports the right to abort pregnancy, and not wanting to put off conservatives who oppose abortion, he said the question was "above my pay grade." McCain’s own response was that “life begins at conception”—a response that won McCain many hitherto undecided conservatives.
Obama’s noncommittal response provided fodder for withering conservative attacks against him. Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson took well-publicized shots at Obama. "We need a president who doesn't think that the protection of the unborn or a newly born baby is above his pay grade," he said.
The Republican Party also used this as a launching pad to revisit Obama’s pro-abortion record when he served as an Illinois state senator. They alleged that he supported the killing of babies who survived an abortion. The media found this to be untrue.
But it is issues like this that the emergence of Palin has thrown up. "The choice of Palin is going to bring some of these issues, like abortion, same sex issues, the teaching of evolution in public schools, the whole role of what religion plays in public life, back to the campaign," said Rob Boston, a top political analyst for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "Culture war issues reflect a real divide that is evident in society today."
Obama’s ambivalent response
The Obama campaign knows that it cannot win a culture war with Republicans. But the campaign has been at best ambivalent in its response to the creeping incursion of culture wars into the presidential campaigns.
There are at least two reasons for this. First the Obama camp wants to halt the drift of women to McCain by showing that the McCain-Palin ticket, for its swagger about being fresh and historic, is a ticket that denies women the right to have an abortion if they choose to.
But in attacking Palin, Obama does not want to come across as sexist, especially after vanquishing a valiant female opponent like Hillary Clinton, who is now his enthusiastic supporter. This has been a tricky situation for the Obama campaign.
Since Sarah Palin was nominated as the Republican vice presidential nominee, polls have shown that a majority of white women now have more sympathies for the Republican than they have for their traditional political sanctuary: the Democratic Party.
Polls have also been shown that many of Hillary Clinton’s women supporters are drifting toward the McCain-Palin ticket. Since many women, especially Hillary Clinton-type women, support the right to have an abortion, the Obama campaign thought it would be wise to sponsor an ad highlighting the anti-abortion records of McCain and Palin.
So the Obama campaign sponsored ads in almost 10 key states lambasting McCain as an opponent of the right of women to “choose” (liberals who support abortion rights like to characterize their position as “pro-choice, while opponents of abortion label themselves as “pro-life”).
But the attempt to paint McCain as “anti-choice” inexorably draws Obama into the culture wars, which he cannot win for reasons that will become clear shortly. Similarly, Democrats, especially in the blogosphere (all the webs on the Internet), have also pilloried Palin when it became public knowledge that her 17-year-old unmarried daughter, Bristol Palin, is pregnant.
Conservatives make campaign issues out of premarital sex. Governor Palin, in fact, opposes sex education, and liberal bloggers attributed her daughter’s pregnancy to a lack of exposure to sex education.
But instead of being repulsed, conservatives who disapprove of pre-marital sex celebrated the fact that Bristol decided not to abort the pregnancy and plans to marry her boyfriend. But what is significant in all this is that Democrats unwittingly fell into the trap of the culture wars.
"The whole discussion up until now has been about national security and the economy and now we see the culture wars back with her appointment," said Michael Cromartie, director of the evangelical studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "It has re-emerged because of the circumstances of [Palin’s] fifth child and her daughter."
Why the culture wars are bad news for Obama
The sad news for Democrats is that most Americans have conservative values. The annual Pew Religion and Public Life Survey recently reported that almost 50 percent of Americans say their “moral values” are conservative. Only 20 percent say their moral values are liberal.
Predictably, when voters were asked to gauge how liberal McCain and Obama were, "the average voter places themselves much closer to McCain than to Obama." Similarly, about half of voters, when asked to assess the moral values of the candidates, described Obama as liberal while nearly six in 10 said McCain was conservative.
So it’s in McCain’s interest that the culture wars rage. They give him—and his running mate— a protective shield against concerns over their perceived weakness in addressing America’s current economic problems.
David Kuhn, a well-known nonpartisan political analyst, wrote: “Given the intensity of Palin support among conservatives, McCain may very well end up with greater flexibility than ever to make his own direct appeal to independent voters. Palin can keep social activists at ease — and excited — while McCain seeks to reclaim his maverick image with a more direct appeal to those Hillary Clinton supporters and undecided swing voters.”
The Obama camp has realized this. Now they are trying strenuously to steer the issues back to the economy, and the war in Iraq, and healthcare—issues on which Obama has a clear advantage over McCain.
Obama’s prayers answered?
The good news for Obama is that Palin-mania may be waning—and with it the culture wars— after a recent television interview which exposed Sarah Palin’s embarrassing ignorance of foreign policy and domestic issues, and that also exposed her lies and equivocation on many key issues.
The most shocking of her knowledge gap, it would seem, was her cluelessness when she was asked if she agreed with the “Bush doctrine”—the idea that America has the right to launch pre-emptive attacks against potential terrorists and their hosts, among other things. She had no earthly idea what that meant.
Again, in response to a question about to how her state’s closeness to Russia affected her understanding of the Russia/Georgia conflict, all she could say was that Russia was visible from many parts of her state. Her responses to questions during the interview came across as vacuous, parrotic recitation of talking points she had memorized.
In fact, the responses sometimes had no connection with the questions asked. The interviewer was forced on one occasion to express frustration with being dazed in a “blizzard of words.”
Her unnerving shallowness during the interview has jolted many Americans. In light of the deepening crisis in the American stock market, polls show many voters are again worried about the economy. This reality may push the issues back to the economy and healthcare, which Obama is strong on. But in the kaleidoscope of American politics, anything can happen—or refuse to happen.