Why Democrats are losing the culture war
October 26, 2006
On the surface, solid majorities of Americans agree with Democratic Party values. They want universal health care, support increasing the minimum wage, believe stricter environmental regulations are needed and worth paying for, and think the best way to achieve peace is through diplomacy.
By contrast, only 12% say abortion and gay marriage are more important issues than poverty and universal health care, according to a recent survey by the Center for American Values in Public Life, a project funded by the liberal group People For the American Way. And a paltry 5% of Americans identified abortion and gay marriage as their top issues.
Based on these numbers, Democrats should be beating Republicans at the ballot box. But precisely the opposite has happened in the past few national elections.
One answer is that national security is still a major issue, generally favoring Republicans. But more important is the fact that abortion and gay marriage are proxies for deeply held cultural concerns. They tell voters something about the character of a candidate - or a party.
Most voters worry about escalating challenges to family stability and the losing battle to instill good values in their children instead of the materialism and coarseness peddled by popular culture. They fear that our society has developed a casualness about life, especially as science has made it easier to manipulate and create beings.
Banning gay marriage and outlawing abortion don't directly address those anxieties. But proposals like these at least acknowledge that the concerns exist and are valid. So while Republicans offer the wrong prescriptions, they get the diagnosis right. And they win because most of the time, Democrats won't admit that anything is wrong. In politics, as in most areas of life, something always beats nothing.
Despite the uproar over Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction a couple of years ago, most parents don't fret that the accidental sighting of a breast or hearing of a swear word will scar their children. They're more concerned about the unrealistic ideas kids get from popular culture about consumption and body image and violence as a way of handling conflict.
Sadly, too many liberals react to complaints about popular culture as if they're teenagers. They either jut out their chins and growl, "If you don't like it, don't watch it," or they stay silent for fear of looking like prudes. Given the ridicule that Tipper Gore faced for promoting warning labels for explicit music lyrics and the derision that followed Hillary Clinton's effort to keep violent video games away from kids, perhaps it's no surprise that most keep their mouths shut. That silence, however, hands conservatives a victory. As David Callahan points out in his book The Moral Center, "When the right complains about the media's descent into tawdriness, it puts them on the side of most Americans."
Even an issue on which Democrats seem to have the winning position can turn out to be a loser for the party in the long run. Most Americans now believe that research on stem cells should be allowed. But as Noam Scheiber recently pointed out in The New Republic magazine, the polls also suggest that they have serious concerns about the morality of unrestricted scientific research. They don't want to wake up tomorrow and discover that we're cloning humans without ever having a conversation as a society about the moral issues involved. By framing the debate as a choice between theology or science, Democrats essentially argued that anyone who has qualms about scientific progress is a troglodyte. That puts them on the losing side of the moral question, even as they win the specific policy debate.
There's promising evidence, though, that this moral tone-deafness of Democrats may be about to change. Abortion, perhaps the most contentious moral issue of them all, is also the one area in which Democrats are poised to move past the political debate and address the real concerns of Americans. Over the past two years, a growing number of Democrats in the House and Senate have gotten behind "abortion reduction" efforts that seek to prevent unwanted pregnancies and provide support to women who want to carry their pregnancies to term.
This new approach reduces abortions without putting women in jeopardy or jail. The average American doesn't want to overturn Roe v. Wade or start locking up doctors. But neither does she buy the liberal line that 1.3 million abortions per year are just the price you pay for living in a free and modern society.
Democrats are right when they argue that their party's position on issues such as poverty, health care and job creation reflect a powerful moral value - helping those who have less. But they're wrong to think that's enough to win back the cultural voters they've lost.
Abortion and gay marriage - and the deep-seated cultural anxieties they represent - are threshold issues for voters. If a candidate can show he understands voters' concerns about the culture, then they'll listen to what else he has to say. If he tells them instead that there's nothing to worry about and tries to change the subject, they've already tuned out.
The good news for Democrats is that if the party can just get past the threshold, it stands a much better chance of connecting with voters who already agree with them on the pressing issues that should decide elections.
Amy Sullivan, a contributing editor forThe Washington Monthlymagazine, is writing a book about religion and the left.