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Social Issues Are Destroying American Politics

At least since Pat Buchanan’s famous 1992 Republican National Convention speech that “sounded better in the original German,” [1] Americans have been divided over so-called “culture war” issues. That includes abortion, LGBT rights, guns, and more recently such weighty matters as whether white people should be allowed to use non-white emojis [2] (thankfully, the pols haven’t waded into this one quite yet) and whether football players should be allowed to kneel. Most culture war issues have produced political stalemates, but also plenty of paranoia, radicalization, and a cycle of escalating mutual overreaction.

Whatever the merits of the respective causes, there would be no “abortion selfies” [3] without anti-abortion radicals; there would be no gun-nut preppers without supporters of actual gun confiscation, who really do exist [4]. It is bad enough that such polar extremes exist, and it is even worse to contemplate their blessing on government policy. How to stop this war between the edges? Quite simply, we need a moratorium on federal social issues policy. It might be the easiest way to restore some sanity to our political process and civic culture.

We need this because social issues tend to strike at people’s most deeply held beliefs. It is hard to understand differing positions as political disagreements only. They are not the sort of issues that lend themselves to compromise or politicking. They invariably become—because they are—moral, ethical, and religious disagreements.

Take abortion. While many Americans are willing to make some kind of compromise—no elective abortion after 20 weeks or the first trimester, for example—millions of Americans believe that abortion is a fundamental right, and many millions more just as strongly believe it to be a barbaric act ethically indistinguishable from murder. Same for LGBT empowerment—it’s not okay to give people just a few human rights. Once any question becomes understood as a matter of fundamental rights, it becomes immune to the normal political process, with little room to move on either side. It doesn’t really matter who is right. What matters is that a political system based on deliberation and compromise is peculiarly ill-suited to address deep moral divides.


Some on the conservative side of the culture wars understand this, such as columnist Wesley Smith, who writes at [5] First Things“For matters involving bitter differences over fundamental values…‘compromise’ is unachievable, because accord would require one side to surrender its moral views to the other.” However, their conclusion tends to be despairing: either we will continue down the path of rancor, or we will totally embrace one or the other of two irreconcilable moralities, thus disenfranchising millions of Americans who disagree.

But there is a third option: to “cool down” the culture-war dynamic by getting the federal government out of the social-issues business for one or two presidential terms. When neither side feels that the federal government is picking favorites, much of the rancor may well dissipate.

So more roads, bridges, and budgets; no more making bathroom policy from the White House. No more Pentagon announcements on LGBTs. No more presidential candidates who don’t want their daughters to be “punished with a baby” [6] or dreaming of using the presidential bully pulpit to talk about the “dangers of contraception.” [7] No more condemning the police for “acting stupidly” or fulminating about un-American football players. During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton tweeted [8]Marriage equality is the law of the land. Deal with it,” accompanied by a GIF of herself dancing against a rainbow background. No more of that either.  

The proper areas of action for the federal government, which is to say the ones for which it was mainly intended, are mostly managerial, technocratic, and soporific: ensuring national security; funding and maintaining the major infrastructure and shaping general infrastructure policy; crafting conditions for economic growth; ensuring nationwide environmental quality; weighing the optimal level of taxation and public benefits. We disagree about these issues, to be sure, and sometimes vehemently. But at the end of the day, no reasonable person really believes that a 40 percent tax rate is evil, as opposed to a 20 percent tax rate (Randians excepted). Nobody believes it is the moral equivalent of murder to build or not build roads and bridges (deep ecologists excepted). Even the deepest disagreements on these issues rarely pit people against each other in a way that seems irresolvable, or which forces incompatible first principles to do public battle.

All of this is ironic, because the vast majority of what the federal government does, even today, has nothing to do with the moral and religious issues that seem to inflame people more than anything else. The 99 percent of government business that is bland and inoffensive is railroaded by the 1 percent that is the opposite. This has been a boon to both parties, which have figured out how to weaponize these sentiments to win elections, but it is disastrous for our country and for the normal functioning of our political system. In the process of electorally enriching themselves our parties have contributed to the shredding of the civic fabric.    

The economic nationalism of Donald Trump and the economic populism of Bernie Sanders did, for a time, sideline the old culture war dynamic. But as Trump ditches his economic nationalism for nativism, and as the mainstream Democrats double down on identity politics, we’re not going to get a chance for relief at least until 2020.

When that next election does come, our president—whoever he or she is—should for his or her tenure say goodbye to the energy expended on moral debates in politics, and the feelings of paranoia, marginalization, and embattlement that such debates have fostered on both sides. Let’s direct more of our limited political capital toward those (relatively few) policy areas in which the federal government can actually help build civic consensus and serve the American people.

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro [9].

34 Comments (Open | Close)

34 Comments To "Social Issues Are Destroying American Politics"

#1 Comment By Milkofplenty On October 18, 2017 @ 12:47 am

What if a President declares that we hold a moratorium on brunch? Would that calm things down?

We should make it a slogan.

No Peace, No Pancakes.

We Have to Waffle Iron These Differences

#2 Comment By Milkofplenty On October 18, 2017 @ 12:49 am

The 2020 Primary should declare that all brunch related topics are tearing this country apart.

#3 Comment By Milkofplenty On October 18, 2017 @ 12:51 am

Is Addission finally getting a job working with his hands, or typing opinions against brunch once more?

#4 Comment By Clyde Schechter On October 18, 2017 @ 1:06 am

Fine sentiments, that I endorse unreservedly.

But is it even possible? At some point soon, there will be another vacancy on the Supreme Court. Is it possible to fill that position without re-engaging in the culture wars? Fine to say that the government will stay out many of these issues, but then that locks in the status quo on many of these policies. That status quo is unacceptable to many people on one or the other side of the culture war.

I’d love to see a cease-fire in the culture war. I often fantasize about it myself. But I just don’t see how it could be carried out.

#5 Comment By polistra On October 18, 2017 @ 5:33 am

Trump is NOT turning to nativism. Where do you get that idea?????

He has completely adopted Bush/Clinton neocon globalism.

It’s still not clear if he was always a false flag; maybe he intended to do the right thing for a few milliseconds before he got distracted by some celebrity who desperately needed to be insulted.

No matter the underlying mechanism, we elected Hillary. She should quit blaming everyone for her “loss”. She should gratefully accept her victory.

#6 Comment By ControlE On October 18, 2017 @ 8:45 am

Unfortunately it won’t happen. Politics these days is nothing more than an extension of the political news world. Everything has to sell, and nothing sells better than working up your base into an extremist froth. Candidates are essentially out on the trails trying to get ratings.

#7 Comment By bkh On October 18, 2017 @ 9:20 am

Pandora’s box has been opened. I believe bigger demons are still to come. Our rights are enslaving us and destroying America. There really was no way out of this mess once money got involved.

#8 Comment By Olga On October 18, 2017 @ 9:47 am

A reasonable article.

However, a big part is deciding what is the role of government. That is a big question. If we can agree on what the government can and can not do, that that would make it easier to state that certain issues are simply not the business of government.

#9 Comment By Brunchie On October 18, 2017 @ 10:06 am

“Let’s direct more of our limited political capital toward those (relatively few) policy areas in which the federal government can actually help build civic consensus and serve the American people.”

Like Brunch?

#10 Comment By Fred Bowman On October 18, 2017 @ 10:47 am

I’m of the opinion that Democrats and Repubicans are actually one political entity who use “social issues” to give the appearance that their party is all that different than the other. In reality, both parties “bow” to the wishes of Wall Street, Military-Industrial Complex, Israel, Saudia Arabia, Big Corporate Lobbying Groups, ect. while completely ignoring the wants and needs of most Americans.

#11 Comment By Ping Lin On October 18, 2017 @ 10:51 am

A cease-fire is only called upon by the side that is losing.

#12 Comment By USMC0846 On October 18, 2017 @ 10:52 am

The next president, if we even get a new one, is unlikely to be able to cool down the rampant tribalism that this country has devolved too over the last 50 years. We may well have reached a tipping point where the US, as a unified nation, can’t hold together. There is no reason to presume that the US is immune to the forces that break nations…..and make no mistake the US is breaking in the middle.

#13 Comment By G. K. On October 18, 2017 @ 10:55 am

“When that next election does come, our president—whoever he or she is—should for his or her tenure say goodbye to the energy expended on moral debates in politics, and the feelings of paranoia, marginalization, and embattlement that such debates have fostered on both sides.”

This is like saying that the next President should not spend so much time on foreign or economic policy because it’s too controversial. Cultural battles are not going to go away, and the President does not have the ability to call a temporary truce or “cool down” period. The right cannot let its guard down for one minute in the ensuing culture war unless we want to lose everything.

#14 Comment By N.S. Palmer On October 18, 2017 @ 11:02 am

Was it General George S. Patton who said:

“When you’ve got the enemy on the run, you should always stop and let them regroup for a counterattack”?

No, it wasn’t.

#15 Comment By RINOVirus On October 18, 2017 @ 11:33 am

“We spend the first year of a child’s life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There’s something wrong there.”

― Neil deGrasse Tyson

#16 Comment By chris c. On October 18, 2017 @ 11:52 am

No thanks, I won’t be compromising over the dead body of an infant in the womb; shredded to pieces by an abortionists knife, just so we can more easily get other things done. It’s not my place to deny someone else their inherent right to life. Especially regarding those who in their innocence and helplessness have no one else to speak up for them in their time of need.

#17 Comment By SteveM On October 18, 2017 @ 11:58 am

The next president should call a temporary culture war cool-down…Let’s direct more of our limited political capital toward those (relatively few) policy areas in which the federal government can actually help build civic consensus and serve the American people.

Addison Del Mastro is apparently too young and too inexperienced to realize that the culture clashes are actually conscious diversions away from the policy problems that are systemically busted.

The Power Elites have no clue on how to fix health care, reform entitlements, create a job environment that provides a living wage to American citizens, retreat back from the obsolete and unaffordable Neocon inspired America as Global Cop model.

Rather than acknowledge the truth, the Politico-hacks dance around it with contrived culture war diversions while their Crony benefactors continue to parasitically feed off the carcass of a bloated but imploding Leviathan. All enabled by the corrupt, Fake News saturated MSM.

The wired for failure trajectory of Obamacare was obvious in 2104. As per the usual SOP in Washington, Obama himself pretended that problem did not exist and instead allocated political capital to get men wearing dresses into ladies locker rooms. (BTW, where was the MSM focus? Busted Obamacare or the diversionary LGBTQXYZ topics where Obama wanted it?)

Trump, the latest White House catastrophe, is doing the same thing with his NFL player bashing and his other culture war kabuki that mean little in the larger scheme of things.

It’s all an act Addison. Stick a fork in America – because it’s cooked.

#18 Comment By Frederick K. Hoeck On October 18, 2017 @ 12:14 pm

You have openly broken with Patrick J. Buchanan and the great magazine he founded. I cancelled my subscription. You are sick and are a Leftist.

#19 Comment By collin On October 18, 2017 @ 12:36 pm

I always assumed there are two reasons why the battle on social issues are so awful:

1) Most social issues don’t cost anything directly. There are no cost whether NFL players kneel during the national anthem or NFL unpatriotic jerks. Over the long term this is not costing either side money.

2) Most social issues are not ‘spectrum levels. Is the highest tax rate 34% or 35% and it is easier to navigate. Are Health Insurance deductibles $3K or $4K per family? Abortion is 90% Yes or No issue with very modest middle ground to navigate. There is little middle ground on Confederate Statues that they are either up or taken down.

#20 Comment By John_M On October 18, 2017 @ 12:56 pm

President Obama was not an identity warrior, although the fact that he was an African American certainly seemed to provoke an identity crisis on the part of the right. Obama was willing to work with the Republicans – the Republicans were not willing to work with him or the Democrats.

Leaving aside the Bircher / McCarthy issue in the 1950’s, the identity war issues seem to have been growing since the civil rights act – the old and modern issues of racism and sexism.

Trump is not going to let go of rage and anguish – and with Banyon and the alt right, it is highly unlikely that the Republican party will be able to step away from it.

Let us say that the Democrats win the presidency and the Senate. At the very least, the Democrats are going to support women, African Americans, and legal immigrants. Given the circumstances – I think that will be too much for the alt right. I would expect full scale governmental sabotage such as Obama faced.

Once we add protection for LBGQ, the Republicans will go full culture war, if they are not allready.

I am an ex-Republican. I am a Physicist and Engineer with a background in high tech and startups. I have real issues with the Democratic party and its policies, but they are not as thoroughly deranged and dishonest (yet) as the those of the Republican party.

#21 Comment By JWJ On October 18, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

Totally agree with the author that Roe v Wade should be overturned. That way abortion law would go to the states where it ALWAYS belonged.

Calif and NY could have abortion law allowing for the killing of the child up to 1 year after birth, and most of the rest of the country would have laws similar to France, Germany, Denmark, etc.

To think that the federal constitution covered abortion law is delusional.

#10 The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people

#22 Comment By mrscracker On October 18, 2017 @ 2:19 pm

I suppose you could also turn it around & say that politics is destroying-or at least distorting- social issues.

#23 Comment By mrscracker On October 18, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

RINOVirus says:

“We spend the first year of a child’s life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There’s something wrong there.”

― Neil deGrasse Tyson
I guess Pres. Trump didn’t get the second part of those instructions.

#24 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 18, 2017 @ 2:52 pm

I am not sure that the article describe a period when social issue — which guide in deigning policy, have been nonissues.

Morality has been a part of every political campaign

There’s a social reason why we argue taxes. And ultimately, the issue of management is the endgame. The reason we play the game in the first place has everything to do with our moral positions about how we structure our society.

Clearly, there are social issue which stray from this path.

But I wouldn’t top advocating for the protection in the womb in order to have better bridge, which unless it’s on a federal hwy is a state concern.

Illegal immigration is certainly a managerial issue a well as social.

Why have special benefits for marriage is certainly a management matter with social implications.

In my view the largest problem seems to be that we have lost an ability to live or abide opposing views.

The decision of the Supreme Court have rarely not examined the social parameters of cases that impact policy – managerial sphere’s.

When human life begins is a fundamental matter and how that life navigates through the managerial decisions as a citizen seem inescapable to me.

#25 Comment By Michael McHale On October 18, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

“How to stop this war between the edges”? You can’t; it’s the all-too-predictable product of Lockean enlightenment democracy, and our short sighted First Amendment, which utterly rejects the role of the Church {i.e. the pre Vatican II Church} in government.

#26 Comment By Donald On October 18, 2017 @ 4:46 pm

This article makes so much sense there isn’t a chance in Hell it will happen.

Wish it would.

#27 Comment By bt On October 18, 2017 @ 5:35 pm

Social issues aren’t going away and for a very practical reason.


No taxes need be raised, no moneys spent. It’s free.

The ease and costlessness of these issues makes it catnip. It will never stop.

Take flag-burning, one of the very stupidest ones. You rant against flag burners, pass a law, get it thrown out by the courts. Then do it again as needed. it’s a two-fer, you strike a blow against the hippies, then you complain about those activist judges, vote for me, vote for me, all for free.

–>For the record, Congress has attempted 7 times in the last 20 years or so to pass a law banning flag-burning. As soon as some BLM or anti-Trump group burns one, we’ll get to enjoy a few more attempts. This would be a perfect fit for Trump’s (or Jeff Sessions) skill set.

#28 Comment By Dennis J. Tuchler On October 18, 2017 @ 6:25 pm

The trouble with the article is that it doesn’t have a conclusion. What is the way out? One way is to shunt culture wars to the states by constitutional amendment. The wars would remain, but on more fronts. Another is to prevent Congress from discussing the culture war. Fat chance.

#29 Comment By still paying my taxes – God help me On October 18, 2017 @ 9:29 pm

Yes. Social issues are destroying the country.

It’s too bad that the left used the judiciary to force all this social disease on the rest of us. If they hadn’t done that our politics would be far more civil. Instead they decided to wreck and stink up the joint, so that’s what they’re going to get in return for a good long time.

#30 Comment By Whine Merchant On October 18, 2017 @ 9:54 pm

When the Gingrich/Rove cabal decided that perpetual Republican domination of the federal government [and many state houses] was within their grasp, they landed a fatal blow to already damaged political civility. Political compromise became anathema as Congress played “hard ball” with 24/7 coverage for the voters back home.
Rupert Murdoch saw that he could lock-in a highly desired market for advertisers if he kept people frightened or outraged. He would frighten and then comfort his audience at the same time, reporting normal rainfall to be a typhoon and then selling them a lifeboat.

The outrage market is too lucrative to relinquish, and has spread way beyond just the political sphere. As long as Facebook, snapchat and Twitter tell us the truth of the day there will be no immutable values. As long as “we the people” think that social media is realty, we will get a television performer in the White House.

#31 Comment By Kevin on the Left On October 18, 2017 @ 10:23 pm

I am sure the author is well-intentioned, but it seems he suffers from amnesia that rendered his memory faulty. Between 2009-2015, the great issues that gave vent to frothing rage were debt and wealth distribution and Kenyan Marxism; ACA, the worst assault on liberty since slavery, Benghazi, a greater scandal than Watergate. And if you think our disagreements about say, climate, have nothing to do with identity, so help you God..

BTW, ironically, the only issue in which the tribal, identity-based nature of American politics had given room to a cross-partisan consensus of sorts is gay marriage- the hot social issues debate of 10 years ago…

#32 Comment By Joe On October 19, 2017 @ 7:46 pm

Having %40 of your earnings confiscated isn’t evil? Wow! Maybe those who can’t pay will just be drafted into government service 5 months a year.

#33 Comment By MM On October 22, 2017 @ 9:54 pm

“But as Trump ditches his economic nationalism for nativism, and as the mainstream Democrats double down on identity politics, we’re not going to get a chance for relief at least until 2020.”

That’s what happens when real GDP growth averages 1.80% per year since the year 2000. Neither major political party has a solution to that, which is why 40-50% of voters do not identify with them.

#34 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 6, 2017 @ 4:51 pm

“That’s what happens when real GDP growth averages 1.80% per year since the year 2000. Neither major political party has a solution to that, which is why 40-50% of voters do not identify with them”

Nor are they concerned it seems with:

“In 2016, total U.S. trade with foreign countries was $4.9 trillion. That was $2.2 trillion in exports and $2.7 trillion in imports of both goods and services. The United States was the world’s third-largest exporter, after China and the European Union. It was the world’s second-largest largest importer after the EU. (Source: “U.S. Trade in Goods and Services,” U.S. Census. CIA World Factbook Rankings.)”


I could wrong here, but that leaves us with an 18% deficit.