Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Both Sides In The Culture War Are Serving The Interests Of Elites

Electoral tribalism protects politicians and plutocrats without changing society.
pro-life protest march

A number of people sent me the David Atkins piece that Rod Dreher linked to, but I think Dreher takes the discussion in a not-very-fruitful direction. Basically, he suggests that if the Left really cares about economics, they should let the Right have its way on cultural issues, and if the Right really cares about social issues, they should let the Left have its way on economics.

Which – sure, if that were the true preferences of true entities battling for supremacy. But there is no Left and no Right. Those are abstractions according to which we choose to divide individuals.

Here’s how I would describe things:

– Economic elites really care about preserving their privileges.
– Elected officials really care about reducing the risk of losing office.
– The culture war – for both nominal Left and Right, is an extremely effective way of serving the interests of both economic elites and elected officials.

Why? Because the culture war turns politics into a question of identity, of tribalism, and hence narrows the effective choice in elections. We no longer vote for the person who better represents our interests, but for the person who talks our talk, sees the world the way we do, is one of us. That contest is a cheap and easy one for politicians of any stripe to enter – and, usually, an easy one to win. It sorts the overwhelming majority of the population into easy-to-count-on camps who will not demand that politicians do anything for them, because they’re too afraid the hated “other team” might get into power.

And it’s a good basis for politics from the perspective of economic elites. If the battle between Left and Right is fundamentally over social questions like abortion and gay marriage, then it is not fundamentally over questions like who is making a killing off of government policies and who is getting screwed. Economic elites may lean to one or the other side on any cultural question (they can be found on both sides), but they can maintain their privileges no matter which side wins any particular battle. So whoever they want to win, that’s the ground on which they want the battle to be fought.

Atkins focuses on the Left-wing version of identity politics – the way in which putting so much energy into fighting for adequate representation for every tribal group has drained energy away from the fight to shift the terms of the social contract overall. It’s much easier to get corporations to agree to adopt affirmative action policies than to get them to agree to recognize a union. So if activist energy goes mostly into fighting for the former, by definition it won’t focus on the latter.

But the same thing is true of Right-wing identity politics. If you can get out the votes by decrying the unfairness of affirmative action, then you won’t need to call for tougher anti-trust enforcement, or for patent and copyright reform, or for breaking up the mega-banks, or for reducing corporate welfare, or for a trade policy organized around moving American manufacturing up the value chain, or any other policy – and I deliberately picked policies that at various points in history have been or could plausibly be part of the Republican “mix” – that might change the terms on which our economy functions in a broad sense, rather than just jockeying for position against other groups within the existing arrangements.

That doesn’t mean social issues don’t matter. It means that they should not be the organizing basis of large political coalitions.

Successful single-issue lobbies work both sides of the aisle. The NRA wants Democrats to be pro-gun as well as Republicans – and lo, while the Democratic Party is less pro-gun than the Republican, it’s also less anti-gun than it used to be, and there are plenty of pro-gun Democrats in the West. AIPAC wants both parties to support the interests of the State of Israel – and lo, there’s only a slight difference between the two parties in terms of their willingness to support the pro-Israel agenda. If I were an activist motivated primarily by a desire to restrict abortion, my top political question would be: where and how can I get Democrats to listen to me. Who’s the most anti-abortion (or least pro-abortion) candidate in every Democratic primary? That’s who we want to throw our support to in that primary – to show that our votes can be won. If anybody wants to win them.

The evidence is overwhelming that winning this or that election doesn’t determine the shape of the culture – and in a healthy political culture the parties are going to take turns holding power fairly regularly anyway. A strategy to change the culture by always voting Republican or always voting Democrat is guaranteed not only not to change the culture, but to throw away the chance of your vote affecting anything else. Which is one reason why I am not primarily motivated by social issues, as compared with issues of war and peace, the general welfare, and good governance.

I really believe the following:

  • If you believe that the country needs broader access to government-supported (or -provided) health care, more welfare spending generally, stronger unions, stricter environmental regulation, and so forth, and think these things are worth paying higher taxes for, then you should vote for the Democrats, even if you think affirmative action is folly and abortion is wrong and the Second Amendment is sacred. And you should fight – hard – within the party and in the media to make more space for your views on social issues within the Democratic Party and the country as a whole.
  • And if you believe that the country needs lower taxes, more streamlined and flexible regulations, more flexible labor markets, and so forth, and think these things are worth living with greater inequality for, then you should vote for the Republicans even if you believe in the importance of workforces that “look like America” and that abortion is a civil right and that guns should be more tightly controlled. And you should fight – hard – within the party and in the media to make more space for your views on social issues within the Republican Party and the country as a whole.
  • With the caveat that you should sometimes vote against the party whose views you share on matters related to economics and the general welfare if that party (or candidate) is corrupt, or incompetent, or has dangerous views on foreign policy, or is simply exhausted and incapable of meeting the challenges of the moment – if, for whatever reason, you think they will do a distinctly worse job than the other party that is more closely aligned with what you see as the national interest (and/or your own interest).


Andrew Sullivan probably did more for the movement for gay marriage than any other single individual. And he has never been a Democrat, and has prominently endorsed both Democrats and Republicans at different points in time, without changing his views on the issue which, undoubtedly, is closer to his heart than any other.

My advice to people like Rod Dreher who are on the other side is neither to withdraw from politics nor to keep their shoulder to the wheel for their partisan “side,” but to follow Andrew Sullivan’s example.