Genuine Culture War: Accept No Substitutes
Well, it’s happened. As I write this, Democratic pollsters are sounding the alarm about the not exactly remote possibility that their candidates could be vulnerable to “culture war” arguments from the GOP. As far as I can tell by “culture war,” they do not have in mind issues such as abortion or (remember when?) prayer in public schools, but a somewhat looser grouping of enmities and half-formed resentments. The bottom line is that Republicans want to portray their opponents as out-of-touch, hypocritical, and schoolmarmish, utterly joyless scolds, dupes of facile quasi-religious manias, and all-around haters of fun.
They’re probably right about all of these things. I fully expect Democrats to lose ground in the House and the Senate; in fact, Republicans gaining control of both chambers next year is not an absurd hypothetical. But the reasons why are worth considering.
The amazing thing about the new culture wars—in which I’ve hardly been a noncombatant myself—is just how self-serving they are for Republicans. When voters say that the single most important issues are “cancel culture” and “wokeness,” GOP politicians don’t have to solve the supply chain crisis or develop a sane response to Russian aggression. After telling us that they had a better idea than Obamacare (i.e., their own ’90s-era plan) for more than a decade, they don’t have to come up with a replacement.
More to the point, they don’t even have to do anything about gender ideology or the new wokeified race science of white women teenagers, about how being on time for things and taking pride in your work are vestiges of white supremacy or any of the other new bugbears. All they have to do is mumble along with vague slogans about how what the unspecified other side is doing is bad (and occasionally funny).
Social conservatives should be wary of carrying water for the GOP here. If the last administration showed us anything, it was that we should demand more from Republican presidents—especially those who find themselves with control of both houses of Congress and a de facto majority on the Supreme Court—than pointless uplift. Before, during, and after his presidency, Trump was admired less for anything he actually accomplished in office than for the amusing things he said about his opponents.
In a representative democracy, politicians are not elected to make us feel better about ourselves or to offer some kind of existential affirmation of our chosen way of life. Nor are they in office to attempt to define the nature and purpose of human existence or to debate first-order questions about natural law and morality. Instead they are supposed to apply their minds to an ever-expanding number of prudential questions: What should tax rates be? Should we build more bridges? How about the minimum wage?
The new culture wars provide an opportunity for endless quasi-political blather disguised as “resistance” to a vaguely defined agenda. It also reminds us of the crucial differences between the old religiously inflected social conservatism and the program of inchoate cultural conservatism that has effectively replaced it. While there was of course a great deal of carrot-and-stick trickery going on, it really was the case that, as recently as two decades ago, one could vote for a Republican politician because—for example—he opposed same-sex marriage, which was an actual live issue in state legislatures and on ballot boxes across the country. The same was true in a more limited sense of abortion; when prospective candidates promised to appoint—or vote to confirm—only judges who interpreted the Constitution according to its original meaning etc., voters were made to understand that this meant, at least theoretically, judges who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
What do we expect today from Republican politicians running against “cancel culture”? Certainly not opposition to the legalization of online gambling, and other easily preventable evils. Are there any bills forthcoming in Congress that would prevent, for example, a financial institution from refusing a checking account to someone because he criticized vaccine mandates (or even refusing to process a scheduled transaction to an existing account for the same reason) or an employer firing someone because of his Facebook account? These examples could be multiplied endlessly.
I don’t want to be accused of reflexive cynicism, though I am in fact guilty of it, or of a callow above-it-all mentality. (A more accurate designation for a long-time unregistered voter and all-around scofflaw like me would be “below-it-all.”) Some of the legislation appearing in Florida, Virginia, and other states meant to restrict the worst excesses of the new race and sex mania is probably for the good. (Some of it, however, might be as ill-considered as it is difficult to implement.) What I am trying to caution against is being an easy mark. Don’t let these people trade on righteous indignation or justifiable horror.
Validating your feelings is what you ask of a therapist or a kindergarten teacher. If this is all Republican voters actually want, they should schedule a telehealth appointment with someone more qualified than Dr. DeSantis. Otherwise, they should consider the distinct possibility that once again they are being had.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp and a contributing editor of The American Conservative.