As a matter of fact, Republicans did lose the culture war

Republicans Lost the Culture War, says professional Republican William Bennett

President Obama won the 2012 presidential election by accumulating some of the most one-sided electoral constituencies in modern political history.

If you keep reading, you will discover that what William Bennett means by "one-sided" is "everyone except wealthy, older white people." This tells you something about his thinking — maybe everything about his thinking. How can a coalition made up of blacks, Latinos, Asians, young people, unmarried women, the poor and lower middle class, etc. possibly be considered "one-sided"? That sounds like a lot of sides to me. You might just as well say "Obama won because Democrats voted for him." Now, if that's really Bennett's point — that Obama won without pulling in support from the right — maybe he should have phrased it that way and sounded marginally less racist.

This was the drumbeat of the Obama campaign. To women they said: Republicans are waging a "war on women," trying to outlaw abortion and contraception and would take them back to their rights in the 1950s. To minorities they said: Republicans are anti-government services, cold-blooded individualists, and cannot represent minority communities. To middle and low income Americans they said: Republicans are the party of the rich, who will slash taxes for only the richest Americans and cut social safety nets for the poor.

Rather than offer a broad sweeping vision for the country, Democrats played identity politics. Republicans were the culprits, and women, young adults, black, Latinos, etc… were the victims. And voters believed it. Why?

Because it's true, chucklehead.

We didn't come to that conclusion because Democrats told us that's what Republicans wanted to do. We figured it out because Republicans told us that's what Republicans wanted to do. If Republicans don't really want to do those things — privatize Social Security, privatize education, privatize the post office, turn Medicare into a voucher system, repeal health care reform, discourage immigration, outlaw abortion, discourage contraception, get rid of Planned Parenthood, maintain the Bush tax cuts in perpetuity, balance the budget with sweeping cuts to  "entitlement" (ie, social safety net) spending — maybe they should stop trying to do those things.

Voters believed it [..] because this has been the template of many of our character-building institutions — our public schools, our colleges, and public universities — for the past 50 years.

Oh, Bennett is one of THOSE Republicans — the ones who think it's entirely arbitrary, a mere accident of institutional orthodoxy, that academics skew left. They could skew right instead! All the right needs is… better propaganda.

 Uh, no. Academics (and scientists) skew left because the truth has a liberal bias.

Or, to be a leeeeeeeeetle bit more fair to the conservative side, seeking truth without regard to ideology is an enlightenment value, and therefore a liberal one. It doesn't always lead to political liberalism, of course. But there's never going to be a point where it will start magically leading to conservatism instead. It is fundamentally in the nature of conservatism to consider ideology, tradition, and orthodoxy first — that's what makes it conservatism.

Of course, there can be conservatism on the political left as well — feminist orthodoxies, literary orthodoxies, even scientific orthodoxies. When right wingers complain about how awful and liberal academia is, leftist orthodoxy seems to be what they have in mind. This is probably why they think they can easily replace it with rightist orthodoxy. But you can't replace true liberal scholarship with true conservative scholarship, because honest scholarship is inherently liberal.

It also gets an assist from television drama, from the movies

Ah, yes. The one area where, mysteriously, the right never seems content to believe in the virtues of capitalism and the free market: popular dramatic entertainment. Look, there are people out there trying to make their own special conservative movies — I mean, that 2016 movie was no Fahrenheit 9/11 in terms of box office, but it did pretty well by right wing screed standards, didn't it? Anyway, maybe there's a reason why the stories people embrace seem "liberal" to you. Go watch a really good version of "A Christmas Carol" and tell me — does the modern political right resemble Scrooge more before or after his epiphany? Do you think a version where Scrooge never gives up his objectivist ideology would be more or less popular? Why do you suppose that is?

For decades liberals have succeeded in defining the national discourse, the terms of discussion, and, therefore, the election, in these terms.

Of course. Liberals have single-handedly defined the national discourse for the last 30 years… in some alternate reality America. Let's call it Liberalstan. In this world there must be no Rush Limbaugh or Fox News, no Wall Street Journal, no Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Dinesh D'Souza.

In Liberalstan, there is no religious right — no Focus on the Family, no Moral Majority.

This must be a world where Reagan wasn't an incredibly popular and zeitgeist-defining president. In this world, the 80s didn't mark a symbolic repeal of the 60s and a superficial return to "family values." There were no yuppies reciting mantras from Ayn Rand. Huey Louis and the News did not have a big hit singing about how it was hip to be square. My generation was not raised under the holy glow of Saint Ronnie, practically worshiping at his feet, going on to college where we majored in business and computer science. There was no Red Dawn and Top Gun. I'm sure that, in Liberalstan, I wouldn't have grown up feeling like I was surrounded by fascists.

This must also be a world where Newt Gingrich did not have his "Republican Revolution" in 1994, a world without the Bush v. Gore decision in Bush's favor, a world without Karl Rove and his "permanent Republican majority." Clearly, it is a world without the teaparty coalition.

How else can we explain that more young people now favor socialism to capitalism?

How else? Well… given that we didn't actually spend the last thirty years in Liberalstan… how can we explain this shocking state of affairs? Could it be — there was this little thing that happened in 1991 — you might recall, a Republican was president at the time — Mr. Bennett, I think you functioned as his Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, surely you must remember — oh, yeah.


The Cold War ended. We won. Yay us!

Except, I don't think the right in this country has ever fully appreciated or understood this victory — certainly they don't seem to understand the way it forms a sharp divide between those who actually remember growing up freaked out by the possibility of global thermonuclear war with the USSR, and those who have never known the USSR as anything other than a source of kitschy nostalgia, like that statue of Lenin in Fremont. Young people don't picture a big scary threatening mysterious political enemy when they hear "socialism." They picture Sweden. You know, ABBA, dragon-tattooed punk hackers solving mysteries, maybe Alexander Skarsgård in a hot tub?

According to a Pew Research poll taken last year, 49% of Americans age 18-29 have a positive view of socialism while just 46% have a positive view of capitalism. Such a view has roots.

It does have roots. So does your view that this is a shocking and unbelievable turn of affairs. See — and I think this is laid out pretty clearly in Capitalism: A Love Story, not that you'd ever watch a Michael Moore polemic — the quasi-religious significance that older generations attach to concepts like "socialism" and "capitalism" were not natural and inevitable side effects of living in the Greatest Country on Earth. They were carefully manufactured Cold War propaganda. Now, you might think "of course! and we could infect the young people with such propaganda again, if we just try hard enough!"

No. You can't. Go back and read my big headline. You can't tie fear of a word or a concept — socialism — to fear of an enemy that no longer exists. The Cold War is over, and we won. But the right still can't seem to get over it. Just this year, Mitt Romney referred to Russia as our "number one enemy." The right seems perpetually stuck in 1985, after Reagan's historically lopsided victory, before the Iran-Contra scandal.

Maybe this is to be expected for conservatives. They've already told us they don't want to adapt to changing times — what they want to do is stand athwart history yelling Stop! Meanwhile, in a shocking development, history still doesn't care. 

Right wing attitudes are almost like an auto-immune disorder: political antibodies that first got all riled up to attack a real invader are still hanging around, eager to attack something. So they go after things that aren't a threat. Including, it seems, their host. How else to explain why so many Republicans seemed to be of the opinion that it was more important to make Obama a one-term president than it was to do anything that might help the economy?

So while we Republicans opine about election strategies and changing demographics [..]in the long run we must address the problem at its source: the culture. [..] For the past 50 years liberals have had majority control of the character-forming institutions. If the national dialogue stays on their terms — gender, race, ethnicity, class — Republicans will continue to lose.

This is interesting, because my perception is quite the opposite. I believe Republicans have controlled the national dialogue for the last thirty years or so — call it the Reagan era — and things are just now, in the last couple of years, starting to shift back. It makes sense in a grand sweep of history kind of way. It has probably taken this long for the rapid social changes of the 1960s and early 1970s to be fully assimilated, to the point where things like feminism and gay rights and multiculturalism and so on seem moderate and centrist, while opposition to them now seems extreme and reactionary. It has also taken this long for the full laissez-faire business boom-and-bust cycle to play out, as it once did from the 1920s to the 1930s. Just as in the 1930s, people who have suffered a sudden and extreme reversal of fortune become a lot more sympathetic to the idea of the safety net. And certainly, people who have been rescued by the Coast Guard from the roof of their flooded house are likely to be comforted rather than frightened by the words, "'I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

I'll even allow for the possibility that, at first, the Reagan era did — perhaps — offer a necessary course correction. Maybe there was too much of the wrong kind of regulation, maybe marginal tax rates were too high. Certainly it seemed to work well enough — at first. But you would think that the crash of 2008-2009, the most severe since the Great Depression, would have proven that it was well past time for a course correction in the opposite direction. The Reagan model has stopped working to bring about prosperity, and Republicans have no new ideas.

If young people are insufficiently impressed by capitalism, it is because capitalism — at least, the laissez-faire variety championed by the Republican party — has failed them. Young people don't see the value in a system where a tiny elite wins big and most people struggle increasingly hard just to get by. No amount of propaganda can change that.

You didn't lose the culture war because liberal propaganda was better. You lost because actual events in the real world proved the liberal view more correct.


  1. Gorgeous, clear-eyed and cogent analysis here! A few weeks ago after the election I was reading the New York Times and some Republicans seem to be starting to “get it”; Susan Collins, for instance, a moderate Republican who has sometimes voted w/Democrats and complained that the hard-right wing of the party had “taken over”. And now there’s arguments that the party needs to be taken back.

    Well it’s about DAMN TIME and what took you folks so long to notice? I noticed back in the 1980’s, in the war against women and the war against drugs, I noticed in the ’90’s when I came out as a lesbian and really became aware of the culture wars (against gays, women and POC) that had actually begun back in the 1970’s when conservative Christian men began the fight against abortion, and conversative Christian women fought against the ERA and gay marriage – and some republicans are just NOW noticing? Ok, better late than never?

    (And I am NOT giving democrats a pass, because “Democrat” doesn’t mean liberal. It’s about ideologies, as you so well identify, not party politics.)

    Because it’s true, chucklehead.

    We didn’t come to that conclusion because Democrats told us that’s what Republicans wanted to do. We figured it out because Republicans told us that’s what Republicans wanted to do.


    1. Author

      And I am NOT giving democrats a pass, because “Democrat” doesn’t mean liberal.

      True. I nearly always vote for Democrats, but I’m doing that because they are currently the most liberal party that can reasonably be expected to win elections. Prior to George W. Bush, I was a lot more sympathetic to the notion of casting a probably futile vote for the Green Party or something — now I’m firmly in the “suck it up and vote for the lesser evil!” camp.

      People not noticing what’s going on right in front of them — it’s a problem, but you can’t force people to see reality when they have a vested interest in not seeing it.

      1. I think I’ve actually gone the opposite route – I’ve voted so many times not for who I want but against who I don’t want that I’ve gotten tired of it. (And yes, I have been looking at the Green party more seriously – it’s actually quite active in local politics where I live – but a third party candidate as serious contender again? Hard to imagine because it’s not enough to have a third party candidate for president without also having senators, representatives, etc – a president standing all by themselves, the sole representative of a party? Isn’t that like shooting fish in a barrel? Who would they be able to work with?)

        it’s a problem, but you can’t force people to see reality when they have a vested interest in not seeing it.

        When we’re talking about the extremely wealthy, corporate CEO’s, people who have actually benefitted in this economy, etc – they either know perfectly well what’s going on but are completely satisfied with the way things are, or they really live in their own little worlds, As do MOSt of us, I think – only seeing and hearing what we want to.

        The thing with so many americans voting against their own economic interests is that, I don’t get how the illusion is holding. And perhaps this past election is proof that it isn’t? I’ll allow myself to be optimistic here for a moment.

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