Monday, November 3, 2008

The end of culture warring?

Peter Beinart has an interesting column in today's Washington Post where he predicts the end of the "culture wars" coming once this election is over. The culture wars Beinart refers to are the so-called "wedge" issues such as gay rights, abortion, guns and immigration that the Republicans have been able to emphasize over the last few decades, with mostly successful results. Sarah Palin's selection as running mate was seen by some as a sign that the McCain campaign was dedicated to fighting the culture wars, similar to George W Bush in 2004, and her plummeting popularity is evidence that the war has ended.

Beinart says that the faltering economy is a reason we are on the verge of cultural peace in our time, as nobody cares about gay people getting married and Mexicans stealing their jobs if there are no jobs to steal. Combine that with a rise in younger voters who don't care or are opposed to many of the positions that culture warriors have taken, and that's it. It's a wrap. Finito.

Except maybe it's not.

From the column

Today, according to a recent Newsweek poll, the economy is up to 44 percent and "issues like abortion, guns and same-sex marriage" down to only 6 percent. It's no coincidence that Palin's popularity has plummeted as the financial crisis has taken center stage. From her championing of small-town America to her efforts to link Barack Obama to former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, Palin is treading a path well-worn by Republicans in recent decades. She's depicting the campaign as a struggle between the culturally familiar and the culturally threatening, the culturally traditional and the culturally exotic. But Obama has dismissed those attacks as irrelevant, and the public, focused nervously on the economic collapse, has largely tuned them out.

Palin's attacks are also failing because of generational change. The long-running, internecine baby boomer cultural feud just isn't that relevant to Americans who came of age after the civil rights, gay rights and feminist revolutions. Even many younger evangelicals are broadening their agendas beyond abortion, stem cells, school prayer and gay marriage. And just as younger Protestants found JFK less threatening than their parents had found Al Smith, younger whites -- even in bright-red states -- don't view the prospect of a black president with great alarm.

The economic challenges of the coming era are complicated, fascinating and terrifying, while the cultural battles of the 1960s feel increasingly stale. If John McCain loses tomorrow, the GOP will probably choose someone like Mitt Romney or Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to lead it back from the wilderness, someone who -- although socially conservative -- speaks fluently about the nation's economic plight and doesn't try to substitute identity for policy. Although she seems like a fresh face, Sarah Palin actually represents the end of an era. She may be the last culture warrior on a national ticket for a very long time.

It might be that "culture wars" are limited to times of economic progress, when people can afford to care about these things. But what happens when the economy improves, which it probably will at some point in the next decade or so? And when these young voters get older, as the baby boomers did? The same generation that made Woodstock happen also made the Reagan 80's happen, partially because Reagan was so skilled at tying a traditional conservative philosophy of limited government to these seemingly unrelated wedge issues.

We might be at a cease-fire, but I doubt the war is over.

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