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Cultural issues involve the deepest human emotions. They cannot be avoided.
The conversation of the summer among Democrats: Why is Joe Biden so unpopular? After all, the economy is doing great and that normally counts for a lot. But, for some perverse reason, most Americans don’t think so. Robert Reich offers a familiar answer:
I think the deeper reason Americans don’t feel very good about the economy is that is that the vast number of working non-college grads—some two-thirds of the adult US population—are still bogged down in dead-end jobs lacking any economic security, while struggling with many costs (such as housing, childcare and education) that continue to soar.
This is standard left-liberal thought, and over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s wrong. Progressives tend to overestimate the importance of the economy as a political issue. Oh, it’s important—especially after a crash like 2008 or during periods of inflation. But I wonder if the economy, which almost always stands near the top of the “significant issue” charts, can also be a cover for other forms of discontent, like “I wish I could buy a super-sized pickup truck,” or “The economy is bad because the government is spending so much of my money on poor people.”
In fact, I suspect that polling about the economy can be another way of asking people, “How ya feelin’?” Clearly, they’re not feeling too good these days. America’s “wrong track” numbers seem permanently sunk in deep swamp, just as Biden’s popularity is.
The question is, why are people so bummed?
Because something very significant is happening in our country and it goes much deeper than the economy. The pace of life has accelerated, the nature of work is changing, technology is changing even faster, and people are unmoored from traditional values and community ties. We are moving from a majority-white country to one that is multi-racial. Throughout history, these sorts of transitions have led to civil wars, anarchy, or coups in other countries. But the United States is not other countries. Ours is a society based on an idea, not an ethnicity, religion, or race.
Our quest has always been to transcend tribalism, though the road has been near-impossible at times. And the toughest times have been those of ethnic transition—when a war was fought over slavery and the enslaved were freed, when the Irish came in the mid-19th century and the Eastern Europeans in the early 20th century which led to the anti-immigrant Klan-rampage of the 1920s, when segregation was ended in the 1960s, and more recently, since the rest of the world showed up after the expansive immigration reforms of 1965. And the current transition has been intensified by a great but controversial triumph—fifty years of historic progress in civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and the freedom to express our opinions about those changes in a manner that is not necessarily polite.
In the 21st century, we’ve heard a growing chorus, especially among elderly and blue-collar white people: “I don’t recognize this country anymore,” and “We’re going down the drain,” and “Donald Trump is the only politician who talks like we do.”
Their fears are often most directly expressed in the so-called “culture war” issues that so many Democrats refuse to take seriously. This is an era of disorderly conduct—homelessness, opioid addiction, flagrant public behavior, crude public language. A trans activist takes off her blouse and shows her breasts at a White House ceremony. There are fistfights on airplanes, Black Friday consumer riots. Grotesqueries of all sorts are celebrated as a form of free expression rather than the self-indulgences that they are. A significant segment of the population fears that their pre-pubescent grandkids are going to be taught gender fluidity.
They fear that illegal immigrants are flooding across the border carrying suitcases of fentanyl, even if their rural towns remain whiter than Wonder Bread. They believe that if “structural” racism exists in this country, it works largely to the benefit of black and brown people. They disdain liberals who embrace Black Lives Matter but don’t express much concern about the vast majority of black lives lost—those who are snuffed on the streets by black criminals.
It is too easy to dismiss such people as racists and homophobes and nativists. Their views are tempered and complicated by reality. They are not necessarily consistent. They might be appalled by “queer” posturing, but they’ve accepted gay marriage. They might fear black criminals, but an increasing number in the suburbs have black middle-class neighbors (who also fear black criminals). They may not like immigrants, but a lot of them have Latina daughters-in-law. There is a middle ground to be found, and campaigned for, on all the cultural issues. That’s even true on the issues where the public sides with Democrats, like abortion and gun control. But Democrats are loathe to embrace it. (Which is why Ruy Teixeira’s verbal strategies for dealing with the culture wars, first published here, are so important.)
As The Liberal Patriot recently reported, the Democratic Party’s positions on these issues are too often driven by extremists. They are not the views of the party’s actual constituents. Democrats have empowered the Grievance-Industrial Complex. They’ve bought into the misapprehension that the angriest, loudest screechers are “authentic voices of their community” rather than self-indulgent, guilt-bombing pleaders, mostly academics. Polls show that black people are far more concerned with crime than white liberals are. Even Al Sharpton has been railing against “progressives” and their posturing on crime in recent months. The activist wing of the Democratic Party tends to swallow social theories—criminals are depraved because they’re deprived—and shun the morality that emanates from religious faith. Left-wing activists tend to dismiss or misunderstand the importance of traditional values and spirituality in the black and Latino communities. They indulge, for example, a microscopic proportion of the population—less than one percent—who insist that they should not have to identify as men or women.
And even on the social issues where people agree with liberals, they take the most extreme positions. They don’t just campaign against assault weapons and handguns, but disdain those who hunt and kill animals. They insist on the propriety of all abortions—that even a woman who is six months pregnant has the right to terminate a fetus with Down syndrome. They accept willy-nilly all sorts of tortured, bowdlerized, politically correct locutions like “Latinx.” Republicans make hay out of all that. They will run their next election on all that. They probably won’t do it as clumsily as Ron DeSantis does—Trump, for one, is too clever—but it will be front and center.
Joe Biden has been vocal and moderate on some of these issues, but not others. He projects optimism, which is essential, but his sunniness is undermined by the Democrats’ inability to come up with coherent positions on immigration, policing, and education—there is strong evidence that charter schools work, for example, but the teachers’ unions don’t like them—and sexuality, the opioid wars, homelessness, and mass shootings. The villainy of Donald Trump has provided the Democrats with cover: more than a few political operatives believe it is sufficient for Biden not to be Trump. Indeed, that may be a winning strategy in 2024—if Trump is the nominee.
But what if he isn’t? And what vision does it offer for a jittery country?
The presidency is our most intimate office. The president lives in our kitchens and dens and bedrooms, anywhere we have a screen. And cultural issues are the most intimate questions of public policy. They are closer to the bone, more easily understood than the economy. They involve the deepest human emotions.
They cannot be avoided.
Joe Klein writes the Sanity Clause newsletter on Substack.