How Democrats Should Handle the Culture Wars
There Are Three Choices, Only One of Which Is Correct
Democrats have a host of vulnerabilities on culturally-inflected issues, ranging from crime and immigration to race, gender, and policies around schooling. That is why Republicans attack them so vigorously on these issues. Republicans frequently overdo it but that doesn’t mean the vulnerabilities aren’t real. There’s a “there” there and smart Democrats know it.
Democrats have basically three choices in how to respond to this problem:
The Democrats have mostly toggled between choices one and two, which roughly correspond to the traditional fight or flight response to threat hardwired into the human psyche. Neither choice has been particularly effective. The “ignore” response allows the Republicans to continue to hammer away unimpeded at Democrats’ vulnerabilities. The “attack” response forces Democrats to engage in areas where they are not strong and defend controversial and unpopular positions which hurt them politically.
Of course, some Democrats would deny there’s much of a problem here. They offer as proof the abortion issue where the party, thanks to the Supreme Court Dobbs decision, has been able to occupy center ground in opposition to significant parts of the GOP who wish to ban the procedure. But crime isn’t the abortion issue. Immigration isn’t the abortion issue. Race essentialism and gender ideology aren’t the abortion issue. Even the abortion issue isn’t the abortion issue once you get past opposing bans and start having to deal with the nitty-gritty of setting some limits on abortion access (as the public wants).
In short, when public opinion is settled on an issue—like abortion—and their opponents, at least in the short run, can easily be identified with an extreme and unpopular position (ban all abortions!), the Democrats can benefit. But on crime, immigration, policing, free speech, race, gender, and meritocratic schooling, Democrats are associated with views that are quite far from those of the median voter but close to those of cultural radicals in own ranks. That hurts them. As a result, the party’s attempt to sell the Democrats as a unifying party speaking for Americans across divisions of race, class, and region is failing and will continue to fail. Voters are just not sure Democrats can look beyond their cultural commitments to ensure public safety, secure borders, high quality, non-ideological education, and economic progress for all Americans.
The way out of this culture wars impasse lies in neither option one (ignore) nor option two (attack) nor in the confused mix of these two options that currently defines the Democratic approach. The answer lies instead in option three: defuse. This means moving aggressively to neutralize vulnerabilities in these areas by (a) dissociating the party from extreme positions in their own ranks; and (b) embracing a common-sense approach to these issues which typically aligns well with both Democratic values and public opinion.
The defuse approach relieves Democrats of the need to defend a multitude of unpopular, controversial practices—thereby giving voters the impression that Democrats are unwilling to draw any lines anywhere against the activist left—and allows them instead to occupy the moral and policy high ground against Republican attacks on common-sense moderation. That’s way better than the situation they currently find themselves in on many cultural issues where the Democratic image is defined by the most leftward position pushed by activists.
Here's common-sense proposition #1: Police misconduct and brutality against people of any race is wrong and we need to reform police conduct and recruitment. However, more and better policing is needed to get criminals off the streets and secure public safety. That cannot be provided by “defunding the police”.
To President Biden’s credit, he has finally drawn a line on what constitutes going too far in this area by saying he will sign a resolution overturning the absurdly left wing criminal code revision passed by the Democratic DC City Council. Yes indeed, reducing penalties for carjacking does seem like an indisputably terrible idea! The willingness to stand up to specific actions by specific Democrats makes this move by Biden different from his previous actions, like his general advocacy of more funding for police.
Many progressives were predictably outraged. It is interesting to note however that just 14 Democratic Senators voted against the overturn resolution once Biden had made his position public. They were all from states with double digit Democratic partisan leans: Cory Booker (NJ, +12D); Ben Cardin (MD, +26D); Dick Durbin (IL, +13D); Tammy Duckworth (IL, +13D); Mazie Hirono (HI, +32D); Chris Murphy (CT, +12D); Jeff Merkley (OR, +11D); Ed Markey (MA, +33D); Jack Reed (RI, +24D); Bernie Sanders (VT, +28D); Chris Van Hollen (MD, +26D); Elizabeth Warren (MA, +33D); Peter Welch (VT, +28D); and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI, +24D). I think I detect a pattern.
Biden’s move is a step forward, albeit just a small one. Democrats still have far to go before they can plausibly claim to be a party that is, in Tony Blair’s felicitous phrase, “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Last June, in fact, they blew a golden opportunity to establish a commitment to law and order when San Francisco’s stridently progressive District Attorney, Chesa Boudin, was recalled by the city’s voters. When voters in San Francisco—San Francisco!—threw a progressive Democrat out of office for failing to provide public safety, that was an invitation for Democrats to assure voters they were determined to crack down on crime by dissociating the party from approaches that failed to do so. That could have been the Democrats’ “Chesa Boudin Moment”. But it was not to be.
Here’s common-sense proposition #2: America benefits from the presence of immigrants and no immigrant, even if illegal, should be mistreated. But border security is hugely important, as is an enforceable system that fairly decides who can enter the country.
Again to Biden’s credit, after presiding over record-setting surges of illegal migrants at the southern border, he has finally decided to signal a different approach. His administration is considering reinstating the detainment of migrant families that illegally cross the border, which was rolled back when Biden took office. This reflects Democrats’ awareness that Biden’s job rating on immigration is truly dreadful (33 percent approval/60 percent disapproval in the RCP running average) and that illegal immigration may surge when pandemic era border restrictions are lifted in May.
Cue outrage from the usual suspects:
I am disgusted and disappointed that our nation would ever consider reinstating a program that has been proven to cause harmful, long-term effects on migrant families, especially children, who have been forced to flee their home nations in search of freedom, safety, and democracy. (Representative Maxwell Frost, D-FL)
Family detention serves two purposes: lining the pockets of private prison companies and acting as a useless deterrent to prevent migrants from seeking their legal right to asylum. This failed policy is callous and inhumane. (Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, D-AZ)
You can practically see the steam coming out of their ears! And this from but a small step back toward securing the border, which falls far short of serious control over illegal immigration and does little to fix a notoriously porous and easy-to-game asylum system. Defusing this issue will clearly take some time but at least Biden is taking a step forward.
Unfortunately, there are a number of other areas where no steps forward can be detected. Here are some other common-sense propositions which would do much to defuse Democratic vulnerabilities but are still avoided by Democratic politicians for fear of provoking severe blowback:
Common-sense proposition #3: Equality of opportunity is a fundamental American principle; equality of outcome is not.
Common-sense proposition #4: Racial achievement gaps are bad and we should seek to close them. However, they are not due just to racism and standards of high achievement should be maintained for people of all races.
Common-sense proposition #5: No one is completely without bias but calling all white people racists who benefit from white privilege and American society a white supremacist society is not right or fair.
Common-sense proposition #6: People who want to live as a gender different from their biological sex should have that right. However, biological sex is real and spaces limited to biological women in areas like sports and prisons should be preserved. Medical treatments like drugs and surgery are serious interventions that should not be available on demand, especially for children.
Frankly, most Democrats are terrified to utter or even imply that they agree with these common-sense propositions. That leaves them unable to draw any lines whatsoever against the extremists in their own ranks and thus maximally vulnerable to GOP attacks in these areas, which relentlessly tie Democrats as a whole to these extremists.
It’s odd because you’d think Democrats would be eager to take advantage of the defuse approach, given its obvious potential for electoral payoff. But that payoff would primarily be among working-class voters and the Democrats’ college-educated left wing just isn’t very interested in making the kind of compromises that would appeal ot these voters. As reported by Ron Brownstein in a recent article, Jennifer Fernandez Ancona, vice president and chief strategy officer of Way to Win, an uncompromisingly progressive voter mobilization group, recommends the “attack” approach to culture war issues:
[Biden] will eventually be forced to address the GOP’s cultural arguments more directly. Sublimating those issues, [Fernandez] argues, isn’t sustainable, because it is “hurting the very people” Democrats now rely on to win and because the Republican cultural arguments, left unaddressed, could prove very persuasive to not only working-class white voters but also Hispanic and even Black men. Ultimately, Fernandez said, Biden and other Democrats must link the two fronts by convincing working-class voters that Republicans are picking cultural fights to distract them from an economic agenda that mostly benefits the rich. “We have to put to bed this idea [that] we can have an economic message that doesn’t address the racial grievance and fear of change that is at the center of all this culture-war stuff”.
Not a lot of defusing going on there! Instead, it’s all racism and various phobias lying behind the cultural concerns of working-class voters. So attack, attack, attack until the voters holler uncle.
But what if they don’t? That highly plausible outcome is something Democrats should take more seriously. Maybe instead of resisting Biden’s current approach on crime and immigration, they should seek to strengthen it and apply it to other areas. That would just be—dare I say it?—common sense.