Have Republicans conceded defeat in the culture wars?
We are living in the twilight of the great culture war — a forty-year battle over social issues that helped separate white voters, both of the working class and the middle class, from their natural allies in the Democratic Party.
The culture war is winding down mainly because of demographic changes, as Ruy Teixeira pointed out in a 2009 study published by the Center for American Progress. Younger Americans are more tolerant on issues of race and sexuality, and the old fault lines of the 1960s and 1970s simply don’t produce the electoral earthquakes they once did. Also, crime is way down, as are welfare rolls.
These days, social issues seem more likely to hurt Republicans than Democrats. Witness the damage done by U.S. Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, a Republican running for the Senate there, with his remark on rape, and a series of other gender flaps over the past year that have hurt Republicans. Even gay marriage, a potent GOP weapon in 2004, is now barely mentioned by Republicans — lest they appear intolerant and alienate moderate voters who already worry about the GOP’s extremism.
Young evangelical voters, once the foot soldiers of a socially right-wing GOP, are becoming more tolerant, according to some reports. Meanwhile, the Archie Bunker generation of whites — those who came of age before the 1960s — is starting to die off, becoming a much smaller slice of the electorate.
To be sure, conservatives are doing their best to keep the old wedge issues alive. Romney has been hammering Obama on “gutting welfare reform” for months now (charges that are false, by the way) and the basic frame of “makers vs. takers” is essentially the same paranoid story of “us” versus “them” that the right has been peddling since the beginning of time.
But the culture war just isn’t going to ever burn as hot as it once did. So what will happen to American politics if the old wedge issues fade away? Economic issues will move more front and center, along with a broader debate about the role of government — pretty much the election we’re having this year and also had in 2008.