Sort by

After the Culture War: Economic Justice

David Callahan

Four years ago, the Center for American Progress published a report by Ruy Teixeira entitled "The Coming End of the Culture Wars." Conflict over social issues -- a defining feature of U.S. politics for four decades -- was winding down, thanks largely to demographic shifts. 

The Millennials, Teixeira said:

support gay marriage, take race and gender equality as givens, are tolerant of religious and family diversity, have an open and positive attitude toward immigration, and generally display little interest in fighting over the divisive social issues of the past.

Meanwhile, "the culturally conservative white working class has been declining rapidly as a proportion of the electorate for years."

Teixeira wrote his report before the Tea Party uprising, a movement led by older culturally conservative whites. That movement was mainly about taxes and economic policy, but it led to the election in 2010 of Republicans at both the national and state level who have pushed conservative social legislation. Earlier this month, for example, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a ban on abortions after 20 weeks. A number of states have been successful in limiting or complicating access to abortion in one way or the other with new laws. 

But the trajectory of history is otherwise unfolding as Teixeira predicted, with gay marriage in particular fading as a politically contentious issue. Today's landmark Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act only serves to hasten trends already under way. 

If the culture war were World War II, then it'd be 1944: Victory is appearing more and more certain, but the fight goes on. 

Yet even as the United States has become a far more tolerant nation in recent decades, it's also become a much less equal place economically. So the question now is what happens with the fight for economic justice after the culture war? 

Well, first let me say the obvious: The culture war partly was and is a fight for economic justice. For example, the demise of DOMA will allow same-sex spouses to have access to greater protections and benefits, with very concrete economic consequences. Likewise, the great battles over racial and gender equity have often focused on expanding access to education, employment, and housing. Affirmative action has played a huge role in building today's black and latino middle class. 

Generally, though, the economic issues are quite different than the social issues, and boil down to a historic struggle between labor and capital over how the wealth generated by markets is shared. It seems the ending of the culture war has a few clear implications for this fight. 

First, we can say goodbye to many of the wedge issues that have been used since Nixon's time to divide the working class from the Democratic Party. As the working class becomes less white, and as hot buttons like gay marriage stop working, it will become harder and harder to find ways to get Americans of modest means to vote against their own economic interests. 

Second, progressives should find themselves with some extra time and energy on their hands, now that they no longer have to fight so hard on the social issues. Just think of a place like the Ford Foundation, which has poured millions every year into the LGBT fight. Well, at some point, it won't have to spend that money anymore -- or at least not as much -- freeing up these resources for other fights. 

Third, it could well be that the Democratic Party loses some wealthy backers -- individuals who are liberal on social issues, but fiscally conservative. To the degree that the two parties eventually both come to be tolerant on social issues, such individuals may migrate to the GOP.

In other words, an end of the culture war could mean a sharper alignment between class and partisanship, with Americans of all classes more likely to vote according to their economic interests. That sounds to me like a good thing, as it would help resolve the persistent tension within a Democratic Party that is supposed to stand for economic justice but includes many wealthy social liberals who don't share this concern.

Whatever the case, one thing seems certain: the declining salience of social issues within U.S. politics has got to mean a growing focus on economics. It's about time.