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How Will the White Working Class Vote After the Culture Wars?

David Callahan

Evidence keeps coming in that the culture war is winding down. Most recently, according to Politico:

More than 80 of the nation’s most prominent Republicans — including top officials of all recent Republican administrations and presidential campaigns – on Tuesday came out publicly in favor of a constitutional right to gay marriage in a brief to be filed this week with the Supreme Court.


Now, plenty of Republicans still adamantly oppose gay marriage and the issue remains important to the GOP's large evangelical base. But it's pretty clear that mainstream GOP politicians, operatives, and pundits no longer see gay-bashing as okay or view gay marriage as a wedge issue that can help Republicans win elections. 

That's a huge change from just nine years ago, in 2004, when Republicans sought to push gay marriage bans onto state ballots in order to help mobilize friendly voters. 

Once upon a time, Republicans had a large stock of wedge issues: race, feminism, crime, drugs, patriotism, abortion, welfare, and the trifecta of god, guns, and gays. On each of these issues, Republicans were often in sync with culturally conservative white working class voters who otherwise tended to vote Democratic. 

Over time, many of these wedge issues have lost their potency: race-baiting is a loser amid fast changing demographics, as the Republicans now realize; fears of women's lib faded long ago; crime is near a historic low; welfare was reformed in the 1990s; drug legalization is gaining support; and younger voters tend to be more secular. Now you can take gays off the list, too. 

The culture war will never really end and, in particular, the cultural divide over patriotism and the social safety net are probably permanent features of American life. Also, the debate over abortion shows no signs of resolving itself anytime soon. 

But there are fewer wedge issues in play than ever right now. This not only disadvantages Republicans, it also helps Democrats. For nearly four decades, progressives were heavily focused on expanding social rights and gave short shrift to articulating a strong economic message. Now, with the left largely victorious in the culture war, they can turn to the daunting challenge of creating an equitable economy. Which is exactly what many progressives have been doing in recent years -- most notably President Obama, who campaigned with a more openly populist message than any presidential candidate in memory. As the political scientist Michael Hout noted:

Class issues stood out more in the 2012 presidential election than in previous ones, even more than in 2008. The campaigns invoked, as always, issues of all sorts, but seldom in American politics are the issues of class so prominent as they were this year.

What will all this mean for the loyalties of the white working class? That remains too early to say, particularly given that full data on how this group voted in 2012 is not yet available. 

But it does seem safe to say that Democrats should have an easier time increasing their share of the white working class vote in future elections where wedge issues are less salient. In 2008, Hillary Clinton showed a surprising ability to connect with these voters on kitchen table issues late in the primary race against Obama. If Clinton is the Democratic nominee in 2016, she could do substantially better among white working class voters than Obama did in 2008 and 2012 -- while holding onto black and Latino voters. 

Of course, also, the white working class is simply becoming a smaller part of the electorate over time. Whereas once these voters were a persistent obstacle to Democratic hegemony, they are now both less important and less hostile to Democrats. That's big change.