Opinion | ‘Lean Into It. Lean Into the Culture War.’

Should duty for the rampant polarization that characterizes American politics in the present day be laid at the toes of liberals or conservatives? I posed that query to my good friend Bill Galston, a senior fellow at Brookings and a columnist at The Wall Street Journal.

He emailed me his reply:

It is truthful to say that the proponents of cultural change have been totally on offense since Brown v. the Board of Education, whereas the defenders of the established order have been on protection.

Once the battle enters the political area, although, different components come into play, Galston argues:

Intensity makes an enormous distinction, and on lots of the cultural points, together with weapons and immigration, the proper is extra intense than the left.

Galston put it like this:

When being “right” on a cultural controversy turns into a threshold concern for an intense minority, it may drive the celebration a lot farther to the left or proper than its median voter.

Along with depth, one other driving pressure in escalating polarization, in Galston’s view, is elite habits:

Newt Gingrich believed that the model of politics Bob Michel practiced had contributed to House Republicans’ 40-year sojourn in the political desert. Gingrich determined to vary this, beginning with Republicans’ vocabulary and ways. This proved efficient, however at the price of rising incivility and declining cooperation between the political events. Once the use of phrases equivalent to “corruption,” “disgrace” and “traitor” turns into routine in Congress, the intense private antipathy these phrases specific is certain to trickle right down to rank-and-file celebration identifiers.

The race and gender points which have come to play such a central function in American politics are rooted in the monumental modifications in society from the 1950s to the 1970s, Galston wrote:

The United States in the early 1950s resembled the nation because it had been for many years. By the early 1970s, the whole lot had modified, gorgeous Americans who had grown up in what appeared to them to be a secure, conventional society and setting the stage for a conservative response. Half a century after the Scopes trial, evangelical Protestantism re-entered the public sq. and shortly turned an necessary build-block of the coalition that introduced Ronald Reagan to energy.

One of the greatest modifications in the nation in the wake of the civil rights and immigration reforms of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s has been in the demographic make-up of the nation. Seventy years in the past, the nation was 89.5 % white, in response to the census. By 2019, the white share of the inhabitants fell to 60.1 %. In 2019, Pew Research reported:

Nonwhites are about twice as possible as whites to say having a majority nonwhite inhabitants might be good for the nation: 51 % of all nonwhite adults — together with 53 % of blacks and 55 % of Hispanics — say this, in contrast with 26 % of whites.

In some ways, this transformation posed a problem to customary social expectations. “How would the progressive cultural program deal with traditionalist dissent?” Galston requested:

One choice was to defuse a portion of the dissent by carving out exceptions to non secular and conscience-based objections. The different was to make use of regulation to carry the objectors to heel. Regrettably, the latter course prevailed, producing conflicts over abortion with the Little Sisters of the Poor, with a baker over a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony, amongst others, and with Catholic social service suppliers over same-sex adoptions.

Recently two columnists who’re hardly sympathetic to Trump or Trumpism — removed from it — raised questions on whether or not the proper or the left deserves blame or duty for the form of conflicts that now roil elections. Kevin Drum, in “If you hate the culture wars, blame liberals,” and Damon Linker, in “The myth of asymmetric polarization,” make the case that the left has been the aggressor in the tradition wars.

“It is not conservatives who have turned American politics into a culture war battle. It is liberals. And this shouldn’t come as a surprise,” Drum wrote. “Almost by definition, liberals are the ones pushing for change while conservatives are merely responding to whatever liberals do.” Linker took this a step additional, arguing that progressives don’t wish to acknowledge that “on certain issues wrapped up with the culture war, Democrats have moved further and faster to the left than Republicans have moved to the right,” as a result of to take action “would require that they cede some of the moral high ground in their battles with conservatives, since it would undermine the preferred progressive narrative according to which the right is motivated entirely by bad faith and pure malice.”

Drum and Linker have been rapidly adopted by different commentators, together with Peggy Noonan, a conservative columnist for The Wall Street Journal, who wrote a bit that was summed up properly by its headline: “The Culture War Is a Leftist Offensive.”

I requested Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at Yale, for his evaluation of the Drum and Linker arguments, and he wrote again:

It strains credulity to argue that Democrats have been pushing culture-war points greater than Republicans. It’s largely Republican elites who’ve accentuated these points to draw an increasing number of working-class white voters at the same time as they pursue a plutocratic financial agenda that’s unpopular amongst these voters. Certainly, Biden has not centered a lot on cultural points since coming into workplace — his key agenda objects are all bread-and-butter financial insurance policies. Meanwhile, we’ve Republicans making vital race principle and transgender sports activities into large political points (neither of which, as far as I can inform, hardly mattered to voters in any respect earlier than they have been elevated by right-wing media and the G.O.P.).

Hacker supplied me with a graphic of ideological developments from 1969 to 2020 in House and Senate voting by celebration that clearly exhibits rather more motion to the proper amongst Republicans than motion to the left amongst Democrats.

There is substantial proof in assist of Hacker’s argument that Republican politicians and strategists have led the cost in elevating hot-button points. On June 24, for instance, Representative Jim Banks of Indiana, chairman of the Republican Study Committee — a bunch of conservative members of the House — despatched out a memo telling colleagues:

We are in a tradition warfare. On one aspect, Republicans are working to resume American patriotism and rebuild our nation. On the different, Democrats have embraced and given a platform to a radical aspect who wish to tear America down.

The letter ends: “My encouragement to you is lean into it. Lean into the culture war.”

At the state legislative stage, The Associated Press — in an April story, “In G.O.P. strongholds, a big push on ‘culture war’ legislation” — cited a surge in laws limiting transgender surgical procedure and banning the educating of vital race principle.

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In this view, the left could begin tradition warfare conflicts, however the proper is much extra aggressive in politicizing them, each in legislative chambers and in political campaigns.

Conversely, Andrew Sullivan, in “What Happened to You? The radicalization of the American elite against liberalism,” makes the case that the excessive left has created a hostile setting not just for conservatives but in addition for conventional liberals:

Look how far the left’s warfare on liberalism has gone. Due course of? If you’re a male on campus, gone. Privacy? Stripped away — by nameless rape accusations, publicity of personal emails, violence towards folks’s personal houses, screaming at of us in eating places, sordid exposés of sexual encounters, eagerly printed by woke mags. Nonviolence? Exceptions can be found if you wish to “punch a fascist.” Free speech? Only when you don’t thoughts being fired and ostracized as a righteous consequence. Free affiliation? You’ve acquired to be kidding. Religious freedom? Illegitimate bigotry. Equality? Only group fairness counts now, and people of the mistaken identification can and should be discriminated towards. Colorblindness? Another phrase for racism. Mercy? Not for oppressors. Intent? Irrelevant. Objectivity? A racist lie. Science? A manifestation of white supremacy. Biological intercourse? Replaced by socially constructed gender so that ladies have penises and males have durations. The rule of regulation? Not for migrants or looters. Borders? Racist. Viewpoint variety? A type of violence towards the oppressed.

Drum and Linker base a lot of their argument on Pew Research knowledge (illustrated by the graphic under) to show that the Democratic Party has shifted a lot farther to the left than the Republican Party has shifted to the proper. On a zero (very liberal) to 10 (very conservative) scale, Drum wrote, “between 1994 and 2017, Democrats had gotten three points more liberal while Republicans had gotten about half a point more conservative.”

A Nation Divided

Democrats and Republicans have drifted additional aside over the years, as measured by a 10-point scale of political values.

Democrat

Republican

1994

Republicans and Democrats as soon as overlapped with comparable values

Consistently

liberal

Consistently

conservative

2011

Over time, partisans drifted aside, with extra folks holding opposition views

Consistently

liberal

Consistently

conservative

2017

There is more and more little overlap as the two events transfer aside

Consistently

liberal

Consistently

conservative

1994

2011

2017

Republicans and Democrats as soon as overlapped with comparable values

There is more and more little overlap

Over time, partisans drifted

to extra persistently partisan views

Consistently

conservative

Consistently

conservative

Consistently

conservative

Consistently

liberal

Consistently

liberal

Consistently

liberal

Democrat

Republican

Source: Pew Research Center | By The New York Times

Jocelyn Kiley, affiliate director for political analysis at Pew, argues, nevertheless, that her knowledge exhibits one thing fairly completely different. The Pew evaluation relies on responses to 10 questions, every of which asks topics to choose between two options — for instance, “government is almost always wasteful” versus “government often does a better job than people give it credit for,” or “homosexuality should be discouraged by society” versus “homosexuality should be accepted by society.”

In latest years, Kiley wrote in an electronic mail,

on just a few fundamental values — most notably, views round homosexual and lesbian folks and same-sex relationships — society as an entire (together with each Republicans and Democrats) has moved in a extra liberal path.

In addition, Kiley famous,

members of each events maintain extra optimistic views of immigrants than in the previous, at the same time as the partisan divide on these views has turn out to be extra pronounced.

The Democratic shift to the left displays largely a parallel shift in the normal public. The median voter has turn out to be extra liberal, and in consequence, in 2017 Democratic voters have been modestly nearer to the median voter than Republican voters (by one level on a 20-point scale).

I requested Brian Schaffner, a principal investigator at the Cooperative Election Study and a political scientist at Tufts, about the Drum and Linker columns. Schaffner made an argument much like Kiley’s:

The general median amongst the inhabitants of Americans has moved leftward from 1994 to 2017. Even if Republicans have shifted lower than Democrats, in comparison with their views in 1994, this hardly makes them much less excessive in the present second. To put a finer level on it, think about a person who supported faculty segregation in 1965 and who nonetheless held that very same view 50 years later. Clearly it’s the lack of a shift in views over 5 many years that may have made that particular person excessive in the 12 months 2015.

Schaffner observes that the knowledge

exhibits a really clear shift amongst Democrats, whereas Republicans hardly transfer in any respect. But independents are additionally transferring in the similar path as Democrats on these points. Sure, Republicans aren’t shifting their views, however their unwillingness to replace their assessments of racism in America is actually leaving them behind as the remainder of America’s attitudes are evolving.

Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard, took the Schaffner argument a step additional:

Most importantly, I believe we must always query whether or not the “culture war” metaphor is suitable — warfare offers the concept that there are aggressors attempting to vary society to match their preferences, however a lot of the change in opinion we see from each events is essentially a response to society altering round them.

Democrats, Enos continued,

moved to the left on homosexual marriage as a result of extra of them have been starting to know homosexual individuals who had come out of the closet regardless of the authorized and social pressures to not. And Democrats moved to the left on immigration as a result of the Western world, not simply the United States, is diversifying as financial and social developments have moved folks from one a part of the world to a different. On these and different points, Democrats’ attitudes change then not as a result of they’re attempting to form society, however as a result of they’re merely reacting to it.

It can be mistaken, Enos concluded, “to think cultural change is all about politics.”

The Pew knowledge relies on questions first developed in 1994 and embody none of the contentious modern points which have provoked pushback towards the left wing of the Democratic Party.

In a March 12 column printed earlier than his “Myth of asymmetric polarization” essay, Linker himself assigned duty to Trump and to Republicans for a local weather wherein “it sometimes seems as if the culture war has swallowed up everything in American politics.” Linker traces this phenomenon to

Donald Trump’s presidential marketing campaign and victory towards Hillary Clinton in November 2016. Trump gained, partially, by mixing sturdy assist from non secular conservatives with agency backing by extra secular conservatives and moderates who responded to Trump’s sturdy, culturally inflected protection of immigration restrictionism, gun rights, and America’s distinctive nationwide identification. Through his 4 years in workplace, Trump used Twitter, public rallies, and different presidential statements to border lots of his coverage commitments in tradition warfare phrases, casting his opponents on these points as morally alien from American tradition and historical past. By the final 12 months of his presidency, Trump had gone far past abortion, immigration, and weapons to culturalize crime, race relations, financial coverage, voting rights and even mask-wearing in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory, expanded on this level in an electronic mail:

The questions that comprise the Pew index should not essentially what’s driving concern about extremism in the present day. Today, we’re involved about who’s extra prone to consider in QAnon or which group is extra prone to consider that armed resistance to authorities could be vital to save lots of America.

Recent knowledge, Gillespie wrote, exhibits that Republicans are much more prone to consider in QAnon or that vital proportions of Republicans consider that the 2020 election was stolen, regardless of a wealth of proof to the opposite. This, Gillespie contends, is the purpose “that the public discourse is focusing on right-wing extremism right now.”

As the 2022 election comes into view, the key concern is much less the query of which celebration is the aggressor in the tradition wars than whether or not Republicans can gin up sufficient controversy over the so-called woke agenda to make it salient to voters on Election Day, no matter whether or not or not duty for these points can moderately be attributed to the Democratic Party.

Linker’s March 12 column, “Will the GOP’s culture war gambit blow up in its face?” describes the difficulties dealing with the Republican Party in reaching this purpose.

At the second, the citizens faces

a tradition warfare that seems to be metastasizing, although with its left aspect displaying much more ambivalence about waging it than these on the proper. In purely tactical phrases, this is sensible. Republicans are motivated to pursue tradition warfare battles, and to border coverage disputes in culture-war phrases, as a result of they assume it advantages them politically. And they could be proper about that — exactly as a result of Democrats are extra divided on these points than Republicans.

But there’s a catch, Linker continued:

While Republicans and progressive activists are hurling invective at one another, Democrats in Congress and the White House are getting ready to ship substantial quantities of cash, in the type of pandemic aid, to a whole bunch of thousands and thousands of Americans. That’s prone to be fairly standard — and opens up an intriguing risk. What if, whereas Republicans are busy attempting to bait Democrats on tradition warfare points, these Democrats find yourself successful public opinion in a giant method by refusing to play alongside, altering the topic, and really making the lives of most Americans concretely higher? If so, the culture-war play by the proper might find yourself backfiring large time.

If right-wing manipulation of cultural and racial points does find yourself backfiring, that can defy the lengthy historical past of the Republican Party’s profitable deployment of divisive wedge points — from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush to Newt Gingrich to George W. Bush to Donald Trump. Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated that the half-life of those radioactive subjects is longer than anticipated, and Democrats, in the event that they wish to defend their fragile majority, should be doubly cautious to not hand their adversaries ever extra highly effective weapons.

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