By Mike Koetting May 6, 2018
Without question, slavery was America’s original sin. But right behind that in the sin category was the Democrats’ 100-year affair with the conservative South. Democrats argued that the alliance allowed them to pass laws, opposed by Northern Republicans, that improved the economic lot of American workers. True—but mostly for white workers and, largely by accident, some black workers who had made their way North. For that, Southern Democrats were allowed to continue their backwards, racist social order at the state level.
Proof of what was important to the Southern Democrats was readily found when Lyndon Johnson and Northern Democrats tried to extend those gains to black workers. The South turned solidly Republican quicker than Richard Nixon could say “states’ rights”.
To be sure, the current cultural wars are not solely about racism and are not limited to the South. But even the most cursory review of the history of post-Civil War America shows that cultural values are deeper than any nominal loyalty to political parties or the policies they ostensibly stand for. The Trump phenomena has proved that again. The vast bulk of the Trump base has no more loyalty to the Republican Party than Dixiecrats had to the Democratic Party. Their loyalty is to a way of life, one that is as unfathomable to me as I presume my way of life is to them. There is no respect in either direction.
This troubles me, although, I will admit in a way that might well be considered condescending. I am concerned about the lack of respect for people on the other side, not because I respect their opinion. On the contrary. But, whereas, I recognize that their correctly perceived lack of respect is, itself, the fuel of the culture war, I don’t see how we get out of this. An ongoing culture war isn’t very good for the country because it makes it virtually impossible to settle on common goals if one-third of the country has a largely different value structure. No wonder our government is dysfunctional.
Don’t get me wrong. Many members of the Trump base have legitimate grievances. But the expression of those grievances is so colored by their cultural outlook that political cause and effect is scrambled to the point it’s hard to think about the terms of any compromise. Their idea of “the elite” is not rich people. It is people who would tell them what to do—either overtly (restrict their guns, make them share bathrooms with transgender people) or indirectly (allowing abortions, worrying about the environment, treating blacks as equals). So people who are clearly getting a raw economic deal seem willing to go along with cutting social services and giving billions of dollars to the already rich to get even with “the elites.”
At one level, it is reasonable to ask “So what?”. The hard-core, cultural-values-base Trump base consists of maybe 30% of the population. In theory, the rest of us should simply be able to out vote them and let them stew in their own juices.
Of course there isn’t one “rest of us”.
Part of this problem is the structure of the American political system which over-represents rural voters in the Electoral College, the Senate and many states. Rural voters seem to take particular umbrage to “the elites”. For instance, the provisions of the new income tax law that reduce deductibility of state and local taxes was aimed specifically at the urban-dominated, “cosmopolitan”blue states, which feel more compelled to provide communal social services than rural states. It was largely an act of spite.
However, the more fundamental aspect of the issue is the arithmetic of elections, especially at the national level. The Democrats have come to have a structural base approaching 50% of the population. That is, the combination of people to whom the Republican party has made itself anathema (minorities, the young, most of the college-educated) is almost half the population. The Republican Party would cease as a viable entity if its other members didn’t ally with the Trump base. And there are enough people with very deep pockets for whom the Republican Party is their only hope to maintain the depth of those pockets unchecked. Those oligarchs happily fund candidates who are willing to ally with the Trump base so that they can be reasonably competitive with Democrats. These oligarchs may or may not share values with the Trump base. But that’s irrelevant. The Trump base votes against Democrats and that is enough. No cultural values need changing.
The Milbank Memorial Newsletter contains an enlightening description of how this plays out on one issue, gun laws. There are no policy arguments for the current state of gun laws in America. Cultural arguments, surely, but not policy arguments. However, the newsletter says,
Moderate Republicans have asked us not to have public discussions about the issue for fear that any publicity will cause the legislators among them to face well-financed, single-issue opponents in their primary elections.
Why? Because the folks with the really deep pockets don’t want to alienate the Trump base.
To be sure, there are Democrats who have lots of money. And some of those are involved in elections. But their revulsion to parts of the cultural wars seems to trump their narrow economic interests, at least for now.
In short, given the current situation, I don’t see any quick end to the cultural wars. Reason doesn’t have much to do with the values the Trump base holds, so they are not going anywhere. And as long as the Republican Party is unwilling to address the issues, which it can’t because there is no other path to victory for them, the disagreement becomes a self-reinforcing mess.
Ironically, the only way I can see getting past this collection of cultural values having an outsized impact on the country’s political life is when, near or longer-term I know not, the Democratic Party gets the upper hand and so much overplays it that there is the possibility a moderate Republican Party can split off enough Democrats to compete without the Trump base. It is not as if the Democratic Party is monolithic. As Thomas Edsall points out in a very incisive article, the Democrats are composed of two groups—the educated, well off who have taken over central cities and while, socially liberal, are on the winning end of inequality; and the young and the minorities, for whom issues around economic inequality are central. Right now, the Republican’s Trump-reliance makes it easier for these groups to paper over their differences. But there is probably a point at which people more protective of economic privilege will coalesce if some Republicans are willing to split off from the Trump base.
It is hard to know whether that development will make the culture wars as we know them irrelevant or whether it will result in different permutations. Know-nothingism seems to be remarkably resilient in human beings—not just in America but pretty much everywhere. It is like a smoldering fire that given the least encouragement breaks into flames. Thus, while I expect the culture wars to morph into something different–when allying with the NRA costs you more than it gets you—the know-nothing instinct will probably find a new way to express itself.
But for the immediate future, the current culturally-inflected political impasse will continue. Demography might temper the influence of the Trump base as the country becomes younger, whites are a smaller share of the population, rural areas continue to shrink, and the values that they support erode. Consider that in Texas, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas all voted substantially for Hillary Clinton. It is entirely possible that demography and frustration with the know-nothingism of the Trump base will motivate enough people to vote Democratic and the country can get a relatively functioning government. There will be a lot of screaming if the Democrats rule with little regard for Republicans, but what is the alternative as long as Republicans feel they have no alternative but to hold out to the most retrogressive values in America?