With new stories about "cancel culture" and "woke" outrage breaking every few days, it sometimes seems as if the culture war has swallowed up everything in American politics. Yet it's also the case that over the past seven weeks, the Democrats have passed a $1.9 trillion economic relief package and advanced an omnibus bill to protect voting rights and a pro-union bill that would significantly reform the country's labor laws.
Political reality in the earliest phase of the post-Trump era somehow combines both of those poles — and gaining our bearings requires making sense of how they can both be true, and might even be connected below the surface.
The culture war has changed a lot since it began to play a role in national politics — first, haltingly, during the Nixon administration, and then in a much more sweeping way with the election of Ronald Reagan. Back then, the culture war was about the role of religion in American public life and the moral issues wrapped up with it: prayer in public schools, the counterculture, feminism, abortion, pornography, euthanasia, gay rights, and much more recently, transgender rights. From the early 1980s through the first term of the Obama administration, other issues of public policy were entirely separate from the moral and religious concerns that animated the culture war.
This began to change during Obama's second term, when religious conservatives felt newly threatened by the Obergefell Supreme Court decision proclaiming same-sex marriage a constitutional right and the administration's push to protect transgender rights. Now those on the right side of the culture war began to press for more sweeping protections from what seemed to many like a newly assertive secular state.
But the real catalyst for transformation was Donald Trump's presidential campaign and victory against Hillary Clinton in November 2016. Trump won, in part, by blending strong support from religious conservatives with firm backing by more secular conservatives and moderates who responded to Trump's strong, culturally inflected defense of immigration restrictionism, gun rights, and America's distinctive national identity.
Through his four years in office, Trump used Twitter, public rallies, and other presidential statements to frame many of his policy commitments in culture war terms, casting his opponents on these issues as morally alien from American culture and history. By the last year of his presidency, Trump had gone far beyond abortion, immigration, and guns to culturalize crime, race relations, economic policy, voting rights, and even mask-wearing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In responding to Trump's provocations, Democrats and progressive activists often took the bait, rejecting Trump's agenda and defending their own policy priorities in similarly sweeping, cultural terms.
In the weeks since Trump left office, Republicans have been eager to continue following Trump's example — and some on the left have been giving them lots of material, with plenty of new examples of overreach by progressive activists intent on cancelling morally dubious people, books, and other forms of cultural expression.
More noteworthy has been the response of Democratic officeholders. Taking their cues from a new president who steadfastly refuses to engage with or react to cultural provocations, they have mostly kept their heads down and focused on passing legislation. As a result, the left side of the culture war is being prosecuted far away from the halls of Congress — on a few university campuses, within media companies and other corporate contexts, and of course on social media.
This points to a significant difference between the left and the right today: Democrats don't typically denounce the activists of the cultural left or those who capitulate to its demands in the academic, journalistic, and business worlds, but neither do they tend to hold them especially close. Republicans, on the other hand, increasingly define themselves by what right-wing anti-woke activists and obsessives are saying and doing online.
Three examples from recent days illustrate various aspects of the difference.
Last week, while the COVID relief package was working its way through Congress, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy released a video of himself reading from a Dr. Seuss book. It was an effort to demonstrate his (and his party's) rejection of the decision by Dr Seuss' publishing house to discontinue, or "cancel," several books because of racist imagery contained within them. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz weighed in as well, implying falsely that Joe Biden had been behind the controversial "ban."
A few days later, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, a Democrat, lambasted his Republican colleagues — not by defending the decision to discontinue the Dr. Seuss books, but for talking about the issue at all. Instead of engaging productively with his party's efforts to pass the pro-union (Pro Act) bill, Republicans were attempting to change the subject by repeatedly raising objections to the latest "cancel culture" scandal: "Heaven forbid we pass something that's going to help the damn workers in the United States of America!... Now, stop talking about Dr. Seuss, and start working with us on behalf of … American workers."
And then, as always, there is the broader-based scrum of impassioned partisans on Twitter. Just as the most rancorous fights involving and surrounding Trump played out on the platform, so today's culture war is often waged in furious 280-character volleys. Some days it seems like every tweet that gains traction involves something woke-related. Yet while plenty of people on the left lustfully contribute to denouncing their conservative opponents, progressive opinion is much more deeply divided than it is on the right. In addition to enthusiastic defenders of cancel culture, the left includes plenty of liberals (like myself) who are sharply critical of it, as well as many others who follow the example of the Biden administration in largely steering clear of cultural disputes altogether.
That leaves us with a culture war that appears to be metastasizing, though with its left side displaying far more ambivalence about waging it than those on the right. In purely tactical terms, this makes sense. Republicans are motivated to pursue culture war battles, and to frame policy disputes in culture-war terms, because they think it benefits them politically. And they may be right about that — precisely because Democrats are more divided on those issues than Republicans.
But there's a catch. While Republicans and progressive activists are hurling invective at each other, Democrats in Congress and the White House are preparing to send substantial amounts of money, in the form of pandemic relief, to hundreds of millions of Americans. That's likely to be pretty popular — and opens up an intriguing possibility.
What if while Republicans are busy trying to bait Democrats on culture war issues, those Democrats end up winning public opinion in a big way by refusing to play along, changing the subject, and actually making the lives of most Americans concretely better?
If so, the culture-war play by the right could end up backfiring big time.