Opinion

The GOP's cultural impotence

And why it's consuming the party

In order to make sense of the intensity of political conflict in America in 2021, you need to understand that it is driven in substantial part by each side's perception of its own weakness.

Democrats feel weak because they are politically disadvantaged compared with their opponents. Joe Biden won the popular vote by seven million but would have lost the presidency if just 50,000 or so votes flipped in a handful of states. Because those who vote for them are densely clustered in a relatively small number of states, Democrats also have a harder time winning a majority of seats in the Senate. Put that together with the GOP's edge in the Electoral College and Democrats also face a daunting path to getting their preferred judges confirmed to the federal courts. All of it understandably convinces progressives that they are at risk of being excluded from meaningful political power altogether.

Meanwhile, Republicans feel weak because they are culturally disadvantaged compared with their opponents. Republicans may be capable of winning political power, but progressives dominate the media, the universities, the nonprofit sector, and big business, including the omnipowerful tech companies that play such an outsized role in shaping the contours of our public life. This makes conservatives feel like they're swimming against a powerful rip tide constantly yanking the country to the left no matter how many elections they win. And since conservatives tend to believe that politics is downstream from culture, they understandably consider themselves at risk of being driven into extinction.

The path forward for a party that feels politically disenfranchised is pretty obvious: capture political power and use it to make the electoral rules more equitable. And indeed, Democrats are in the early stages of attempting exactly that with H.R. 1 and a push to add states to the country and therefore to the Senate.

But how can a party reverse its own cultural weakness?

That perplexing question explains a lot about Republican behavior in recent years. The GOP and its most passionate voters desperately want to do something to reverse its cultural vulnerabilities, but they can't quite figure out how to accomplish it. We see signs of this confusion all the time, but it's been especially vivid in the furious debates surrounding Georgia's recently enacted election law.

What's going on in Georgia is just the latest in a series of battles in recent years where the political power of conservatives has been checked by the cultural power of progressives. Think back to the fight over Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act back during the spring of 2015. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and his fellow Republicans took a stand in the name of religious freedom in order to protect businesses run by conservative Christians from being forced to participate in same-sex marriages.

But after Indiana's RFRA was passed, executives at major companies with business in the state — including Tim Cook of Apple, Pay-Pal cofounder Max Levchin, and Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman — joined with the NBA, NCAA, and many other large businesses in objecting to the law and raising the possibility of a state boycott. As a result, Pence and the Indiana legislature passed a new law that amended the previous one in order to clarify that it would not subject gays and lesbians to outright discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender.

The political strength of social conservatives in Indiana had been turned back by the cultural strength of progressives — and that infuriated the religious right, which felt betrayed by Pence's capitulation to the progressive commitments of business executives on social and religious issues. A little over a year later, many of those same Republicans threw their support behind Donald Trump's presidential campaign in the hope that he would serve as a more potent strongman-protector against the cultural power of the left.

Fast forward to 2021 and we're seeing something similar playing out today in Georgia. The state has enacted a law that moves its rules for running elections partway back to where they stood prior to changes that were implemented last year in response the unique circumstances of the pandemic. From voting-rights activists on up to President Biden himself, Democrats insist that the intent of the law is to suppress Black voting. Its electoral consequences are likely to be more muddled than that.

But regardless of the value of the new Georgia law, we're once again seeing the primary push-back against it coming not from Democratic officials in Georgia but from the corporate sector. Delta Air Lines, with a corporate headquarters and major hub in Atlanta, at first issued a bland expression of support for the law but then reversed course after criticism from activists. Coca-Cola, another significant employer in the state, has explicitly denounced the law. And then, on Friday, Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star Game from Atlanta.

So far, there's no sign of Georgia's legislature or governor backing down. On the contrary, following Trump's combative example, they appear to be spoiling for a fight. But what will it amount to?

Some Georgia lawmakers say they want Coke products removed from their office suite. There's vague talk of conservatives boycotting baseball in retaliation. Others (including Sens. Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio) are more ambitious, going as far as suggesting that Congress strip Major League Baseball of the antitrust exemption it's enjoyed since a controversial Supreme Court decision 99 years ago.

The first question about these punitive actions is whether Republicans will actually follow through on them — or whether elected officials and voters mainly see such gestures as acts of performative outrage, like dashing off some tweets about the offenses of “Woke-a-Cola” or smashing a few Keurig coffee makers, as some fans of Sean Hannity did back in 2017 when the company pulled ads from his Fox News show in response to his defenses of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.

But let's say that Lee, Cruz, and Rubio actually do follow through — that they use their considerable political power to push back hard against the cultural power of their opponents. This would mark a significant shift in GOP ideology away from the laissez-faire stance that has dominated the party for the past several decades, if not longer. This commitment usually led Republicans to support giving corporations considerable leeway about business decisions, including what stances to take on controversial laws and other political matters.

The question is whether it would even work for Republicans to abandon their long-held principles on the issue. Would big business back down in the face of threats and actual punitive measures from Republican officials? Unless it was backed up by bad publicity that threatened to substantially hurt their bottom line, I doubt it. And such bad publicity is unlikely, precisely because conservatives operate at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to cultural power. Who's going to make MLB look bad for taking a stand on behalf of Black voters in Georgia when so many powerful institutions in American civil society side with that position and valorize those who do the same, especially in the face of harsh criticism? MLB is far more likely to end up being treated like a hero.

This doesn't mean that businesses run by conservatives will all eventually flip to the left. But it does mean that once a corporation or other private institution takes a public stand in favor of progressive goals, it's unlikely to flip to the right, even when facing the prospect of political retaliation. There are simply more people (more consumers) on the progressive side of America's cultural divide, and the cost in bad press of turning against them would be considerable.

Which leaves us right back where we started — with conservative cultural weakness and the puzzle of how Republicans can counter it. This isn't a problem the GOP is likely to solve anytime soon.

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