Opinion

How Democrats got themselves ensnared in the right's culture-war trap once again

The GOP has succeeded in taking the 'center' out of the center-left

Democrats were always going to have a tough time in the 2022 midterm elections, given historic trends and the party's already extremely narrow majorities in Congress. Add in surging inflation and a brutal war being waged in Europe and things begin to look especially bleak.

But that doesn't mean all of the party's woes are circumstantial. Some are self-inflicted — especially when it comes to the culture-war issues that increasingly dominate American politics.

In recent years, Republicans have become experts at leveraging their own extremism on these issues for electoral gain. The game goes like this: Stake out a right-wing position that cheers the GOP's base, thereby ensuring high turnout in the next election; count on progressive activists to respond with their own mirror-image form of left-wing maximalism and Democratic officeholders to adopt that message as their own; use those words and deeds both to justify the right's original impulse toward extremism and to portray the Republican Party as the country's sole defenders of common sense against an insidious form of progressive ideology.

Then rinse and repeat.

If Democrats want to avoid a wipeout in 2022 and perhaps in 2024 as well, they need to stop responding to the right's extremism with a counter-extremism of their own.

Take abortion. As I recently noted, Republicans in states across the country are busy passing extraordinarily restrictive laws against the reproductive rights of women and handing off enforcement powers to private individuals. These "bounty hunter" provisions, which empower people to sue those who procure (or who aid someone else in procuring) abortions, allow these states to sidestep judicial review and avoid injunctions imposed by federal courts. (If states aren't directly enforcing the statutes, no one has standing to seek relief from the penalties they impose.)  

Polls consistently show that something close to 60 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That means a very solid majority should be sympathetic to a message like this: In passing laws like these, Republicans are revealing themselves to be radicals far out of step with the American mainstream. Some restrictions on abortion should be permissible, but outright bans are draconian, and efforts to skirt judicial review are un-American in intent and downright authoritarian in effect. What's next? The death penalty for women who have abortions, as some Republicans have proposed

The point of such a response would be to portray the Democrats as the reasonable party upholding moderation and decency in the face of a lunatic assault on the rights and freedoms of the female half of the population.

Instead, in late February, 48 Democrats voted in favor of a bill — the Women's Health Protection Act (WHPA) — that would enshrine the right to an abortion through all nine months of pregnancy in the country as a whole and potentially knock down parental consent laws in 37 states. A solid majority may think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, but support for post-viability, late-term abortions is far lower, and the most recent Gallup poll to ask about parental-consent laws (from 2011) found 71 percent support for them.

That means Democrats have somehow managed to place themselves on the negative side of public opinion on an issue where they should easily be able to portray their opponents as the extremists. That might delight single-issue activists and the most ideologically progressive donors to the party, but it could well turn out to be electoral poison in November and beyond.

A similar dynamic is playing out around Florida's "Parental Rights in Education" bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law earlier this week. LGBT activists have had considerable success in persuading journalists and Democratic officeholders to label the legislation the "Don't Say Gay" bill and in describing it as motivated by anti-gay and anti-transgender animus, which could well be both true and an effective message for Democrats, at least in some parts of the country.

There is legitimate reason to worry that the law, which seems to have been written in intentionally vague language, could be interpreted to permit sweeping restrictions on what teachers of all grades can say about sexuality and gender in schools. Yet the passage of the bill that has gotten the most media attention is one that bans "classroom instruction" on "sexual orientation or gender identity" from kindergarten through the third grade. That makes it sound like Democratic opposition to the bill is motivated by the desire to teach young kids about subjects that most parents are likely to consider, quite reasonably, inappropriate for them. (Polling on the bill has been all over the map.)

How can it be that Democrats have ended up, by implication, defending the position that public schools should be free to teach children younger than 8 years old about sexual orientation and gender identity? Coming on the heels of controversy about the teaching of "critical race theory" in public schools and residual animus against teacher's unions for demanding pandemic-related school closings, this stance could ultimately blow up in the face of Democrats big time.

And not without reason. Trying at the state level to regulate the details of public-school curricula and restrict what teachers can say in the classroom is a bad idea. Saying so could give Democrats leverage to oppose bills like the one DeSantis championed in Florida while rallying the American majority to their side. But only if it's paired with a defense of giving local school boards the power to make these decisions for themselves. Taking the opposite view — that parents should get no say in what their kids are taught and implying that teachers and administrators should be empowered to introduce little kids to issues in sexuality and gender — is a politically toxic position that could only appeal to a progressive activist.     

In political terms, the culture war is a battle over definitions: Which party is narrowly extreme and sectarian? And which stands with America's conflicted majority? In repeatedly taking the Republican bait, Democrats deny themselves of the chance to prevail by refusing to confirm the right's caricature of their position. We're not the extreme ones! They are!

The only way for liberals to win the right's radicalizing culture-war game is not to play.

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