Was the Culture War Ever as Important to Republican Victories as Democrats Think?

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Mr. Smith is an associate professor of Political Science and an ajdunct professor of communication at the University of Washington.

According to many scholars and journalists, America continues to wage an internal “culture war.” For most of the twentieth century, the account goes, domestic politics were fought over economic and class-based issues. In recent decades, however, those concerns have been overtaken by intense cultural conflicts. Stoked by Republican candidates for electoral gain, hot-button issues like abortion, homosexuality, and religious expression in public life have come to dominate our political system, thereby pushing economic matters to the sidelines.

Despite its widespread currency, this common account of American politics has the story backwards. Economic issues have become more central, not less, to the flow of American politics. Far from falling off the agenda in an age of cultural conflicts, economic matters are now more important to candidates and voters than was the case in the immediate decades after World War II.

The driving force for this transformation was a rise in economic insecurity that began in the early 1970s and persisted—and in many ways intensified—up to the present. The components of economic insecurity included job instability, greater international competition, rising levels of debt and personal bankruptcy, stagnant wages for most of the population, and problems with the existence and quality of health insurance. Judged on a variety of indicators, Americans’ economic livelihoods are more precarious than they were for earlier generations.

Over the last three decades, Republican politicians responded to heightened economic insecurity by giving an economic cast to policies they formerly defended on grounds of freedom. Post-World War II conservatives like Barry Goldwater highlighted the threat to personal freedom from high taxes, government regulation, and expensive social programs. Since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have instead emphasized the economic benefits they expect to follow from their policy proposals. Cutting taxes, eliminating regulations, and shrinking the welfare state became the ticket to jobs, growth, and prosperity for all.

An important part of the political responses was a switching of the parties’ positions on balanced budgets. Once Republicans began pushing intensely for tax cuts, even those that would create large budget deficits, Democrats were left as the party of fiscal responsibility. From Walter Mondale in 1984 through John Kerry in 2004, Democratic presidential candidates seriously curtailed the scale and scope of their domestic proposals for fear of budgetary costs. While Democrats of previous generations stood ready and willing to absorb deficit spending to pay for social programs, modern Democrats have made deficit reduction the main feature of their economic program. Not surprisingly, such a message has proven to be remarkably unappealing to the American electorate.

The real political story of the last three decades, then, is not the rise of a perpetual culture war. Instead, the most visible feature of our politics has been the enduring importance of economic concerns to politicians and voters. I tell this tale in more detail in my recent book, The Right Talk: How Conservatives Transformed the Great Society into the Economic Society. The interplay of the party positions and the public response has shifted American politics inexorably to the right. That trend is likely to continue unless and until Democrats develop a more appealing economic message.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 7/27/2007

You are right that Perot is an interesting case. Because he was able to become a part of the maintream discussion, he had more impact on the content of the electioneering than other third party candidates.

I think you exagerate the one-sidedness of his impact. He scared both Clinton and the Elder Bush. I think he confirmed Clinton's pre-existing belief that he needed to be a centrist president, and in the process Clinton may have moved farther right on budget issues.

However, Perot emphasized NAFTA opposition as much as he did the deficit. Clinton did not bend to that. Nor did his stance on that issue help the Republicans in 1994

Perot did little to establish a third party that would outlast him.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/27/2007

The apostasy of Democrats on deficit spending was a direct result of the prime-time chalk talks by H. Ross Perot, who scared the living hell out of Bill Clinton in 1992 and set the stage for the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994. That $60 million he spent was well worth it to persuade Mr. & Mrs. America we needed fiscal discipline. And his message was helped along by the fact millions of Roosevelt-era voters had died.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/24/2007

Some thoughts

Good article. I think there is considerable truth to it.

However, I think the culture was a part of the Democratic loss of power. In part the cultural problems related to the economic. The stagflation of the time and the decline of Midwest industries left both parties floundering for solutions, but because the Democrats were in power, they took the brunt of the criticism.

However, there really was something of a malaise in the late 1970s. Carter took hell for pointing that out, and to some extent justifiably so, as he positioned himself as a victim of it rather than as part of it. Still, it went far beyond policy. The loss of a war, racial and gender instability (from a more traditional perspective), a general sense of directionlessness mingled with economic concerns.

That malaise gave room to Reagan to appeal to an older American triumphalism. He seemed to know where he was going, and by 1984, to most voting Americans, that seemed better than where they had just been.