‘Culture Wars’ Are Tweaked and Front and Center Again Because It’s All One Party Has to Offer

This past month we’ve seen that while the Democrats debate policies, how they reflect their inclusive values, and how best to enact them, the Republican Party is discussing Dr. Seuss, Pepe LePue, the Potato Heads, discrimination against transgender people, preventing people who disagree with them from voting, and ensuring government control over women’s reproductive choices. They’re still trying, as well, to figure out ways they can demonize and marginalize all LGBTQ people after all those Court decisions that have rejected such discrimination.

The previous president was a useable egotist for the Republican “culture war,” and demonizing President Biden has become a centerpiece because he refuses to play their game of “Calvinball” with Republicans constantly and hypocritically changing the rules and moving the goalposts to appeal to their supporters. By his executive actions and appointments, Biden has defied their definition of “culture” and its values.

The previous president helped Republicans lay bare their real “culture” agenda for all to see. Blatantly he showed us that White supremacy was at the heart of it all along with the accompanying patriarchy that fits so well with that supremacy.

For generations now, Republicans have chosen to consistently define “Culture” in very straight, White terms. When they’ve spoken of “traditional family values,” it was a very straight White family we were to bring to mind.

They topped this off by talking as if one of our major national problems was a breakdown in “the family” among, of course, families of color, and with unsubstantiated claims that families with two daddies or two mommies were absolute disasters. Those families just weren’t White or straight enough according to their nostalgic idea of what they claimed families always were and should be.

This became a crucial feature of their politics following the successes of the Civil Rights movement when Republicans responded with what they called their “Southern strategy.” Their appeal to White Evangelicals was steeped in the promotion of this exclusive kind of “culture.”

Limiting the right to vote of anyone who threatened their “culture” in this war is nothing new either, but the previous president’s “big lie” countering his re-election trouncing inspired renewed efforts to squash any opposition. It was just another front in the same “culture wars.”

They had seen decades ago that their days were limited as more Americans voted. Paul Weyrich, cofounder of the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Moral Majority, made that clear to a gathering of White right-wing religionists in 1980: “So many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome: good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people; they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

They also schemed to do their best to hide their straight, White cultural supremacism by focusing on issues that would negatively impact LGBTQ people and people of color but not sound openly racist and homophobic. They could act as if they were talking about “fiscal conservatism” rather than bigotry.

Back in 1981 influential Republican campaign consultant Lee Atwater explained the “Southern Strategy” his Party was using to win the vote of racists without changing anything but not sounding racist themselves:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “N****, n****, n****.” By 1968 you can’t say “n****” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now [in 1981], you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N****, n****.”

And those who started claiming that they were fiscal conservatives but cultural liberals (even among those in some of the targeted groups) never saw, or refused to admit, the connections. But the Republican strategists knew and exploited them.

The “culture wars” always included the subordination of women, and that continues. The fight against the Equal Rights Amendment and attempts to exert government control of women’s reproductive choices, even when Republicans behind these fronts in the war practiced abortions for themselves, were about controlling those women in particular who didn’t jive with the Republican definition of “culture.”

Until the Supreme Court decisions affirming sexual orientation equality (2003) and marriage equality (2015), it was publicly acceptable to openly discriminate against lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people. Thus, it was one of the most visible tactics in Republican culture wars and successful in rallying religionists in churches that agreed.

But social and cultural forces required change not in their underlying view of who true Americans were but in using more acceptable ways to rally the same old bases that had bought the culture war trope before. They could combine their views about gender issues, women’s issues, and LGBTQ issues by promoting transphobia.

As with the Equal Rights Amendment fight and the fight to prevent LGB equality, their focus was again bathroom usage. Transgender people would be the lightning rods to maintain rigid gender roles and gender definitions, and by raising all sorts of fears they could claim that Republicans were protecting children from the undocumented threats posed by those who didn’t fit their ideas of culture.

But in order to do this in a way that would not just sound like the old-fashioned bigotry behind it, they came up with new strategies for promotion of discrimination – the claim of “religious liberty” that still gave them the cover to remain bigots. With the promotion of “religious liberty” laws and conservative judicial decisions for “religious liberty,” they could appeal to the trope that it was religious people who were victims in all this, that it’s really their freedoms that are threatened.

So “religious liberty” became a new salvo in the same old “culture wars” with rejuvenated claims that election fraud by “those people” is rampant. And, of course with dog whistle phraseology like “urban” and even “Democrat” (not Democratic) as labels of who the problems are, they’re revealing that the underlying goal of protecting straight White patriarchal supremacy is still all they’ve got.

With the Republican Party rejecting policies that the majority of Americans support, there’s little left for it to do but play the hand that has underlain its work for a couple of generations – that all this is reduceable to a “culture war” that must protect straight, White male patriarchy because the alternative will destroy their kind of “culture.”