Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Who's Winning the Culture War?

This Atlantic piece by Molly Ball—headlined "Are Liberals Losing the Culture Wars?"—interprets the results of scattered off-year elections around the nation this week as a collective sign of popular backlash to cultural liberalism. Among the evidence cited was the election of a gay marriage opponent to the governorship of Kentucky, the defeat of an Ohio ballot initiative providing for the limited legalization of marijuana, the defeat of a referendum in the city of Houston that would have enhanced the rights of transgender people, and the defeat of a (scandal-ridden) San Francisco sheriff who "had defended the city’s sanctuary policy after a sensational murder by an illegal immigrant."

So are liberals losing the culture wars? Here's a test: imagine a political expert being told in 1990, or even in 2005, that the highly-contested political issues of the 2015 elections would include the following: whether marijuana should be legalized, whether the government should ban discrimination against transgender people, whether a recent Supreme Court decision mandating the right to same-sex marriage in every state should be accepted, and whether or not immigration law should be enforced on illegal immigrants. Would the expert conclude, based on this vision of the future, that the nation was about to move in a culturally conservative direction? Or, instead, would it seem as if substantial leftward political and social change was about to occur, such that positions and policies that were once unthinkable as bases of serious partisan-ideological contestation had entered the realm of legitimate national debate?

Personally, I think the latter. Public opinion is not moving leftward on every social or cultural issue (abortion attitudes, for example, seem to be very stable over time), but the significant increases in public support for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization over the past decade are undeniable. Neither position will win majority support in every electoral constituency—is it really big news that same-sex marriage remains unpopular in Kentucky, of all places?—but the trajectory of opinion change, and in many cases an accompanying policy change, is clear regardless of the results of this week's elections.

Liberals can and sometimes do push too far too fast, and may even suffer a serious electoral backlash at times for their support of an increasingly ambitious cultural agenda. Over the past 25 years, Republican candidates have reaped significant electoral benefits among the socially conservative inhabitants of the South and rural West due to the rising salience of cultural issues. But it is important not to judge the current state of the culture war solely from the outcomes of elections without recognizing the dramatic shift in the policy battleground upon which this war is now often being fought.