White flags are popping up everywhere.
“Love your gay and lesbian neighbors,” the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore advised his flock after the Supreme Court upheld gay marriage. “They aren’t part of an evil conspiracy.” That’s quite a departure, the Wall Street Journalpoints out, from Moore’s predecessor, who warned of a “radical homosexual agenda.” In an earlier Journal interview in August, Moore said, “This is the end of ‘slouching toward Gomorrah,’” referring to the title of Robert Bork’s angry 1996 diatribe against multiculturalism and egalitarianism.
In a similar mood, Pope Francis recently told the editor of an Italian Jesuit journal: “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” The doctrines he referred to concerned gay marriage, abortion, and contraception. Compare that to his predecessor Pope Benedict’s assertion (before he became pope) that homosexuality was “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil,” and to Benedict’s statement (after he became pope) that abortion was an act of “aggression against society itself.”
In 2012, Mitt Romney tried to win Virginia by making an issue of the Democratic platform briefly omitting (before shoehorning it nervously back in again) any mention of the word “God.” Romney even insinuated (falsely) that Obama would take the word “God” off U.S. currency. Romney was remembering, perhaps, that George H.W. Bush had won the presidency in 1988 in large part by questioning his opponent’s commitment to God and country. Twenty-four years later, that didn’t win you even the former capital of the Confederacy.
To be sure, the culture wars (which began in the 1960s and acquired that name in the 1990s) leave a few land mines scattered here and there, and a few enemy nests to clean out. The two issues that remain most in contention are abortion (which remains legal in theory but ever-less so in practice) and guns (which are regulated less and less, even as school shootings occur more and more).
But when defined as activities rather than issues, both abortion and gun ownership, it’s worth noting, are in decline. Abortions are down, the Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff has suggested, because women increasingly have more effective contraception methods available to them. The share of American households with guns is down, the New York Times’s Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff have suggested, because the U.S. population is more urban, hunts less, and contains fewer military veterans than previously. At least in theory–assuming people continue to have fewer abortions and to own fewer guns–there will be less to argue about.
A similar logic can be applied to illegal immigration, another flashpoint in the culture wars. Even as the political arguments about immigration grow more heated, the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has leveled off. One significant reason is that Mexico’s economy has improved to the point that, at least among documented workers, more Americans are migrating to Mexico than Mexicans to the U.S. At some point, one assumes, the political arguments will diminish along with the perceived problem.
A new survey from the liberal Center for American Progress contained two interesting findings about American attitudes toward diversity. The first was that people greatly overestimated minorities’ percentage of the U.S. population. The median estimate was 49%; the actual percentage is 37%. The other finding is that respondents, in the aggregate, felt more positive than negative about America’s growing diversity. (Not surprisingly, whites felt much less positive than African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians, and the old felt much less positive than the young.)
If the culture wars are over, why has the hard right become so shrill? Perhaps because these days it’s focused more (or at least more overtly) on economic issues than on social issues. The level of vituperation over spending caps and debt ceilings may reflect the sublimation of passions once focused on social issues. If that’s true, then we might expect these protests to gradually lose their apocalyptic tone, and acquire the more matter-of-fact tone appropriate to dollars and cents.
More likely, though, Tea Party protests don’t distinguish at all between social and economic issues; budget politics is merely culture war by another name. That would explain Republican efforts to re-brand as “welfare” ever-larger portions of the federal budget while mostly ignoring the two biggest social welfare programs, Medicare and Social Security. These latter two programs typically escape censure from Tea Partiers, who are much older and whiter than the population at large.
But even if the budget wars are a continuation of the culture wars, they’re the equivalent of the Battle of New Orleans, fought two weeks after the U.S. and British signed a peace treaty. The bitterness of today’s reactionary politics reflects not any expectation that the culture wars can be won, but rather, fury at having lost. Gay marriage is the law of the land, the president is African-American, and the military is integrating women into combat. And now the U.S. is implementing a national health care program—not a cultural issue per se, but one that stirs old anxieties about big-government handouts. If I were a 75-year-old Fox News devotee I’d be grumpy too. But I wouldn’t expect to remain a force in American politics for much longer.