For years, Republicans have energized their base by backing hot-button social and class issues like gay marriage, immigration, gun control, and abortion. So it is interesting to realize how much public opinion has changed on these issues. Is it in spite of Republican opposition and pandering, or perhaps because of it? Welcome to the new culture wars, where progressives are starting to make significant progress and may even get a few big wins.
Let’s start with gay marriage. A few years ago, who would have predicted that this week the Supreme Court would hear arguments that the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Prop 8 are discriminatory? A national poll last week shows that 58% of Americans favor gay marriage, up from 37% just 10 years ago. And politicians have followed. The list of politicians who once were against gay marriage but are now for it includes Barack Obama, both Hillary and Bill Clinton, Senators Claire McCaskill, Jay Rockefeller, and conservative Republican Rob Portman (who recently announced that he had converted because his son is gay), Dick Cheney, and a former Republican National Committee chairman (who is himself gay). And the number of states where gay marriage is legal is increasing.
For immigration, results are mixed. Some states have passed tough anti-immigration laws. But the pro-business faction of the Republican party have long embraced fixing our broken immigration system. Indeed, George W. Bush tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform and failed. And the racist anti-immigration stance of the socially conservative elements of the Republican party has alienated minority voters, who are steadily increasing in numbers. It is unclear if Republicans will be able to win many future elections without embracing some form of immigration reform.
Gun control is a more nuanced issue. Many people (including me) believe that the right to own guns is constitutionally protected. I personally think that the issue of gun control needs to be reframed as an issue of gun safety. Surely even the NRA would not oppose measures that increase gun safety while not limiting the right to own guns. A majority of Americans support the elimination of loopholes that currently allow guns to be purchased without background checks. With the number of gun massacres making national headlines steadily increasing, it is clear that something will eventually be done. I just hope it is the right thing.
Finally, it might appear that abortion rights are the only hot-button social issue where progressives are losing. Indeed, Republicans keep introducing bills that would define that life begins at conception, which would not only make abortion murder, but also many common forms of birth control. But it is important to remember that unlike most other social issues, supporters of abortion rights already won this issue. Abortion is not only legal, it is constitutionally protected. Of course, that doesn’t mean defenders of abortion rights can declare victory and forget about it.
I believe Republicans are cynically using abortion to stir up their base, but don’t actually want to overturn Roe v Wade. Not only would it create a huge backlash from voters if abortion were to suddenly become illegal again, but the GOP realizes that abortion is more valuable as red meat to them as long as it is legal.
Anyway, taken as a whole, the dramatic shift in the culture wars is almost enough to actually make social liberals like me feel good about this country and its leaders.