For many years—decades, even—the American right-wing has been waging culture wars, stoking the fears and resentments of white, Christian Americans over issues like abortion, race, crime, immigration, guns and gays. The idea is to displace economic issues, on which the right takes generally unpopular positions, with cultural issues, where the right thinks it has better political chances. That’s what progressives like me see as obvious, but along comes contrarian liberal Kevin Drum, who says: “Surprise! It’s actually the left that has been the aggressor in the culture wars; the right mainly has just been reacting.” Drum uses survey data to show that liberals over the last 20 years have moved further left on culture issues than conservatives have moved right. Drum’s claim has elicited glee from some predictable outlets, like The Wall Street Journal, who now can say “See—even the liberal Kevin Drum…”
Drum is wrong. Readers who don’t want to follow the link to his post or delve into the details of his argument can skip the next two paragraphs, in which I will pick on nits in his methodology. The subsequent paragraphs below will take on the broader issues raised by Drum’s post.
The heart of Drum’s argument is a bar chart display that shows that since 2000, more self-identified Democrats have moved farther toward the partisan position on a number of culture war issues than have self-identified Republicans. A big problem with this presentation is that the bar charts represent Drum’s own digests and interpretations of poll data, but he doesn’t show us the polls. So, we can’t check his findings and we don’t know what the increases in partisanship represent. He starts with a base year of 2000, which, as at least one commenter to his post observed, is dubious; after all, Republican politicians had already by that time been waging culture wars for decades. What if Republicans were already at very extreme positions in 2000, and just didn’t have much further right to go? On gun control, for example, Drum shows that Democrats have become more partisan than Republicans. Presumably that means more Democrats favored universal background checks and probably bans on assault weapons. An assault weapons ban would presumably be “extreme,” but over two-thirds of Congressional Dems had supported it way back in 1994. As for the Republicans, for all we know, they moved from opposing all gun registration requirements to…to what? Maybe universal “stand your ground” laws? For all we know from Drum’s charts, Democrats before 2000 had lagged behind Republicans in the intensity of their partisanship; afterwards, they were catching up.
Drum presents a second graph which he interprets in a way that just looks wrong. He says that the graph shows that between 1994 and 2017 Republicans attitudes had moved from about 6 on a conservatism scale of 1 to 10 to just 6.5. But my eyeballs see the 2017 number as very nearly 8. Check it out and see for yourself.
The larger problem with Drum’s argument is that it sees changes in the attitudes of mass publics as an independent variable in stoking the culture wars. Drum is basically saying that the culture wars heated up because Democratic voters got more extreme. That gets it upside down. It’s not the mass of voters who fight political wars, it’s politicians. During the period Drum examines attitude changes, Republican politicians actually did things to heat up the culture wars: they tightened abortion restrictions, made it easier to get and use guns, tried to restrict immigration, made it harder to vote and even politicized a pandemic. They did these things to fire up their base. Democrats, having relaxed some during the 8 years of the relatively culture-pacific Clinton administration, gradually reacted.
In a later post Drum responded to criticism that he minimized the role of anger-mongering Republican politicians: “I deliberately focused on rank-and-file voters because they are, ultimately, what matters.” Ultimately? Well, maybe in some ultimate ideal democratic world, but in the real world we live in, elite influencers—politicians and the media—play a huge role in shaping the views of their partisans. My favorite example is American attitudes toward Vladimir Putin. In the early 2010s both Democrats and Republicans were hostile to Putin, but Republicans much more so. By the mid-point of the Trump administration, the positions had flipped: Republicans had taken on a far more benign view of the Russian autocrat than Democrats. I don’t think anybody would seriously claim that this represented a spontaneous shift in public perspectives: it was a response to cues from a certain political Leader.
So let’s be clear: GOP politicians aren’t just passively responding to the demands of an outraged base; they work actively to stoke the outrage. The culture wars are an invention of the right. It’s the left that has been mainly reactive; arguably, insufficiently so.
I said above that Drum doesn’t show us the poll data he used to develop his charts, but it turns out I had missed an earlier post in which he does just that. This source data doesn’t help his cause, however, because I think his interpretations of the polls are highly questionable. I agree with Bob Somerby, who wrote “All in all, we’d say the seven questions Drum reviewed have little to do with the actual topics around which our culture wars have revolved. Kevin’s methodology struck us as weak, and the conclusion he drew seemed highly counterintuitive.”