Rich Lowry: The Democrats have a culture-war midterm strategy

(Cheriss May/The New York Times) President Joe Biden in the White House Rose Garden on July 27.

Who’s using the culture war to distract from the economy now?

Democrats have long believed -- going back at least to the famous 2005 Thomas Frank book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” -- that Republicans cynically deploy cultural issues to divert attention from kitchen-table concerns.

If only Democrats, they told themselves, could convince voters that their agenda is the true populism opposed to the GOP’s faux culture-based populism, the spell would be lifted, and the public eagerly embrace higher corporate tax rates and “Medicare for All.”

This was always a fantasy, and sure enough, Democrats are regaining their footing in the midterms with a completely opposite approach.

Over the last couple of months, the party has set about to out-culture war the Republicans, using a different set of issues. As Republicans around the country desperately try to keep the focus on the ultimate kitchen-table concern, inflation, Democrats insist on talking about one of the most contentious issues in American politics, abortion.

Back in July, I was dismissive of the idea that Dobbs would have a major impact on the midterms, but it has clearly made a difference.

Republicans outside the deepest red areas have been in full-blown retreat, trying to avoid the topic or recalibrating on the fly.

It’s not just abortion. Democrats have portrayed Dobbs as a threat to a suite of “right to privacy” issues, from contraceptives to interracial marriage and gay marriage.

Even Biden’s focus on Trump has a cultural element. The case against his predecessor is swathed in the rhetoric of the defense of democracy, when Trump is the biggest cultural lightning rod in the country. For both his supporters and opponents, what is most important about Trump is that he stands for a cluster of values. Depending on who you ask, he represents a defense of the nation or xenophobia, anti-elitism or anti-intellectualism, protean strength or a threat to the rules, authenticity or an untutored demagogy.

Cultural issues have never inherently been a vulnerability for Democrats. It has always depended.

They are at their strongest when they can portray their positions as the logical extensions of individual autonomy and choice, as they do with abortion and gay marriage.

They are at their weakest when their positions conflict with strongly held community values like patriotism and lawfulness, reflect the priorities of a small, out-of-touch elite (for example, the push for the adoption of the term “Latinx”), or take on a hectoring tone.

The last couple of months should underline the legitimacy of culture-war politics, if there was ever any doubt. Appeals to such issues are not just a Republican plot.

Cultural issues are especially powerful because they involve a clash of values and elemental questions of who we are as a people. They are inherently “divisive” -- people are deeply dug in and emotionally committed on both sides, which is what makes them cultural issues in the first place. And they almost always involve identifying an internal threat from which an embattled constituency has to be defended -- in this case, purportedly, a runaway Supreme Court and extremist Republicans who want to trample the rights of women.

It’s not as though Republicans don’t have cultural issues of their own in this campaign, especially the border, crime, and trans-radicalism.

It’s the economy that they overwhelmingly want to focus on, though. It still looms, as it always does, incredibly large.

But Republicans, as Democrats have proved over the years, can’t simply talk or wish their way past cultural pitfalls for their party. The need to establish a compromise position on abortion that they feel confident defending and avoid, to the extent they can, falling into the trap of litigating Trump’s myriad ongoing controversies.

It may provide some measure satisfaction to complain about the other side using cultural issues to their advantage, but it’s much better to have an effective answer.

Rich Lowry Courtesy photo

Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.

Twitter, @RichLowry