The culture wars are over
Why liberals have won the battles on gay and abortion rights, immigration and drug legalization.
It seemed like a parody of the old-boy power structure, like a Norman Rockwell painting had come to life and started speaking. On The Jaco Report, a Sunday-morning TV talk show in St. Louis, Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, the state’s Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, was being interviewed about his beliefs on abortion in August 2012. The host asked Akin what should be done about pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. “It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare,” Akin said. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” The Romney campaign had realized from the get-go that the familiar Republican tactic of rallying the base with talk of God, guns and gays was a surefire failure, but some candidates further down the food chain apparently didn’t get the message.
By the next morning, even Romney had denounced the congressman’s comments as “inexcusable,” but it was too late. Akin’s quote had gone viral, a potent symbol of the pale, male, stale nature of the Grand Old Party. In his own backward way, Akin was a trailblazer, the first of several Republican candidates to make tin-eared remarks about the female body and what it could, couldn’t, should or shouldn’t do. Two months later, when the Missouri Senate race was called in favor of Democrat Claire McCaskill, no one was surprised.
On election night, Akin and other crusty Republicans who had expressed their extreme views on abortion rights were defeated one by one. And while the House of Representatives remained under Republican control, Democrats picked up seats there, while keeping the White House and solidifying their hold on the Senate. Female candidates did particularly well: A record-breaking 20 women now serve in the Senate. Meanwhile, Colorado and Washington voted to legalize recreational marijuana use. And gay-marriage advocates scored victories in Maryland, Minnesota, Maine and Washington—every state where the issue was on the ballot.
These gains are due both to who was voting and how. Minority voters made up 28 percent of the electorate, up from 26 percent in 2008, according to the Pew Research Center . Obama won their votes by a landslide, with 80 percent of nonwhite voters casting ballots to reelect him. Seventy-three percent of Asians supported Obama, a dramatic increase from 20 years ago, when only 31 percent voted for Bill Clinton.
And these trends are likely to continue. Over the next four decades, the U.S. population could rise to be 29 percent Latino, up from 17 percent now. The black population, which is reliably Democratic, is expected to grow slightly to 13 percent, and the Asian-American population is projected to go from 5 percent today to 9 percent by 2050. “There was an awful lot of talk on the Republican side several weeks after the election that the party really needs to get busy and pivot away from particularly the more punitive immigration policies, like in Arizona and Alabama. That this party simply needs to put forth a friendlier face toward Latinos, and one piece of that would be backing a reform of the immigration laws,” says Mark Hansen, a political science professor at the University of Chicago. “Whether they’ll actually be able to accomplish that is another question. There is a part of the party that is going to go down fighting on this one.” Anything short of a total 180 on the issue probably won’t be enough to turn the tide when it comes to the support of nonwhite voters.
Young voters made up 19 percent of the electorate in 2012, up from 18 percent in the last presidential election, and 60 percent of them voted to reelect the President. They are much more likely than the over-30 set to identify as Democrats (44 percent compared with 37 percent)—the most progressive voting bloc in generations. Maybe this has something to do with being the first generation in recent history whose members believe they’ll end up earning less than their parents, or maybe it’s due to being raised on a cultural diet of The Daily Show and Will & Grace. In any case, research shows that these voters are likely to stay liberal as they age.
“Generally speaking, people’s political affiliation at the end of their twenties is what it will be for the rest of their lives,” says Jamelle Bouie, a staff writer for The American Prospect magazine. “The millennial cohort is about as large as the baby boomers. You have this big demographic bulge of people inclined to be more progressive. Even if it doesn’t manifest in terms of support for the welfare state, this is a group of people who are more racially tolerant, more supportive of same-sex marriage, more supportive of abortion rights, and so on.”
Five percent of the electorate now identifies as LGBT, and of those voters, a whopping 76 percent cast ballots for Obama—up from 70 percent in 2008. And the gender gap—women voters’ tendency to lean Democratic—was wide once again, especially among single women, young women and women of color. Overall, 96 percent of black women and 67 percent of single ladies voted for the President, as compared to 55 percent of women as a whole. According to the Voter Participation Center, single women are the nation’s fastest-growing voting bloc. Among women swing voters, reproductive choice was the primary reason they swung for Obama.
With a Democratic President earning more than 50 percent of the popular vote two elections in a row, the long-predicted majority has finally emerged.
The progressive effect of that majority is clearest on gay rights. “Compared to 10 to 15 years ago, the extent to which this issue can be used to split the parties has just declined,” Teixeira says. “Obama at one point in the campaign said he was fine with the idea of same-sex marriage. There was speculation that would hurt him, and it would be a campaign issue. But Republicans stayed away from it. They’ve concluded this is not a winning issue in a political context, including a national campaign. Public opinion has moved too much.” Not only are younger generations drastically more supportive of gay rights, but as gay people become more and more prominent in society, even older voters find same-sex marriage less objectionable. Nearly three-quarters of Americans between 18 and 29 would legalize gay marriage, compared to 39 percent of citizens 65 and older, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in November.
On abortion, progress is slower but also undeniable. Exit polls that asked voters about abortion found 59 percent wanted it to remain legal. In 2008, Democratic primary polls didn’t even include a question about abortion. “Whenever Republicans push things in the direction of having a different regime on abortion, people shy away from it pretty fast,” Teixeira says. The most extreme examples—old white guys like Todd Akin whose sound bites come across as if they’re lifted directly from 1970s feminist dystopian novels—face the most extreme backlash. And rightfully so.
While immigration has been a below-the-radar issue in the last two presidential elections and Washington is locked in a stalemate over what to do about it, there’s fairly broad support for taking action. In 2012 exit polls, 65 percent of voters said undocumented immigrants should be offered the chance to apply for legal status. In a 2009 Washington Post/ABC News poll, 61 percent favored a path to citizenship. The issue is of particular importance to the growing Latino voting bloc—which is perhaps unsurprising, as 90 percent of Latinos in the U.S. have an immigrant parent or grandparent.
When it comes to drug laws, the progressive trends continue. Though not every state with a marijuana law on the ballot in 2012 opted to legalize recreational pot use, a recent CBS News poll shows support for medical marijuana at 83 percent of respondents—up from 77 percent in 2011 and 62 percent in 1997. Medical marijuana is now legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia.
As for gun control, it might be current events and not public opinion that shift the narrative. After yet another tragic school shooting, this time at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last month, lawmakers are under pressure to re-examine gun laws for the first time in decades. Last week, Mark Kirk, the Republican who took Obama’s Senate seat, endorsed a new assault-weapons ban.
One by one, the traditional culture war issues are becoming…nonissues. It would seem that the America of 2020 and beyond is a place where sexual orientation, fundamental abortion rights and low-level drug use are barely worth discussing. Other issues, like immigration, find Americans in broad agreement about the fundamentals but eager to fight over the particulars. But just because demographics and polling lean in one unmistakable direction doesn’t mean we won’t have many battles to fight as the war comes to a close.