When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on November 18 that gay and lesbian couples have a right to marriage under the state constitution, the predominant mood among liberals was not jubilation, as one might have expected, but a sense of foreboding that George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and the spin doctors of the hard right had just been handed a potent wedge issue to use against the Democrats come election day.
Similarly, much of the anxiety provoked by Howard Dean's presidential bid seems to have been directed not so much at the candidate's policies or his style but at his elite class and regional background. The anxiety seems to have been shared by the Dean campaign itself. When the rabidly anti-tax Club for Growth ran an advertisement in Iowa suggesting that Dean take his "latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs," the Dean Web site responded not with a robust defense of sushi (healthy and delicious) and Volvos (safe and fuel-efficient) but by noting that Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson does his writing in a Starbucks and by calling attention to Dean supporters who drink cider and drive Volvo trucks -- who represent, that is, the working classes. Likewise, the campaign has gone out of its way to trumpet Dean's endorsement by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, a minor institution member-wise but one whose macho cred is second to none in the house of labor.
At one level, this is simple electioneering -- any candidate has to be able to relate to "normal" Americans. But the elite-liberal desire for a working-class identification also seems to involve a bit of self-loathing on the part of the well-educated, postmodern professional class that represents an increasingly large share of the Democratic electorate -- and that provides the bulk of the personnel not merely for the Dean campaign but for liberal organizations as a whole.
Perhaps we, fond of our self-image as the party of compassion, are discomfited by the possibility that to some extent we are in it for ourselves. We are reluctant to admit concern not just over what Republican rule means for the poor and downtrodden, but also what the stigmatization of the coasts and the cities as spawning grounds of decadence and immorality means for us.
We shouldn't be so afraid. It's true that the Democrats have been hurt at the polls by their association with cultural liberalism, from the drubbing Al Gore took on gun control in West Virginia to the 2002 governor's race in Georgia (lost in no small part over the question of the Confederate flag). Still, we've not exactly been losing the battle of ideas on this front. The civil-rights advances of the mid-1960s were, in their way, a tactical debacle for Democrats, pushing the formerly solid South firmly into the GOP column. But Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" provoked no move toward resegregation, and such an initiative today is literally unthinkable.
Similarly, no one is trying to put women back in the kitchen, and public opinion remains firmly in favor of a basic right to reproductive freedom. (Despite conservative legislative success on some low-profile issues, even George W. Bush has shied away from the rhetorical support Ronald Reagan offered for a total abortion ban.) School prayer, eliminated by a liberal U.S. Supreme Court in 1962, likewise seems to have vanished from the discourse for the time being, despite the best of conservative efforts. Even on gay rights, liberals keep winning: The Massachusetts marriage ruling came in the wake of the Supreme Court's reversal of anti-sodomy laws, Vermont's institution of a civil-unions scheme, and the Romer v. Evans decision striking down an anti-gay amendment to the Colorado Constitution.
Moreover, much as the right would like to paint all these advances as just so much judicial activism, the fact remains that steady majorities of the public basically reject fundamentalist moralism. A Gallup Poll in December showed 79 percent of Americans believing that gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military, a far cry from the 1994 midterms, when Democrats were decimated in part by Bill Clinton's more modest "don't ask, don't tell" policy. ABC News polls from June 2001 had 60 percent of the public supporting federal funding for stem-cell research, leading the president to cloak his religiously motivated opposition in a veil of obfuscation. A 1999 survey by Hickman-Brown Research found just 24 percent of the public in favor of the abstinence-only approach to sex education highlighted by the president in his most recent State of the Union address.
Indeed, though liberals often feel under assault by a religious resurgence in America, and though Christian conservatives are vocal and well organized, the fact is that the country as a whole is growing less, not more, devout. In 1972, 35 percent of voters attended religious services weekly or more. By 2000, that was down to 25 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion of voters who go to church a Dean-like once a year or less has more than doubled to 42 percent, up from a tiny 18 percent 30 years ago.
It's an odd pairing -- electoral defeat coupled with victory after victory both on policy and in the court of public opinion. But it isn't hard to understand. Public opinion has consistently moved to the left on tolerance issues, with the Democrats keeping a step or two ahead of it and the GOP staying a calculated step or two behind. If conservatives had taken seriously William Buckley's memorable advice from the 1950's "to stand athwart history, yelling 'Stop!'" the Republican Party would have been wiped out long ago. As often as it is repeated that Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 election but won the long-term ideological struggle, it remains the case that a candidate who tried to seek high office today by opposing the Civil Rights Act and 35 years of feminism would suffer a defeat that would make the Goldwater landslide look like a minor setback. The Republicans recently found themselves forced -- largely under pressure from fellow conservatives -- to disavow Trent Lott's segregationism, and there's little doubt that today's proponents of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage will look just as prehistoric a generation from now.
Progressive values in the culture wars benefit from a positive-feedback mechanism: Measures to include blacks, women, and now uncloseted gays and lesbians in the public sphere lead more people to interact with the formerly excluded group, building popular support for further measures. The right survives this dynamic merely by shifting to the left.
Republican support for school prayer in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling banning the practice has been repeatedly downgraded, from Ronald Reagan's advocacy of mandatory prayer to Newt Gingrich's promise of an amendment allowing voluntary prayer to the No Child Left Behind Act's mere guarantee that no one will be denied a right to "constitutionally protected prayer," a meaningless sop to the base.
As recently as 1986, the high court upheld discriminatory sodomy bans, but a decidedly more conservative court reversed itself 6 to 3 last June in a case in which even Clarence Thomas felt the need to call the law "uncommonly silly" (though not, in his mind, unconstitutional). Various elements of the right waxed indignant about judicial activism, but instead of trying to turn back the tide, the president simply shifted the conversation toward marriage.
After years during which Republicans pushed xenophobic immigrant-bashing arguments, the Bush administration has recognized the party's long-term need to boost its appeal to Hispanic voters and put forward an immigration-reform plan that, while inadequate, goes beyond anything the Clinton administration was able to accomplish. Similarly, while Pete Wilson's anti-immigrant politics went down well in early-'90s California, the proposals were gutted in later years. And while Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly pushed this button a few times in his 2003 defeat of Gray Davis, his substantive proposal -- repealing a law promising driver's licenses to illegals -- was trivial compared with the vast array of denials of state services that Wilson had put on the table.
Can and should liberals take steps to reduce the electoral cost of staying ahead of the curve on these topics? Of course. If support for equal rights and tolerance were to be expressed in the form of an unvariegated hostility to religion, the South, or rural America ("take your pickup-driving, gun-toting, grits-eating, Bible-thumping freak show back to Alabama, where it belongs!"), that would be both tactically foolish and deeply unfaithful to the values of equality, privacy, and toleration that motivates cultural liberalism in the first place. Moreover, these values are just that -- values -- not cheap moral relativism, a point that Democratic politicians of all ideological hues need to make more forcefully. At the end of the day, however, the fact is that the strategy of leading public opinion works -- not at winning elections but at implementing policies. This, ultimately, is what politics is all about.
Sometime in the Reagan years Democrats essentially stopped making the case for increased public investment and the taxes that go with it, and shifted the conversation to how much tax cutting a deficit-racked nation could afford. Twenty years later, the tax code has only grown more regressive and the deficit is huge. The Democrats' desire to do what it took to follow public opinion on taxes was understandable in the short term. But as they've learned with the Bush tax cuts, a tactical retreat can quickly become a rout. Republicans today face the same problem on cultural matters. Whatever happens in 2004, as long as liberals stay in the fight, time is on our side.