Whither Homo Economicus?

It's hard out there for a culture warrior. Every time an opponent of same-sex marriage does an interview these days, one of the first questions is, "Isn't your side on this issue doomed to failure?" They're even getting a cold shoulder from their own allies; after years of bashing hippies and wielding "God, guns, and gays" to great electoral effect, the leadership of the GOP would rather talk about anything else. And now it's Democrats who are happy to stoke the cultural fires, secure in the knowledge that the majority is on their side.

Not long ago, many in the GOP began to hope that the rise of the Tea Party could transform the culture war into one primarily about economics and the role of government. We could still have just as vigorous a battle between Us and Them, but with the old social issues fading into the background. There would be a new division, one in which our kind of people value free markets, low taxes, and a government that leaves you alone, while those other kind of people want big government and are hostile to free enterprise.

So why hasn't this new economic culture war caught on, and redounded to the benefit of the right? There are two problems with the way they conceived it. The first is that Us, as Republicans understand the idea, is a smaller group than Them. Most Americans, it turns out, think the rich should pay more in taxes, want the government to keep doing lots of things for them, and have decidedly mixed feelings about the capitalist elite that conservatives lionize (especially bankers). If you're going to divide the electorate by their loyalty to an economic ideology, it isn't too smart to draw the line in such a way that it puts you in the minority.

The second problem is that as a cultural force, economics—in the form of tax rates and government regulation of business—doesn't have the power economic conservatives imagined it would. It isn't that all of our lives aren't profoundly shaped by our own economic circumstances, because they are. But very few of us define the identity of our families, our communities, and our country by the top marginal income tax rate and how we feel about it. Last week the conservative Mercatus Center released its annual ranking of the 50 states according to how "free" they believe each one is, an index heavily weighted toward tax rates and regulation. If we all believed that life was defined only by our economic "freedom," we'd all want to move to what they said was the freest state: North Dakota. But we don't.

And even on its own terms, this argument fails. If you wanted to start a new business, would you move to Fargo? You might. But you might also decide that despite the fact that Mercatus ranks New York as the least "free" state in the union, the benefits of starting your business in Manhattan or Brooklyn—ample public transportation, dense networks of vendors, and a huge pool of qualified job-seekers, not to mention things like a zillion restaurants and cultural offerings that enhance daily life—make New York (or San Francisco, or Washington, or Boston) the better choice, even if the taxes are indeed higher.

So we aren't homo economicus, at least not as some on the right like to think of the species. They found this out in the 2012 campaign, when they invested so much time and energy in hammering on four words Barack Obama spoke extemporaneously one day, ripped out of context to distort their meaning. When Obama said "If you've got a business, you didn't build that"–the "that" in question being the roads, bridges, employees' education, and other factors that make a businesses' success possible–Republicans pounced. "You didn't build that" and its refutations ("We built that!") became, for a time, the central theme of the Romney campaign, immortalized in song, printed on banners, and woven into a dozen convention speeches. It was all done with such wild-eyed glee you could tell that Republicans truly believed they had finally found the key to Obama's undoing, the utterance that had exposed him once and for all as the cultural alien he was, an enemy of every hard-working businessperson and capitalism itself.

But it fizzled. Few people who weren't already convinced of Obama's villainy bought the Republicans' interpretation of "you didn't build that," and even if they did, it didn't convince them to change their vote. Given a choice between a supposed enemy of capitalism and an apparently ruthless capitalist, they chose the former. And it wasn't even close. The business of America may be business, but business isn't the culture of America.

Republicans were right about one thing, though: When it comes to culture, a politician doesn't necessarily have to be "one of us" in any literal sense, but he can't seem openly hostile to us. And this is their current cultural dilemma, as a party run almost entirely by old rich white guys. In and of itself, that's a problem that could be finessed. But it becomes almost impossible if prominent people in your party keep expressing hostility to the kind of people you want to bring into the fold. If you're trying to reach out to the Latino voters who suspect you can't stand them, it doesn't help to have one of your senior members of Congress reminisce about the "wetbacks" his father used to hire on his ranch. If you're trying to convince young voters that you don't hate gay people, it's not good to have a guy you're hailing as a future superstar compare advocates of marriage equality to pedophiles and bestiality hobbyists.

Members of the Republican establishment didn't try to justify those comments; they were furious that their efforts to dampen the power of the old culture war were being undermined. But it won't be the last time a Republican officeholder uses a racially charged term (inevitably followed by "What? What'd I say?"), or a party official reveals his venomous contempt for gay people, or a candidate delivers his nineteenth-century views on rape.

They just can't seem to shut their own people up, even if for the GOP's decision-makers, the culture war was always more a tool than an expression of genuine passion. Sure, they got on board with opposition to abortion, gun control, and gay rights, but it wasn't where their heart was. It kept the troops motivated, but if you gave your average Republican party bigwig a choice between an abortion restriction and a tax cut, there's no doubt which he'd choose.

The trouble is, nobody told the Republican base. They're still out there fighting the same old culture war, and they won't ever stop. Because even if they care about economics, support for preferential tax treatment of capital gains is never going to define who they feel they are down in their souls in the same way that issues like abortion and gay marriage do. And it won't matter if they're winning or losing as they carry on that fight.

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