early and often

Democrats Learn to Love the Culture War

Photo: Kristina Bumphrey/Shutterstock

For several years, Democrats have played defense in the culture-war battles gripping America. The fights over defunding the police, abolishing ICE, and critical-race theory always seemed to make liberals sputter, with some rushing to the vanguard and others attempting to appease too many factions at once to little avail. This culminated in 2021, when the Republican Party managed to outmaneuver Democrats on the issue of education — once unthinkable for the party that has led the assault on public schools and their teachers. Republicans seized power in Virginia while coming shockingly close in New Jersey. Fairly or not, Democrats became the party of closing schools during COVID, and Republicans enjoyed a fleeting moment as defenders of brick-and-mortar public education.

Now COVID, for the vast majority of Americans, is in retreat — it’s still infecting and killing people, but it no longer ranks as a top concern among voters. Public schools are reopening normally. Mask mandates, in most instances, are falling away. Even the fights over police power seem to be in the rearview mirror; a year after George Floyd was murdered, Minneapolis voters rejected a ballot measure to cut funding from the local police department. The fall of Roe has given Democrats an incredible boost in the polls, as the hard-right Republicans of America are forced to explain to their own voters why they want to block abortions even in cases of rape or incest or when a mother’s health is threatened.

Now Democrats are on the offensive. And give Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, credit: He’s about to successfully hold a vote, with the help of Wisconsin senator Tammy Baldwin, on codifying same-sex marriage against the reactionary Supreme Court’s potential overturning of its opinion that legalized it just a few years ago. When this happens in the coming weeks, Democrats will have the best of both worlds. They will probably emerge victorious on an issue of moral concern while forcing Republicans to announce where they stand on an issue of widespread popularity. The irony here is rich. In 2004, George W. Bush campaigned on a constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage, betting that further marginalizing a group of Americans would boost his electoral chances. He was right, and ballot initiatives to amend state constitutions boosted Republicans, especially Bush in Ohio. Few, if any, Democrats supported the right of gay couples to marry. Four years later, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would endorse only civil unions, not marriage for all.

Since then, voters have rapidly evolved, dragging politicians of both parties with them. Democrats support same-sex marriage, while socially conservative Republicans have come to ignore the issue with only a few openly complaining about the precedent set by the Obergefell decision in 2015. Clarence Thomas’s willingness to consider overturning Obergefell in his Dobbs opinion spurred Democrats to act. Republicans can pretend Thomas was merely suggesting a hypothetical, but the repeal of Roe means all threats must be taken with the utmost seriousness and severity. Soon, Republicans will have a choice to make.

Baldwin is working with Schumer to round up the ten Republicans needed to overcome the filibuster and pass the legislation. At this point, they will likely find them because a significant number of Republican senators represent states where same-sex marriage is acceptable to the public. Susan Collins of Maine, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Rob Portman of Ohio are all expected “yes” votes. Baldwin is applying pressure to Ron Johnson, the right-wing Republican who serves as a senator from Wisconsin and is facing a tough reelection battle this fall. So far, Johnson is refusing to back the bill. If Democrats manage to find ten Republicans without Johnson and get the legislation passed, Johnson will have to endure fresh attacks from his Democratic rival, Mandela Barnes, in the same state that twice elected the openly gay Baldwin.

For Democrats used to cowering when fights reared up over culture, this has been an exhilarating turnaround. Now it’s Republicans sputtering and obfuscating, complaining about issues they’d rather not talk about. Marco Rubio, the Florida senator and failed presidential candidate, fumed that the marriage vote was a “stupid waste of time.” It’s anything but. Rubio perceives it as a waste because it’s not politically advantageous to him. He doesn’t support the right of gay people to marry and knows he is holding a position most of his constituents reject outright. But, like most Republicans, he wants to retain his ability to pander to a fiery social-conservative base that determines the direction of GOP primaries. As long as Democrats don’t force votes, he can float along trying to be everything to everyone: a far-right ideologue and a senator from a state that is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Until the summer of 2022, that really was possible. Then the Supreme Court that Donald Trump stacked got the revanchist America it wanted. Republicans shouldn’t be surprised voters are furious and rewarding the party that’s willing, for once, to fight for them.

Democrats Learn to Love the Culture War