For years, if not decades, blue America’s poll-watching worrywarts have wrung their hands about their party’s “culture war” problem. And not without reason. The urban, liberal college graduates who dominate the Democratic political class have distinct cultural sensibilities and social-policy preferences when compared to the middle-age, working-class rust belters who often play kingmaker in the Electoral College. Progressive ambition plus right-wing demagoguery has been a formula for electoral backlash more than once in modern history.
And yet if hyper-political Democrats don’t always see eye to eye with the U.S.’s “low-information” normies, the same is at least as true of their counterparts in the GOP. For every Ivy League–educated nonprofit executive who believes in open borders and police abolition, there are two car-dealership owners who think the 2020 election was rigged by a cabal of pedophiles.
Americans who follow politics avidly are weird by definition. And our era’s hyper-atomized, hypercompetitive media market is perpetually making them weirder. In the internet age, the news-consuming portion of the population is more self-selecting than it has been in the past. At a time of near-infinite entertainment options, people who ingest information about current affairs on a daily basis are more peculiar than those who did so in the past. Specifically, such people tend to be more politically impassioned and ideologically committed.
Meanwhile, in order to sustain the attention of their ideologically self-selecting audiences amid competition from other journalistic outlets, cat photos, video games, porn, and virtually every movie and TV show ever made, news purveyors have a strong incentive to keep consumers in a constant state of agitation. Novel “culture war” controversies — which is to say, new fights that touch on such existential questions as who we are as Americans and whose moral intuitions should structure society — tend to light up amygdalae better than old, stuffy arguments over precisely which economic policies would best address the median voter’s mundane concerns (e.g. jobs, wages, and the rising cost of living).
As a result, strong partisans can find themselves locked in seemingly epochal political struggles that don’t even register on swing voters’ radar.
This state of affairs creates problems for both parties. When your base lives in a distinct informational universe from your persuasion targets, finding messages that animate the former while placating the latter can be difficult. Nevertheless, that balancing act is far more challenging for Republicans than it is for Democrats.
After all, in terms of size and influence, there is no liberal analog to the conservative infotainment complex. Right-wing media commands a vastly larger audience than its progressive counterpart does. Fox News is the most-watched cable network in the U.S. The most popular political talk-radio shows are conservative. As are the most read partisan Facebook pages. The liberal Pod Save America podcast reaches about 3 million listeners per week. Sean Hannity’s radio show has upward of 16 million.
This discrepancy partly reflects the fact that Democratic news junkies are more content with mainstream news sources than Republicans are. Even if the New York Times and Washington Post have grown a bit more solicitous of their overwhelmingly liberal subscriber bases’ sensibilities in recent years, they still aim to reach a bipartisan audience and uphold the norms of “view from nowhere” journalism. This prevents the Democratic base from growing all that untethered from the political reality occupied by less ideological voters. Separately, consumer appetite for right-wing agitprop is simply larger than it is for the progressive variety.
The GOP has derived some benefits from conservative media’s unparalleled power and influence. But the latter has created significant liabilities for Republicans, transferring power away from those GOP elites most invested in the party’s success and toward the right-wing personalities most adept at speaking to the Fox News audience’s id. Thus, the party has spent much of the past seven years saddled with a historically unpopular standard-bearer. Meanwhile, its slim House majority has been effectively broadcasting infomercials for its own inability to govern as backbenchers with Newsmax clout hold leadership hostage to demagogic demands.
Furthermore, as Breitbart addicts have replaced Wall Street Journal readers in the Republican leadership class, the party’s messaging has grown increasingly off-putting and inscrutable to the mass public. President Biden has made plain his desire to paint the GOP as an extremist party dominated by MAGA fanatics. Nevertheless, during his State of the Union address, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy couldn’t stop his backbenchers from broadcasting Biden’s message for him by repeatedly heckling the folksy grandpa on the dais.
Following the president’s speech, Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders had 15 minutes to convey the GOP’s message to the nation. She chose to reassure Americans that their long national nightmare was over: The state of Arkansas would no longer use “the derogatory term Latinx in our government.” Sanders further described Biden as “the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is” — a reference that flew over the heads of every voter who does not follow social-media discourse about trans issues.
Now, as Republicans prepare for the 2024 presidential campaign, the fact that one cannot win a GOP primary without titillating culture-war addicts is undermining the party’s prospects for winning the next general election.
In many respects, those prospects should be highly favorable. A majority of U.S. voters disapprove of Joe Biden’s job performance. Real wages are falling, prices are rising, crime rates remain elevated, and the national Zeitgeist appears afflicted with a spiritual long COVID — with Americans’ social trust, solidarity, and joie de vivre as yet unrecovered from the pandemic. Were these conditions to endure, Biden would likely struggle to fend off a center-right candidate who paired a relentless focus on inflation with a bit of triangulation on abortion rights. Fortunately for Democrats, no such candidate can survive a Republican primary.
For the moment, the “electable” option in the GOP race appears to be Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor may be an enthusiast of banning books, slashing entitlements, and gutting abortion rights, but since he won reelection by a landslide in 2022 (and is not Donald Trump), Republican operatives have convinced themselves that he is a de facto moderate.
Given that DeSantis was on the far-right fringe of a historically conservative GOP House caucus just a few years ago, this pretense was always going to be hard to maintain in the face of national scrutiny. But the dynamics of a competitive primary are compounding that difficulty. Ever since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, public opinion on abortion in the U.S. has moved sharply leftward. Faced with the imperative to win over antiabortion primary voters, however, DeSantis has moved right on the issue, signaling that he is not satisfied with his state’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy and would gladly sign a six-week ban.
At the same time, DeSantis has taken pains to address virtually every moral panic that right-wing media manages to kick up — from banning gender-affirming care for trans youth to ridding Florida schools of “woke” history lessons, eliminating diversity promotion on college campuses, and blocking Advanced Placement classes in African American studies.
This has prompted DeSantis’s primary adversary, Trump, to sprint to the Florida governor’s right on such esoteric issues. The former president recently proposed a ban on federal funding of transition care for trans Americans of “any age” while vowing to purge “radical zealots” from the Education Department and curricula “hostile to Judeo-Christian teachings” from public schools.
Democrats certainly have some vulnerability on culture-war issues. And not all of DeSantis’s moral crusades lack popular support. In a 2022 survey commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers, a majority of voters evinced approval for the sentiment that schools “should focus less on racism and more on core academic subjects” as well as for barring trans girls from girl’s high-school sports (one of DeSantis’s many causes). But these opinions don’t appear to be very strongly held. Tweak the framing of the relevant issues slightly, and the same survey produces contrary results. For example, twice as many respondents agreed with the notion that public schools are handling sensitive social issues responsibly than with the idea that they are imposing a liberal agenda on students. And the concept of banning books from school libraries consistently attracts widespread opposition.
More critically, for better or worse, the typical voter simply does not care much about the precise details of school curricula or social policies that impact a small fraction of the population. In the AFT survey, a two-to-one majority of voters said that it was more important to provide public schools with more funding than parents with more say over what is taught there.
Last week, a group of Democratic strategists released a report on public opinion in working-class, postindustrial counties of Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — areas where Biden will likely need to hold down Republican margins in order to win reelection. The researchers found that while “working-class folks find urban and intellectual ‘wokeism’ annoying,” they are far more concerned with Democrats’ alleged failures in economic management.
When pollsters tested a Democratic economic message focused on assailing corporate greed and promoting domestic manufacturing against a Republican message warning of the liberal assault on the “American way of life,” the former proved more resonant. When they presented voters with a GOP message narrowly focused on the economy, however, Republicans had the upper hand.
In 2020, Democrats nominated a presidential-primary candidate who scarcely appealed to consumers of progressive media. It is inconceivable that the GOP will nominate an analogous candidate in 2024. Furthermore, due to the exceptionally sensationalistic nature of conservative media, this means that the eventual Republican standard-bearer is likely to spend the better part of the next 20 months delivering wildly reactionary rants about matters that swing voters barely comprehend.
And every day that the GOP’s 2024 hopefuls display more concern with “Marxist” educators than with high prices brings Joe Biden one step closer to reelection.