This time, the Democrats can win a culture war

This time, the Democrats can win a culture war
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Culture wars have helped Republican candidates over the last few decades “more than policies, the economy, trade and tariffs,” Chuck Todd opined last week. Todd was reflecting conventional wisdom about the power of abortion, gay marriage, immigration, and gun control to energize the Republican base.

But, Todd hastened to add, Republicans “have been punished when they go too far.”

The election of 2020 provides Democrats with opportunities to win a culture war. On many hot button cultural issues, the Democrats can energize their base and attract independent voters. Indeed, several presidential candidates are employing this strategy, issue by issue. Here’s what a coherent and comprehensive “family values” campaign might look like:


With polls indicating that a substantial majority of Americans do not believe the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade should be overturned, Democrats emphasize that abortion bills in Alabama and Missouri, which do not make exceptions for rape and incest, prove that Republican extremists pose a clear and present danger to reproductive freedom and the emotional and physical health of pregnant women. They note that President TrumpDonald John TrumpChasten Buttigieg: 'I've been dealing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh my entire life' Lawmakers paint different pictures of Trump's 'opportunity zone' program We must not turn our heads from the effects of traumatic brain injuries MORE did not oppose the Alabama or Missouri bills until they had been signed into law.

Democrats refer to polls indicating that a substantial majority of Americans want enhanced border security, oppose deporting undocumented immigrants, support a pathway to citizenship for them, and deem separating families at the Mexican border “unacceptable.” They introduce a sweeping immigration reform bill into the House of Representatives, based on these four principles. To counter fear-mongering about rapists and murderers, they tell the stories of undocumented immigrants who work hard, support their families, pay taxes, and live exemplary lives. Democrats point out that deportation and family separation continue — and a border wall is irrelevant to asylum seekers. They observe that in the proposal for legal immigration he unveiled this month, President Trump did not provide protection from deportations for 800,000 young immigrants who came to the United States as children, known as DACA ”Dreamers” (for whom President Obama issued a directive in 2012 permitting  renewable two-year work permits, which Trump has tried to terminate).

Democrats propose universal health care legislation, giving consumers the right to choose private insurance or a government option. They dismiss assaults on “socialized medicine” as “so yesterday.” They remind voters that the Republicans, who controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House for two years, never presented an alternative to the Affordable Care Act. They warn that if the Trump-supported challenge to Obamacare is sustained in the courts, millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions will lose their health insurance and some of them will die.

Democrats blast family-unfriendly Republican policies that undermine progress against discrimination. Trump’s Justice Department, they reveal, has sought to block an Obama-era initiative intended to combat disparities in compensation by requiring companies with over 100 employees to report information about wages by sex, race, ethnicity and job category. In stark contrast to the Equality Act, passed by the House this month, they suggest, Health and Human Services has downgraded LGBT-related health data collection and established a division to assist health care workers who object to treating LGTB patients. And the State Department has tried to stop the child of a gay couple from entering the United States, denying his citizenship because the sperm donor is not an American.

Democrats denounce voter suppression policies, all of them led by Republicans, and rationalized by undocumented claims of fraud. Since 2012, they indicate, 868 polling places, many of them in communities of color, have been closed in Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas, and 214 (8 percent of the state’s total) in Georgia. Eligible voters have been purged from rolls without their knowledge; cumbersome voter ID requirements have been signed into law; the number of early voting days has been reduced. In Florida, Republicans have fought implementation of a constitutional amendment, passed in 2018, to restore voting rights to 1.4 million felons who have completed their sentences.


Democrats tell stories of the impact of mass shootings on churchgoers, office-workers, and school children. They push for gun control measures that have considerable support in the electorate, including universal background checks on purchasers of guns and a ban on semi-automatic weapons.

Democrats inform voters that a substantial majority of them believe that global warming is caused by human activity and that the United States government should work with other nations to curb climate change. They document the financial — and human — toll of hurricanes, floods, and wildfires.  They make a compelling case that environmental regulations can actually promote economic growth and are urgently necessary to protect the planet for our children and grandchildren.

Democrats imply or assert that in the Age of Trump, Republicans can no longer assume the mantle of principled protectors and promoters of morality and Judeo-Christian values.

The election of 2020 will, no doubt, be a referendum on Donald J. Trump. That said, a family values “package,” presented with well-reasoned and, yes, emotional appeals, that marries symbols and specific policies, can help Democrats regain the initiative on cultural issues around which they have, for far too long, played defense.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic:  Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century. Sidney Tarrow is the Maxwell Upson Emeritus Professor of Government at Cornell University. He is the co-editor (with David S. Meyer) of The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement.