Are American Political Parties Helped or Hindered by Waging Culture Wars?
By Jacob Neiheisel – Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Buffalo
From the perspective of a political party, do culture wars help or hurt? Simple answers to this question have proven to be frustratingly elusive. Pat Buchanan, 1992 Republican presidential candidate, popularized the term culture wars in the American public mind. According to sociologist James Davison Hunter in his book of the same name, the “culture wars” label is often employed in discussions surrounding value conflict over a variety of different issues, from abortion to the role of religion in public life.
For observers like Thomas Frank, whose “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” made waves, cultural issues benefit Republicans. They dupe working-class voters into supporting them on abortion or gay rights but, once elected, go on to promote policies like tax cuts for the wealthy. Others such as historian Andrew Hartman have argued that “the logic of the culture wars has been exhausted” given that the left has essentially won the conflict on many fronts (this was before the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade). Hartman has revisited that conclusion in recent years—years that have witnessed a new phase of the culture wars with the rise of Donald Trump. But it is a real puzzle how the left can emerge victorious from a cultural battle and yet continue to lose elections in which cultural issues are central to the terms of engagement.
The Effects of Culture Wars on Electoral Mobilization
A partial solution to this puzzle can be offered with two observations regarding the pluralistic nature of group mobilization in the United States and thermostatic perspectives on American politics. There is a Newtonian quality to politics in the United States, such that actions precipitate reactions. As my colleagues Paul Djupe and Kim Conger found in their research, there is evidence of counter-mobilization among some of the chief combatants in the culture wars: religious right organizations and LGBTQ groups. That is, the presence of one type of interest group predicts the emergence of the other type of group down the line in the same state. In other research, activity among groups engaged in the culture wars, such as Christian right groups, tracks with an across-the-board mobilization effect, rather than one that is witnessed only among the group’s core constituency.
Taken together, these observations suggest that no party is inherently advantaged in the electoral arena by a broad set of cultural issues. The ascendance (real or perceived) of one set of interests may be offset by countervailing swings back in the other direction with the parties learning how to deploy different communicative strategies to shift the cultural debate back in their favor. Ultimate victory in the culture wars is likely out of reach, even if conflict over particular cultural issues may provide one party with a short-term electoral advantage.
Even if it were possible to “win” a culture war, there is evidence that it might not be electorally desirable. In my research with Paul Djupe and Kim Conger, we find that rates of religious “nones,”—those who indicate that they have no religious identity on surveys—grew faster in states where the Christian right was active and a ban on same-sex marriage had been enacted. In those places where culture warriors actually achieved some measure of policy success, greater numbers of the public began to shed their religious identities. It isn’t hard to imagine, then, that “winning” in the policy arena might actually result in a decline in the size of the movement’s core constituency. Indeed, as Paul Djupe finds elsewhere, political winners of either party often draw down their attendance at religious services. Over time, victories—actually implementing the Christian right’s stated policy agenda on some scale or winning elections—might take its toll on the group’s ability to lobby for further change. And we have reason to believe that something similar would have happened if a group on the political left had tasted some measure of victory.
Short-Term Impact of Culture War Issues
The process that I have just described is one that can be seen playing out on a broader scale throughout the American political landscape. As Michigan State University political scientist Matt Grossmann has argued, voters support a political party until it starts passing laws and shaping policy. He shows that the passage of liberal laws tracks with decreases in the Democratic share of the vote in the U.S. House. Republicans, too, have faced greater electoral losses when they have succeeded in shifting policy to the right. In this way, the public acts as a thermostat—cooling down a political movement that gets too hot. Similarly, while Republicans are still very much favored to take back the house in the upcoming midterm elections, there is some evidence from the polls that the Dobbs ruling shifted the generic ballot back in the direction of the Democrats in the immediate aftermath of the Court’s decision.
Taken together, the available research suggests that campaigning on culture wars issues may redound to the benefit of one party in the short term, possibly by increasing overall voter turnout, but that policy shifts have a tendency to create backlash effects (electoral or otherwise) that can hurt parties or party-aligned movements over the long haul. Thus, to the extent that outright victory in the culture wars is even possible, the parties—much like the proverbial dog that caught the car—might be better off electorally if they avoid doing so.
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Jacob Neiheisel is an associate professor of political science and a faculty affiliate with the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. Neiheisel’s research focuses on religion and politics, campaigns and elections, and political communication. His work has been published in such outlets as the American Journal of Political Science, Political Behavior, Political Research Quarterly, American Politics Research, and Politics and Religion. He has also contributed to the LSE American Politics Blog, Religion in Public, FiveThirtyEight, and The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.