Why the Culture Wars Now Favor Democrats

Ronald Brownstein

It’s no coincidence that gay marriage, gun control, and immigration are all in the news this month. Their prominence measures a critical political shift: In the culture wars, the offense and defense have switched sides.

For decades after the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, Republicans regularly provoked confrontations on a broad array of polarizing noneconomic “wedge issues,” from crime and welfare to immigration and gay rights. Democrats, with a few exceptions, mostly tried through those years to neutralize the debates and quickly pivot back to economic terrain.

Now, that has flipped. In Washington and in blue-leaning states, Democrats are forcing the collisions on these issues. Democrats may not win all of these fights legislatively, in Congress or in the state capitals. And in most red states, Republicans are still pursuing their own culturally conservative agenda, particularly on abortion. But the Democrats’ willingness to take the offense on so many cultural issues represents a stark change—and a measure of their confidence that they now represent the national majority on these disputes. “If you look across the board, they are on offense. They feel like the wind is at their back, that the demographics are in their favor, and there is a confidence in prosecuting these issues,” says longtime GOP strategist Pete Wehner, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Republicans are on their heels.”

That almost completely inverts the politics that reigned from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. The late, great wordsmith William Safire, in his classic Safire’s Political Dictionary, described a wedge issue as “a hot-button subject that splits a coalition or constituency.” Initially, wedge issues were mostly a Republican weapon. Tutored by political strategists such as Paul Weyrich and Lee Atwater, GOP leaders for years highlighted cultural and racially tinged disputes (such as abortion, school prayer, welfare, and affirmative action) that split Southern evangelicals and working-class Northern whites (particularly observant Catholics) from the Democratic coalition as if shearing an iceberg. The process peaked in the 1988 presidential race, when George H.W. Bush, at Atwater’s direction, used these cudgels to disqualify Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis as a liberal elitist “born in Harvard Yard’s boutique.”

Blunting these attacks was central to Bill Clinton’s “New Democrat” agenda, with its call for policies on welfare and crime that linked expanded opportunity to greater personal responsibility. Clinton largely defused those two issues. But on other fronts, Republicans continued to drive the debate.

On immigration, the GOP pressed to deny public benefits to both illegal immigrants (through California’s Proposition 187) and legal ones (in welfare reform). Although Clinton signed into law federal background checks and an assault-weapons ban, Republicans continued to loosen restrictions on concealed weapons in red states, and after Al Gore’s 2000 defeat, Democrats waved the white flag on gun control in Congress. Conservatives controlled the gay-marriage debate, too, with Clinton signing the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 and a cascade of states banning the practice over the next decade. As president, George W. Bush endorsed a constitutional “marriage amendment” to ban same-sex marriage in every state—and in one 2004 test vote, 45 of 51 Republican senators backed him. “This national question requires a national solution,” Bush insisted.

Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign embraced this wedge-based inheritance with his call for “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants, support for the marriage amendment, and opposition to gun control. But now, GOP legislators in both congressional chambers are crafting bills that would provide a pathway to citizenship for at least some undocumented immigrants. During last week’s Supreme Court arguments, most leading Republicans, with little notice, effectively abandoned the constitutional amendment on marriage by insisting that states should be allowed to set their own rules. Only on gun control has the GOP held firm—and widely supported proposals to expand background checks might yet splinter that unity.

In a mirror image, Democrats across these fronts are moving with uncommon confidence. In Congress, the party has overwhelmingly unified behind immigration reform and gay marriage and is only somewhat more divided on guns; in many blue states, Democrats are also pushing gun-control and gay-rights agendas. “Guns and gays, which we used to run away from, we’re now running on,” says Democratic strategist Tad Devine, a top aide in Dukakis’s 1988 campaign. If congressional Republicans block President Obama on immigration or expanded background checks, the 2016 Democratic nominee likely will revive—and benefit from—those causes.

Republicans gained from wedge issues when the blue-collar whites they were aimed at constituted a majority of voters. But the growing number of nonwhite or religiously unaffiliated voters and the socially liberal tendencies of the rising millennial generation have reversed the equation. At the presidential level, these noneconomic issues are mostly benefiting Democrats, not so much by dividing Republicans as by unifying the Democratic coalition of minorities, millennials, and college-educated whites, especially women.

These issues still create headaches for red-state Democrats in Congress. And, as Devine warns, without more economic growth, the national party’s coalition may fissure. But as this spring’s Washington battlefield demonstrates, in the culture wars, it’s now most often Democrats who are charging the gates.