When Culture Trumps Policy

There was a time, long ago, when most everyone agreed that maybe the Democrats were right, that the government of the people could make things better for the people. Donald Trump wasn’t cutting it. He wasn’t governing. He was doing those rage-tweets many times an hour, all day long, every day of the week. He made everyone angry – righteously angry at uppity Black football players or at the then retired and completely silent Hillary Clinton, or those who foolishly insisted that Vladimir Putin and that Kim fellow in North Korea weren’t really a wonderful people and our friends – or angry at him, Donald Trump, for tweeting nonsense that tore the country apart and not governing much at all.

So, maybe the Democrats were right, long ago, when the Democrats were thinking of running Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, when no one imagined that Joe Biden would win the party’s nomination. The country agreed with them. That was March 2019:

From government-mandated paid maternity leave to tuition-free college, the CNBC All-America Economic Survey reveals a surprising American appetite for some very progressive policies.

In a survey of 800 Americans nationwide, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, the CNBC survey finds majority support for five of six proposals that have been percolating in the national debate mostly, but not entirely, from the Democratic side. On some of the issues, the survey even found majority Republican support.

Ah ha! The country is progressive. Trump was an aberration:

“These are bread and butter kitchen table issues that families are dealing with if you’re making less than $75,000 and I think that’s contributing to the fairly high Republican-support numbers″ said Micah Roberts, partner at Public Opinion Strategies, the Republican pollster for the survey.

“I feel these types of proposals will be more closely debated and perhaps more closely supported within the public than maybe we would have anticipated,” said Jay Campbell, partner at Hart Research Associates and the Democratic pollster for the survey. “There’s desire out there for these.”

The polling was clear about that:

On the issue of maternity leave, 84 percent of the public approve of a federal requirement that employers provide paid maternity leave, paced by 94 percent support from Democrats, 83 percent from Independents and 73 percent from Republicans. Increased federal funding for child care is supported by 75 percent of the public, including overwhelming support from Democrats and Independents but also majority support from Republicans…

A healthy 60 percent majority support increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour from $7.25. However, Republican support is only at 31 percent while Democrats and Independents sport strong majorities in favor.

Similarly, 57 percent of the public support tuition-free state and public colleges paid for with federal dollars, including 80 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Independents. A small but not insignificant 28 percent of Republicans also support the plan championed by Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.

This meant that the Democrats were feeling pretty good:

The hot-button issue of “Medicare for All″ also gets majority support at 54 percent, including from 81 percent of Democrats but just 19 percent of Republicans.

Importantly, the survey finds that four of the proposals – on maternity leave, child care, raising the minimum wage and tuition free college – have majority support in Republican congressional districts.

Democrats had the winning hand back then. But they played it safe. Warren? Sanders? Too scary. Biden wasn’t scary. He would do.

And how did he do? Kevin Drum has been doing political commentary for forever and sees this:

In the space of ten months, Joe Biden has 1) Passed a $1.9 trillion COVID assistance bill, 2) Presided over a massive vaccination campaign that’s been successful despite shameless partisan opposition, 3) Withdrawn all US troops from Afghanistan with minimal American casualties, 4) Passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, and 5) Gotten very close to passing a historic $2 trillion safety net bill.

That’s not too shabby, but last week Drum also saw this:

There’s not a lot of good news for Democrats this morning. However, consider the standard reasons on offer for Dem losses in Tuesday’s elections:

Biden’s “botched” withdrawal from Afghanistan – Endless Democratic wrangling over the social spending bill – Growing concerns over the economy (inflation, shortages, etc.) –  White backlash to liberal wokeness.

The good news is that Afghanistan will fade; the spending bill will pass eventually; the economy will recover; and wokeness might actually get a well-deserved reining in.

The bad news is that the party in power almost always loses midterm elections no matter what they do.

You may now decide for yourself whether to feel hopeful about 2022 vs. just slitting your wrists now so you don’t have to see it.

It may be too late for that. There’s new polling:

A year before the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans hold a clear lead on the congressional ballot as President Joe Biden’s approval rating sinks to a new low of 38%.

A USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll, taken Wednesday through Friday, found that Biden’s support cratered among the independent voters who delivered his margin of victory over President Donald Trump one year ago.

Biden and his party are poised for a rebound, advocates argue, after the House passed a $1.2 trillion “hard” infrastructure bill late Friday, sending the signature measure to Biden’s desk for his signature. An encouraging economic report released Friday morning showed stronger-than-expected job growth.

Those advocates may be wrong:

The survey illuminates the size of the hole Democrats need to dig out of as they look toward the elections in one year – on Nov. 8, 2022 – that will determine control of Congress and shape the second two years of Biden’s term.

This isn’t March 2019. Everything changed:

Nearly half of those surveyed, 46%, say Biden has done a worse job as president than they expected, including 16% of those who voted for him. Independents, by 7-1 (44%-6%), say he’s done worse, not better, than they expected.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans, 64%, say they don’t want Biden to run for a second term in 2024. That includes 28% of Democrats. Opposition to Trump running for another term in 2024 stands at 58%, including 24% of Republicans.

Vice President Kamala Harris’ approval rating is 28% – even worse than Biden’s. The poll shows that 51% disapprove of the job she’s doing. One in 5, 21%, are undecided.

Americans overwhelmingly support the infrastructure bill Biden is about to sign, but they are split on the more expensive and further-reaching “Build Back Better” act being debated in Congress. Only 1 in 4 say the bill’s provisions would help them and their families.

That’s the real change. All that progressive stuff that they once believed would make their lives better they no longer believe at all:

If the election were today, those surveyed say, they would vote for their Republican congressional candidate over the Democratic one by 46%-38%, an advantage that would bode well for GOP hopes of gaining a majority in the House and the Senate. In a president’s first midterm election, his party usually loses ground, and this time the GOP needs to flip just five seats in the House and one in the Senate to claim control.

That outcome would make it even harder for Biden to pass legislation – already a difficult task in a Democratic-controlled Congress – and open the door to aggressive Republican oversight of his administration.

Nothing would get done, which is becoming the goal of the majority of all Americans, but not quite yet:

Americans are closely divided on the “Build Back Better” act pressed by congressional Democrats. In the poll, 47% support the $1.85 trillion bill; 44% oppose it. The sweeping measure includes more than $500 billion in climate change and clean energy funding. It would establish pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds; extend the child tax credit for one year; expand Medicaid coverage in some states; add hearing coverage to Medicare; and finance affordable housing programs.

Cool. But only in theory:

The White House and its allies haven’t persuaded most Americans that the measure would benefit them, at least not yet. Those surveyed are a bit more likely to say its provisions would hurt their families rather than help them, 30%-26%. Thirty-one percent say it would not have much effect.

Those findings reflect either a failure of communication by the bill’s backers or a disconnect with what voters feel they most need.

“Is this spending bill out of control? I don’t know,” says Nia Anderson, 45, a stay-at-home mother of three in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. She voted for Biden and says he’s doing “fine,” but “I’m worried about my kids, and I’m worried about my family.”

But she’s not sure why. Democrats should worry about that:

In the poll, Congress gets dismal ratings: 12% approve, 75% disapprove. Congressional Democrats have a 29% favorable rating; congressional Republicans 35%.

Biden’s job approval rating is dismal, too, at 38% approve, 59% disapprove. He has the lowest rating of any modern president at this point in his term except Trump.

In short, they both stink:

Biden has lost ground with voters since he won last year’s election, but Trump hasn’t gained it. Over the past year, two-thirds of those surveyed say, their opinion of Trump hasn’t changed. Fourteen percent say their view of him has gotten better, 19% say it has gotten worse.

But Trump commands more loyalty among his core supporters than Biden does.

Among those who voted for Biden last year, almost 4 in 10, 39%, say they hope he doesn’t run for another term; 50% hope he will run. Among those who voted for Trump last year, 1 in 4, 26%, hope he won’t run again; 65% hope he will.

But they’re both losers. Something else is going on. Jeff Greenfield, an old hand at these things, sees this happening:

In the Virginia governor’s race, pundits have been calling Tuesday night’s Republican win – depending who you listen to – a referendum on President Joe Biden, a verdict on the Democrats’ performance in Congress or the result of a smart Republican strategy for handling former President Donald Trump.

But it’s just as reasonable to credit what’s been happening right in the middle of Virginia.

The state has been stirred by a wave of local unrest, with protests at school board after school board, a very local version of a big national argument stirred up by right-wing media and grassroots groups.

And that suggests the real lesson for Republicans on Tuesday. One of their most powerful political assets is alive and well: the power of cultural issues over policies.

In short, they’re fighting the wrong battle. They always do that:

In the broadest sense, “cultural” matters have been challenging and bedeviling Democrats for well over half a century. The backlash to civil rights pulled the South away from the Democratic Party in the mid-’60s; crime, welfare, campus and urban violence eroded white working-class loyalties. These issues helped win Republicans the presidency in five out of six presidential contests from 1968 to 1988; only the post-Watergate fallout took Jimmy Carter to a narrow electoral win in 1976.

All through this period, Democrats were arguing that the public, by large measures, preferred their actual policies – their approaches to education, health care, taxes.

Sometime in the ‘80s, I sat with House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt as he explained to a roomful of journalists that once voters understood what Democrats were going to do about the high cost of college, health care and housing, electoral success would naturally follow.

That was bullshit then. That’s bullshit now. Greenfield remembers only one Democrat who understood that:

Only when Bill Clinton directly repudiated his party’s orthodoxy on crime and welfare did the political tide turn. It was Clinton who promised to “end welfare as we know it.” And his “blue wall” wasn’t a passel of declining industrial states, but the ranks of uniformed cops who stood behind him as he pledged support for the death penalty…

To be blunt, his positions on crime and welfare, as well as his stern repudiation of the provocative words of a Black rapper named Sister Souljah, were signals – or perhaps dog whistles – that he was prepared to push back against what we would now call the “woke” wing of his own party.

Call it cynical, but what Clinton understood was a root reality of politics: “Culture trumps policy.”

Of course it does:

A six-point program to make schools better and college more affordable will mean very little if voters believe their neighborhoods are unsafe; and while demagogues will eagerly feed such fears, they will motivate voters only if there is an underlying reality to them. Violent crime in America rose sharply all through the 1960s and 1970s; when it began to recede, as it did from the early ‘90s to two years ago, crime all but disappeared as a political issue. It has resurfaced because in the last year or two, the most violent of crimes – homicide – has resurfaced.

That kind of visceral response to an issue is a perennial “feature” of school board fights. Almost 50 years ago, fights over textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia, led to mass boycotts, shootings and the dynamiting of at least one elementary school. Fights over what books should or should not be in school libraries are more or less constant local arguments. Now, the combustible issue of race in America and how to teach about it has quickly become the Republican Party’s issue of choice. And Democrats face a significant challenge in pushing back.

And this won’t be easy:

On the one hand, there are clear and compelling arguments to be made for teaching kids very directly about the nation’s scarred past. Texas children ought to know that the original constitution of the Republic of Texas protected slavery and barred Indians and “Africans” from becoming citizens. New York children ought to learn that suburban developments barred Black people from buying homes.

This is not “critical race theory” – an academic concept not taught in elementary or high schools. It’s just history. But some of the premises of that theory have in fact gained currency – for instance, the idea that certain widely admired attributes are rooted in “whiteness.” It’s not hard to pump up the fears of conservative or moderate white suburban parents that such a critique amounts to an attack on some basic, and seemingly colorblind, American values.

And that’s the real problem:

For Democrats, one lesson of Virginia may well be that their candidates in 2022 and 2024 – most definitely including Biden – will need to find ways to position themselves loudly and clearly against these views, every bit as much as the party needs to push back against the tsunami of lies from GOP candidates that will be unleashed about what and how our nation’s children are being taught.

But they may not be up to that:

Right now, the mainstream of the national Democratic Party is still overwhelmingly focused on policy, not culture. They’re trying to govern, which is the job they were elected to do. But at some point they’ll need to start campaigning again, and if Democrats believe that the passage of an infrastructure program and a large social spending bill will provide the ammunition to repel a new GOP-launched culture war, they are deluding themselves. If you weigh the concerns of parents with their kids’ education against a subsidy for electric cars, or a better rail system some years down the line, the scales will tip pretty heavily to one side.

Yes, those fools are doomed:

For Republicans, the signal from Virginia is very clear. The party is already marshaling the troops for the next culture war. The next three years may be a time of scorched earth in America’s towns and suburbs. And Democrats, if they want to win, cannot be conscientious objectors.

But the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch has a plan:

The Democrats will lose the culture war if they’re too aloof to even bother to fight it, and if they lose the culture war, they will lose the elections in 2022 and 2024, and it will take a long time to recover.

The party that should be dominating in a nation that broadly supports its center-left policies needs to acknowledge that there is a liberal culture, that it’s baked into the soul of what makes America America, and they are in the fight of a lifetime to save it.

So, step one:

The Democrats need to fight a culture war – more than anything else – over voting rights, to make the argument that the red state wave of Republican voter suppression laws is a profoundly un-American activity, and that Democrats are the spiritual heirs to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Selma-to-Montgomery march, and thus the protectors of an expansive vision for democracy that works for all citizens. To do that, Team Biden needs to make clear – starting with an Oval Office address – that voting rights is his No. 1 priority, and that he will use every tool in his White House bag of tricks to force at least a carve-out of the wretched filibuster to clear the way for game-changing bills like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

People fought and died for this not that long ago. Honor them, not Bull Connor. Run the tapes from the early sixties. And don’t forget this:

The Democrats need to fight a culture war over book banning – to stop playing rope-a-dope on the bogus “critical race theory” issue and fight for academic freedom and open expression. They need to put Republicans from Virginia – where Youngkin won with an attack ad on Toni Morrison’s Beloved – to Texas, where American jihadists have targeted some 850 titles in school libraries – on the defensive for the book burning mindset that our antifascist grandfathers fought on the shores of Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge.

Run the tapes of the Nazi public book-burning bonfires in the thirties. Now many Republican mutter that maybe the Nazis were right about a few things. Get them on record. And then there’s this:

The Democrats need to fight a culture war over science – to make their voters as passionate about defending the core values of inquiry and knowledge that led to the COVID-19 vaccine and our understanding of what will be needed to roll back climate change in the same way that the far right and its Facebook-fried (excuse me, Meta-fried) misinformation have fired up the right over pandemic denial and fossil fuel addiction.

And that would dovetail with this:

The Democrats need to fight a culture war over education – to remind parents that the real fight for the future of our children is not whether we can keep denying critical parts of American history but whether we’re providing any civics education at all to our kids, and whether we can offer our young people access to the kinds of higher education that’s out of reach for far too many. There needs to be a new push to revive free community college, and Biden needs to remember his campaign promise to address student debt in a big way.

In short, knowing things is better for everyone. In short, choose sides:

I know it’s Political Punditry 101 to decry the tribalism in modern American politics, but that feels ridiculous when the Republican tribe has made it clear it will never disarm. It’s much better for the Democrats to proclaim that they, too, are a tribe – and that its tribal values of expanding democracy and citizenship rights, valuing objective learning and knowledge, and addressing problems with actual governing are the truest American values.

This will probably not gain the Democrats more than one or two votes because those votes are simply not there for the getting. Nor should they be, if the county’s voters are wedded to such antithetical values. But the Democrats lost an incalculable number of votes last Tuesday – and they’re on track to do so in 2022 – by failing to convince their core constituencies they’re fighting for their culture…

We’ve seen it happen before. Young folks and Black and brown voters turned out for Biden in 2020 less because his platform called for expanding child care and more because he pledged to fight for “the soul of America” against Trumpism.

So, here’s the plan:

Democrats can bring these voters back next year by reminding decent, democracy-loving Americans that their party is the thin blue line between them and book burning, a culture of ignorance, and the end of free and fair elections.

That would mean an end to watching the culture war from the sidelines. It means actually fighting to win.

 Why not? Why not defeat the Nazis again? That’s what this is about.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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