Sunday, December 17, 2006


Are Democrats Ready To Embrace The Center In The Culture War?

(Published by the Salt Lake Tribune Dec. 17, 2006)

Everyone agrees the Iraq War was the primary stumbling block for Republicans in the recent midterm elections. In addition to the Iraq problem, Republican strategists appear to have settled on corruption, arrogance and incompetence as secondary factors that require corrective action.

This diagnosis is accurate but incomplete. Democrats won in Republican territory only because they were willing to change strategy in the Culture War—a war that has been as damaging to Democratic prospects in recent elections as the Iraq War was to Republican prospects this time around.

If you haven’t heard about the change in strategy you are not alone. Republicans are blinded by the enormity of the Iraq issue and Democrats are reluctant to shine a spotlight on a localized strategy that conflicts with the national party platform. But many values-voters who switched allegiance from Republican to Democratic candidates this election cycle are well aware of the shift in strategy. In many cases it was the first time in decades that voters could vote for a Democrat who was pro-life, against legalization of same-sex marriage, supported responsible firearm ownership, was comfortable talking about his or her own personal faith and willing to allow everyone—including Christians—the opportunity to express their own faith in the public square.

One can only wonder why it took the Democrats so long to figure out that a change in strategy was necessary. The handwriting—in the form of public opinion polls—has been on the wall for everyone to read for a very long time. And what is written on the wall? It might surprise you to know that America isn’t really equally divided on these cultural issues. It’s true that loyal Democrats and Republicans are equally divided on these issues, but independent voters—often referred to as the silent majority—are not. The dirty little secret of the Culture War is that it’s an artificial stalemate created by extremists on the right and left and perpetuated by a media environment that thrives on conflict and whose members often sympathize with one side or the other.

The evidence supporting this claim can be found in a wide variety of polls and several books published in recent years. For example, a national survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in mid 2006 found that “despite talk of culture wars and the high visibility of activist groups on both sides of the cultural divide, there has been no polarization of the public into liberal and conservative camps.”

Specifically, the Pew study found that 66% of Americans think that abortion should not be generally available. There isn’t complete agreement on what restrictions should be in place, but there is agreement that current abortion law is not restrictive enough. The study also found that 56% of Americans oppose gay marriage and only 35% favor it.

The Pew study didn’t cover the other Culture War issues I’ve mentioned—gun control and church-state issues— but Harris, Gallup and other polling organizations have. Harris consistently reports that 60% of Americans favor stricter gun control and an even larger 70% majority favors stricter control of assault weapons. And on church-state issues, Gallup found that 54% of Americans think that state sponsorship of religion is harmful, but 58% support the right of any religion to exercise free speech in the public square.

This fledgling foothold in the political center is a good start, but Democrats will need a more substantial effort to win in 2008. The Iraq War will certainly be a greatly diminished issue by then, and the other war—the Culture War—will return to prominence. Will the liberal base of the party swallow its ideological pride and embrace a more extensive alliance with the silent majority? I hope so. It could be an important first step in putting this divisive Culture War behind us.

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