by Stuart Stevens
For decades it has been a given in American politics that Republicans are masters of “cultural wars” and Democrats should avoid engaging. That might have been true at one time, but as a long-time veteran of Republican campaigns, I think it’s time for Democrats to run toward the sound of the guns in cultural wars. Not only can Democrats win cultural wars, they are winning them, even if they don’t seem to understand their potential electoral benefits.
In the Trump era, MAGA Republicans attacked Nike for supporting Colin Kaepernick and his campaign to highlight racial injustice with police. At a 2017 rally in Alabama for Senator Luther Strange, Trump thundered, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
In September, before the 2018 midterms, Mitch McConnell’s long-time top political aide, DC lobbyist Josh Holmes, touted the political impact of attacking the NFL. “It’s a powerful tool against liberals who are trying to make cultural inroads into a conservative electorate. It reaffirms conservative skepticism about whether a liberal candidate sees the world the same way as they do.”
So how did that work out? Nike’s value increased by $6 billion in the weeks after airing their “Believe in Something” national Kaepernick campaign. Luther Strange lost his election, Republicans lost the House in 2018, and Donald Trump is working out of a bridal suite in a Florida country club. Josh Holmes’ client and fixer, Mitch McConnell, is now Minority Leader of the US Senate.
In July 2020, Trump went after NASCAR for their treatment of an alleged racial threat against one of NASCAR’s few Black drivers and their ban on the Confederate flag. “Has @BubbaWallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX?” Trump wrote on Twitter. “That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!”
Talk about jumping the shark. A Republican president in a cultural war against NASCAR. NASCAR?
Three thread lines comprise most Republican cultural wars: race, sex, and education. All three are losers for Republicans.
Eighty-five percent of Trump’s 2020 coalition was white in a country that is 60% white, and since you have been reading this, a little less white. We are headed to becoming a non-white-majority country. Outside of some dark corners of the internet, there is very little in our popular culture that glorifies or defends racism. When Donald Trump's post-Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally declares, “there were very fine people on both sides,” he’s helping Democrats win suburban voters repulsed by the sight of tiki torch-carrying neo-Nazis. As a seventh-generation Mississippian, I know your average white teenager in Mississippi would rather be a Black rap star than a Confederate general.
In the 2008 presidential race, every candidate in both parties was against same-sex marriage. Then in 2012, President Obama reversed his position. Democrats routed the political field so much on gay marriage that the issue is rarely discussed.
As the pro-choice element of their party gradually became all but extinct, Republicans used abortion as a cultural wedge issue to motivate low-propensity white voters. That was, at best, a marginal plus for Republicans, as indicated by how few Republican candidates made abortion a centerpiece of their campaigns. But following the overturning of Roe V. Wade, pro-choice voters turned out in record numbers to give Democrats one of American history’s most successful off-year elections for a party in power.
In the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race, Republican Glen Youngkin used the phony issue of “CRT education” to play the race card in a rare combination that appealed to both lower-income whites and suburban elites. The response by the McAuliffe campaign was reminiscent of the 1988 Dukakis response to issues like the Pledge of Allegiance and the pardon program that released Willie Horton. It was a combination of “this can’t be happening” and “it’s not fair.”
In search of a repeat of the electoral juice of CRT, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is making a classic political mistake of pushing an issue too far. There were no public high schools in Virginia teaching CRT, but there are high schools in Florida that offer students advanced placement classes in African American history. At least until DeSantis's “Stop Woke Act” banned the classes. This followed the banning of books DeSantis found offensive to whites and his attack on LGBTQ students and their families.
Democrats should run directly at these educational attacks. There is a reason suburban voters move to find better schools or spend thousands to send their kids to private schools. While Republican politicians increasingly view higher education as a gateway drug to socialism, these parents are more motivated by their kids getting into a good college than by fear of exposure to dangerous ideas.
Educated at Yale and Harvard, a former teacher at the elite Darlington School in Atlanta, Ron DeSantis doesn’t believe a word he says about the dangers of so-called “woke” education. He’s clumsily playing to a small percentage of the electorate that votes in Republican presidential primaries. This might help him in the Iowa caucuses, which can be won with far fewer votes than the student enrollment at Florida’s larger universities, but it is a huge opportunity for Democrats to win a cultural war on education in a general election.
One of my old clients, former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a skilled political operative before he ran for office, liked to say, “Be for the future. It’s going to happen anyway.” Republicans have decided to be for an imaginary past, and it’s a gift to Democrats if only they seize the opportunity. You can win cultural wars. If you fight.