It has been no secret in political discourse that Democratic politicians often tread cautiously when it comes to cultural issues such as abortion, guns, racial equality, gender equality, LGBTQ equality, immigration, affirmative action, police brutality, the #MeToo movement, marijuana legalization, etc..
Barack Obama famously received tremendous blow back when he opined on cultural issues in an inelegant manner during the 2008 Presidential campaign:
Barack Obama was forced onto the defensive at the weekend over unguarded comments he made about small-town voters across the midwest.
As a result, Republican campaigns have often tried to use big cultural issues as a wedge against their Democratic opponents. When George W. Bush was running for re-election, the Republican party coordinated a number of anti-gay marriage referendums to be on the ballot at the same time. And Donald Trump has used immigration as a constant wedge issue.
Hundreds of articles and columns have been written about how cultural issues can hurt the campaigns of Democratic politicians. It has almost become political dogma. It would be quite difficult to find anyone who works on political campaigns who would not be worried about the effect of one cultural issue or another. Democratic politicians have understandably been very careful about talking about cultural issues as a result, some have preferred to not speak about them at all.
But, there is a big aspect of this that should cause one to question just why it is that cultural issues have been seen by so many as electorally harmful to Democratic politicians. Because paradoxically, the political left has been winning the fight for public opinion on almost every cultural issue. Poll after poll shows that the American public is in favor of racial, gender, and LGBTQ equality, that the American public supports immigration, that the American public wants increased regulation of guns, that the American public wants Roe vs Wade to remain in place, etc..
If the American public largely stands on the same side as the political left when it comes to cultural issues, why would cultural issues hurt Democratic politicians? Logic would seem to suggest it should be the other way around. Cultural issues should be hurting Republican politicians, who consistently take stances on cultural issues that only have the support of a minority of the public.
This illogical political effect of cultural issues is a paradox that has been explained typically by a couple of theories, which may have some ring of truth to them, but likely do not tell the full story.
One theory is that there are many one-issue voters who will ignore other issues in favor of the one issue they care about the strongest. This theory is usually applied to the cultural issues of abortion and guns. The thought is that, though these voters might agree with Democratic politicians on many issues, they disagree when it comes to the legality of abortion and/or the regulation of guns, and the single cultural issue is simply more important to them than anything else. However, the issues these voters agree with Democratic politicians about are usually thought to be economic issues (more on that later). These voters don’t typically take the political left side of one cultural issue and the political right side of another, though certainly there are some that might. Most people who oppose abortion are also likely to also oppose LGBTQ equality, oppose gun regulations, oppose affirmative action, etc.. Because there is so much overlap, when it is all added up, these people still represent a minority of the country. So, why is their political influence so over weighted?
The next theory that is usually given to explain why cultural issues tend to be political losers for Democratic politicians aims to answer that question, namely by positing that the voters who agree with the political right about cultural issues may be a minority of the public, but they are a motivated minority, so they are more likely to vote. There is definitely some truth to this, but not always.
In 2014, when Democratic voters had poor turnout largely due to apathy from having a Democratic President in office for 6 years, the voters aligned with the cultural right were likely more motivated and likely had out sized political influence. However, in 2018, it was the other way around. There was historic turnout in the 2018 midterm election, from every slice of the American public. Democratic politicians certainly benefited from this leveling of the voter motivation playing field. However, many Republican politicians were still elected, and in some high profile Senate races, cultural issues appeared to play a big part. In Indiana and Tennessee, the Republican Senate candidates repeatedly played up the so-called “migrant caravan” prior to the election, and it arguably helped them win.
Now, the fact that these Republican Senate candidates in Indiana and Tennessee were able to use a cultural issue, fear of immigrants, to win Senate elections during an election with record voter turnout, leads to the next theory that is often used to explain how cultural issues hurt Democratic politicians. And that theory is that there are regional differences to how the American public views cultural issues, and those regional differences make it difficult for Democratic politicians in many areas of the country. Basically, many of the people who agree with the political left about cultural issues reside in cities or in populous coastal states, and this clustering of people with like-minded views in what are more populous areas of the country weakens their political clout. There is undoubtedly a lot of truth to that theory. California, which has nearly 70 times as many people as Wyoming, has only 2 United States Senators representing them, the same number as Wyoming.
However, it cannot explain the paradox all on its own. In the 2018 midterm election, an election with record turnout, an election when any motivation advantage by the political right was largely eliminated, Republicans running for the House of Representatives still won 46% of the votes in total, and that total voting % was not skewed by any clustering of votes in more populous areas. Compare that 46% number of votes won by Republican politicians with recent poll numbers on the hot button cultural issue of the 2018 election: immigration. When polled, only 29% of the American public feels unsympathetic toward illegal immigrants. Only 27% are against a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Source: Pew Research Center
In fact, it is almost impossible to find any Republican side of a cultural issue that polls as well as the Republican vote total for House of Representative races in the 2018 election. Could it be economic issues that explain the additional votes, then? It is difficult to believe that is the case, as the poll numbers for many Republican economic policies are even worse than their stances on cultural issues.
In a strange way, though, economic issues might actually be the answer, but not in the way most would think. Many political anlysts have for years been flummoxed by the fact that a lot of the voters who support Republican politicians are voting for economic policies that end up doing them economic harm. The thought has long been that these voters just place more importance on cultural issues, so are ignoring the economic policies of the Republican politicians. In some cases, this might be true, but in a lot of cases, the reality is a little more complicated, and this is where the missing piece of the puzzle appears that can explain why cultural issues have tended to hurt Democratic politicians. In a way, when it comes to cultural issues, the political left has become a victim of its own success.
The American public as a whole largely agrees with the political left on cultural issues. This has not always equated to electoral success for politicians on the left. Where it has been undoubtedly felt, though, is in mass media and corporate advertising. Turn on a TV and you will see shows and commercials about LGBTQ relationships, shows and commercials about interracial relationships, shows and commercials about feminist ideals. The Academy Awards is a veritable hours long display of the political left’s take on cultural issues. Corporations pull advertisements from people who oppose the political left on cultural issues. Celebrities are boycotted. Mass media and corporations know who is winning the culture war, and that is the political left.
The fact that corporations and mass media have concluded that the political left is winning the culture war on most issues has not gone unnoticed by voters. And this is where the impact of cultural issues can turn into a political anchor for Democratic politicians. Because this success of the political left is omnipresent in mass media, people who do not pay too much attention to politics are left with a skewed idea of the success of the Democratic party in shaping the country’s policies. People who do not pay too much attention to politics, of which there are millions upon millions of people, do pay attention to mass media. And what they see tells them that the Democrats are in charge, and have been in charge for a long time (even though that has not actually been the case for long stretches of time), because everything the Democrats support culturally is seen by these people as the default perspective of all of the mass media they consume.
Democrats, in effect, can become a victim of that cultural success. Those people who do not pay too much attention to politics, so-called low information voters, see the success of the political left in shaping mass media and corporate advertising, so assume that the political left is also shaping everything else in America, including America’s economic realities.
However, the economic realities of America have not been largely shaped by the political left for decades. Since Reagan fought unions and cut taxes in the 1980’s, Republican economic policy has been ascendant. Income and corporate taxes have steadily declined. When Democrats try to raise them back up, their Republican successors just cut them even further. Minimum wage has remained stagnant, with proposed increases blocked by Republicans in Congress over and over again. Union membership has declined thanks to non-stop attacks by Republican politicians at all levels of government. Corporations have been given greater and greater power through lobbying and political donations made possible by Republican appointed judges.
The end result has been ever increasing income inequality. The wealthiest are grabbing a larger and larger share of the country’s wealth, while the poor and middle class are seeing their shares decrease.
And thus, the missing piece to explain the paradox is found: though the policies of Republican politicians are largely the cause of this economic reality of income inequality and stagnant wages, many voters, close to a plurality of voters, blame Democratic politicians instead. If you go to the comments section of any story about economic policies, you will see people arguing that it is all Barack Obama’s fault that wages aren’t growing. You will see people arguing that Hillary Clinton was owned by corporations. You will see people arguing that the great recession was the fault of either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. It can feel like George W Bush never even existed.
Some of that thinking can be attributed to people having partisan bias. But, for the millions upon millions of people who do not pay too much attention to politics, much of that thinking can be attributed to their view that Democratic politicians have been the ones in charge this whole time, a view shaped by the success of the political left’s stance on cultural issues that is constantly displayed to them through the mass media and corporate advertising they consume.
And this is why cultural issues seem to hurt Democratic politicians more than Republican politicians: cultural issues make many people feel like Democratic politicians already have too much power over their lives, even though it is mass media and corporations that are really making these people feel that way, not actually Democratic politicians.
This is obviously a complicated explanation, fraught in psychology, and subject to the myriad of disparate influences on people in a time of media saturation. So, what lessons could one draw from this explanation? What should Democratic politicians do with the knowledge that the success of the political left’s stances on cultural issues could actually hurt them at the ballot box through no fault of their own?
First off, because it is not the cultural issues themselves that are causing the problem, Democratic politicians should not equivocate or pander with regards to their stances on cultural issues. If a Democratic politician is asked about their thoughts on Roe vs Wade, they should not worry that their answer might alienate people. They should answer from their heart, and they should pass legislation that the country wants, without fearing any loss of culture issue voters. Create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Pass better gun regulation. And do so without fear.
Secondly, though Democratic politicians should not equivocate or pander with regards to cultural issues, that does not mean that they should necessarily bring those issues to the forefront during a campaign, because the other part of this paradox is that Democratic politicians are being blamed by low information voters for the economic policies of Republican politicians. In order to combat that, Democratic politicians need to stress their actual economic policies whenever possible, remind voters of the culpability of Republican economic policies at all times, and most importantly, when elected, fight harder to enact better economic policies. Democratic politicians are going to get blamed for bad economic policies by low information voters no matter what, even if the Democratic politicians had nothing to do with those policies.
For that reason, the best thing for Democratic politicians to do is just pass policies that will improve everyone’s economic situation. Pass Medicare for All. Increase the minimum wage. Limit corporate lobbying. Pass protections for union organizing. Increase infrastructure funding. Raise taxes on the wealthy. Increase education funding. Get it done. Because if it doesn’t get done, Democrats will get the blame.
It might not seem fair, but it is what it is. The success of the political left’s stances on cultural issues helps make it that way, for better or worse. And, because of the cultural influence of mass media, it is not possible for Democrats to just disavow those cultural issues. Why trade one victory for another, anyway? Better to just be victorious at both cultural issues and economic issues.