Call for a culture war

The election’s finally over, and there’s no denying it: Republicans won. They decisively won the presidency (Bush even got the most votes this time); they significantly strengthened their hold on the Senate; they preserved their majorities in the House and the governors’ mansions. They overwhelmingly won 11 state referenda banning gay marriage. And they did all this in the face of a huge increase in voter participation, the Democrats’ first major grassroots election drive in decades, and George Bush’s record of lies and incompetence in office.

How did they pull it off? Exit polls identify four major issues that were important to voters: “moral values” (22 percent), “terrorism” (19 percent), jobs and the economy (20 percent), and the war in Iraq (15 percent). Eighty percent of those choosing one of the first two as their top issue voted for Bush, a similar number picking one of the second two as their top issue voted for Kerry.

In other words, Republicans lost overwhelmingly on Iraq and the economy, but won overwhelmingly on terrorism and “values”. That means the Republican message of fear and aggression against foreigners (what they call the war on terrorism) and their assault against gay rights, abortion rights, and the separation of church and state are deeply attractive to most Americans.

The first step in dealing with popular support for a reactionary agenda is recognizing its foundation. Social conservatism is not merely “false consciousness” or a Republican trick to secure support for tax cuts. People who oppose gay rights have just as much a stake in preventing gay marriage as they do in protecting their job. Their cultural and gender identity rests on the continued repression of gays, and an end to that repression is deeply threatening - often threatening in a much more intimate way than losing a job could ever be. This is why the “values” platform can be so compelling.

Support for the administration’s anti-“terrorism” policies is perhaps even more perplexing to progressives who know about its record of security and intelligence incompetence and overseas brutality. But most Americans are rooted in an extremely strong culture of hostility to and fear of foreigners, and belief in America’s benign influence. The 9/11 attacks brought these latent feelings to the surface, and along with Bush’s lies and the media’s broad complicity have sustained strong support for the administration’s foreign policies. Together with the successful longterm effort of Republicans to brand Democrats as soft on foreign threats, “terrorism” became a major advantage for Bush.

Progressives have two options in response to Republicans’ strength on “values” and security issues. They can move to the right (as they steadily have on economic issues for the last 25 years) or they can start a culture war of their own.

Democratic politicians and operatives, motivated by a short-term desire to win, will probably move to the right. But trying to out-Republican the Republicans has more often than not been a losing strategy, and when it has worked (as under Clinton), it proved a hollow victory. A better course is to face the cultural intolerance of Americans head-on in a long-term attempt to neutralize the only advantages Republicans have.

What does this mean? For starters, it means making gay rights a leading part of the agenda. Not just the fight for gay marriage, but demanding absolute acceptance of all queer lifestyles from all Americans. Thirty years ago a similar cultural fight, demanding equality for women, was launched. Today that equality is not yet a reality, but few people still question the principle. Elections are no longer won demonizing man-hating feminists. If the Democrats turn right and forsake the gay rights agenda, it won’t just represent a defeat for the principle of equality. It will also mean conceding in perpetuity an election issue to the Republicans. Democrats will never be able to position themselves as more intolerant, but they might eventually be able to neutralize the issue.

We face a similar fight against Americans’ nationalism and the imperial culture at home that consistently supports U.S. domination abroad. We have to break down the myth of American benevolence, and challenge the privilege most Americans enjoy as residents of the global hegemon. Ending the fear and hatred of foreigners felt by most Americans is a key part of this battle.

These culture wars can’t be won at the polls. It’s time for progressives to stop spending so much energy on elections that are already rigged against them and concentrate on community organizing and identity politics. Not the fragmenting racial identity politics of the early ’90s, but a universal cultural politics demanding equality and acceptance for all cultural practices except those that violate these principles. Hatred of gays and foreigners is what won this election for the Republicans, and until we face this hatred squarely and force it into oblivion the Republicans are going to keep on winning.

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