Culture Wars the Liberals’ Fault?

Some people claim there's a woman to blame.

Kevin Drum, late of Mother Jones and Washington Monthly, argues that “If you hate the culture wars, blame liberals.” Given that he is, by any reasonable measure, a liberal himself, this is a rather interesting admission against interests. While I remain more conservative than Drum, I think he’s too hard on his own team.

His central argument, though, is unassailable: “over the past two decades Democrats have moved left far more than Republicans have moved right.” He presents, in his inimitable style, quite a few self-made charts and other visual aids to illustrate his argument. This is the most compelling:

So, Republicans have become less doctrinaire on both same-sex marriage and taxes while remaining essentially the same on the other issues while Democrats have moved further left. But I’m not exactly sure what that tells us. If the question we’re trying to answer is one about how the parties compare to the elusive median voter, “liberal” and “conservative” aren’t static measures. On same-sex marriage (and marijuana legalization, which isn’t shown on this graphic) the polity at large has moved leftward. So, it’s possible that Republicans staying static amounts to a rightward shift when measured against the current median rather than that of ~2000.

But Drum seems to answer that with his next graphic, borrowed from The Economist:

As you can see, in 1994 the average Democrat was at 5 and the average Republican was at 6. In 2004, that had changed slightly: the average Democrat was at 4 and the average Republican was just under 5. In other words, both parties had gotten a little bit more liberal.

But by 2017 that had changed completely. The average Democrat was at 2 while the average Republican was at 6.5. In other words, between 1994 and 2017, Democrats had gotten three points more liberal while Republicans had gotten about half a point more conservative.

But I’m not sure what this tells us. Does it really mean that Democrats have moved left? Or are Democrats simply more comfortable describing themselves as “liberal” now? It’s possible that the combination of the pandemic and the renewed racial strife of the past couple of years makes “liberal” less of a dirty word and “conservative” less attractive.

That takes us up to 2017, by which time Democrats were quite obviously farther from the median voter than they had been in 1994 or 2004. And it showed: Our election victory in 2020 was razor thin even though (a) the economy sucked, (b) we were in the middle of a pandemic, (c) voters had had four years to see just what Donald Trump was really like, and (d) our candidate was bland, amiable, white, male Joe Biden. This should scare the hell out of liberals.

But was the election really “razor thin”? Joe Biden won the popular vote by 4.45%, which is higher than the 3.86% margin Barack Obama enjoyed over Mitt Romney or the 2.46% margin George W. Bush had over John Kerry. Certainly, that’s less impressive than Obama’s 7.27% win over John McCain but that took a generationally charismatic candidate, the onset of the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression, backlash over an unpopular war, the worst Vice Presidential candidate in living memory, and more. It’s true that Democrats just barely held the House and got a 50-50 tie in the Senate but there are all manner of systematic explanations for that.

Still, I’m largely in agreement with Drum’s larger argument. He cites David Schor, who’s well to the left of either of us:

At the subgroup level, Democrats gained somewhere between half a percent to one percent among non-college whites and roughly 7 percent among white college graduates (which is kind of crazy). Our support among African Americans declined by something like one to 2 percent. And then Hispanic support dropped by 8 to 9 percent….One implication of these shifts is that education polarization went up and racial polarization went down.

….What happened in 2020 is that nonwhite conservatives voted for Republicans at higher rates; they started voting more like white conservatives….Clinton voters with conservative views on crime, policing, and public safety were far more likely to switch to Trump than voters with less conservative views on those issues. And having conservative views on those issues was more predictive of switching from Clinton to Trump than having conservative views on any other issue-set was.

….This lines up pretty well with trends we saw during the campaign. In the summer, following the emergence of “defund the police” as a nationally salient issue, support for Biden among Hispanic voters declined. So I think you can tell this microstory: We raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue that millions of nonwhite voters disagreed with us on. And then, as a result, these conservative Hispanic voters who’d been voting for us despite their ideological inclinations started voting more like conservative whites.

….Over the last four years, white liberals have become a larger and larger share of the Democratic Party….And since white voters are sorting on ideology more than nonwhite voters, we’ve ended up in a situation where white liberals are more left wing than Black and Hispanic Democrats on pretty much every issue: taxes, health care, policing, and even on racial issues or various measures of “racial resentment.” So as white liberals increasingly define the party’s image and messaging, that’s going to turn off nonwhite conservative Democrats and push them against us.

….If Democrats elevate issues or theories that a large minority of nonwhite voters reject, it’s going to be hard to keep those margins….Black conservatives and Hispanic conservatives don’t actually buy into a lot of these intellectual theories of racism. They often have a very different conception of how to help the Black or Hispanic community than liberals do. And I don’t think we can buy our way out of this trade-off. Most voters are not liberals. If we polarize the electorate on ideology — or if nationally prominent Democrats raise the salience of issues that polarize the electorate on ideology — we’re going to lose a lot of votes. [emphases Drum’s]

Further, while more or less happy with the Democrats on policy, Drum thinks the politics are simply not working.

Despite endless hopeful invocations of “but polls show that people like our positions,” the truth is that the Democratic Party has been pulled far enough left that even lots of non-crazy people find us just plain scary—something that Fox News takes vigorous advantage of. From an electoral point of view, the story here is consistent: Democrats have stoked the culture wars by getting more extreme on social issues and Republicans have used this to successfully cleave away a segment of both the non-college white vote and, more recently, the non-college nonwhite vote.

While I largely agree with that, the fact of the matter is that the culture wars—and the fact that they’re clearly losing them—seems to me rather obviously all the Republicans have left at this point. Surely, they and their infotainment complex deserve the blame for stoking these divisions? Drum doesn’t think so. Or, at least, he thinks it has been provoked:

For most people, losing something is far more painful than the pleasure of gaining something of equivalent value. And since conservatives are “losing” the customs and hierarchies that they’ve long lived with, their reaction is far more intense than the liberal reaction toward winning the changes they desire. This produces more outrageous behavior from conservatives even though liberals are actually the ur-source of polarization.

While I disagree with Drum here on the blame game, I agree with his analysis of the conservative reaction. While I believe the infotainment complex and most of the Republican elite are simply demagogues, rank-and-file conservatives are genuinely afraid that their way of life is under assault and they’re willing to go to great lengths to fight back. But I’m not sure this follows:

Moving to the left may help galvanize the progressive base—which is good!—but if it’s not done with empathy and tact it risks outrunning the vast middle part of the country, which progressive activists seem completely uninterested in talking to.

It is well within our power to break our two-decade 50-50 deadlock and become routine winners in national politics. All it takes is a moderation of our positions from “pretty far left” to “pretty liberal.” That’s all.

While I tend to think that this would be good politics, in that it makes it possible for Joe Mankin types to get elected and thus give the Democrats some cushion, I’m more than a wee bit skeptical that “pretty liberal” is going to mollify conservatives or even energize the relative handful of Black and Latino voters who are reluctant to vote Democrat. It’s not like Defund the Police was part of Joe Biden’s platform.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Society, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    My most salient culture war is trans rights. In this, Republicans are definitely to blame. Remember all the “bathroom bills”? Remember when Trump banned trans-specific medical treatment in the military? Those weren’t things done by liberals like me, or trans people, who mostly just want to get on with their lives. That was reactionary protest.

    Yes, the situation has changed vis-a-vis trans people. You are seeing some on TV now. I don’t know what drove that. But Republicans brought it into the political process.

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  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    Moving to the left may help galvanize the progressive base—which is good!—but if it’s not done with empathy and tact it risks outrunning the vast middle part of the country, which progressive activists seem completely uninterested in talking to.

    Progressives don’t do empathy and they certainly don’t do tact. They proclaim and demand and scold. Their approach to politics is classroom-inspired, where they are the teachers and everyone else should shut up and listen, eyes front and spit out that gum. I’m about 90% in agreement on policy, but I get awfully tired of being lectured by people whose dogmatic intolerance perfectly mimics the voice of the not-terribly-smart teachers I ignored.

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  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    Dude I’m as supportive of trans rights as anyone, but that’s nonsense. It was our side that decided to radically re-define male and female. Oh, sure, we’re right, but it’s absurd to pretend that we didn’t start that fight.

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  4. becca says:

    @Michael Reynolds: yeah, I also get tired of being lectured.

    Just saying…

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  5. charon says:

    Maybe some of Drum’s statistics don’t really reflect reality.

    If Republicans are really becoming less dogmatic about gender issues, for example, how come GOP politicians talk so much about transgender in the girls’ bathrooms or playing on the girls’ athletic teams? Florists are still shunning lesbian couples, etc.

    Don’t the GOP pols know what people really care about?

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  6. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    “…mimics the voices of the not-terribly-smart teachers I ignored.”

    Man, you are so playing my song.

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  7. Sleeping Dog says:

    As I mentioned on the forum, I mostly agree with Drum. On the whole, the Dem Party is far more moderate, even if it has moved to the left on many issues, than its left wing, but the LW is the loudest, shrillest segment of the party and has come to define what the party is.

    What the white left and it is largely white progressives, is their unwillingness to allow disagreements on what are really fringe issues for most people. You support the entire agenda or you’re not with them. The erosion of support among Hispanic/Latin voters is a canary in the coal mine for Dems. As the party has pinned the future on the demographics is destiny argument. We also see this in the disconnect between white liberals and neighborhoods of color in the debate on where police reform should focus. It is not wrong to accuse the Dem left of being patronizing.

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  8. charon says:

    I see a problem with this whole idea of “far left” or “far right” of: relative to what? Isn’t what might be regarded as centrist really a subjective variable?

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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    You support the entire agenda or you’re not with them.

    I suspect we’ll see examples of that in this comment thread at some point. One may not question or criticize progressives unless one is willing to be labeled a heretic.

    We’re in this weird, even dumber, more pointless version of 1930’s Europe, where the only choice is between Nazis and Communists. Nothing less than total ideological submission is allowed. First as tragedy, then as farce?

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  10. Tom Strong says:

    The big problem with Drum’s argument is the baseline. 1994 was probably the peak of the DLC-driven shift by Democrats to tack to the center in response to the success of Reaganism. And yet somehow, Republicans responded that very year with a massive escalation of culture war issues, and won in lopsided fashion.

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  11. Barry says:

    @Sleeping Dog: “On the whole, the Dem Party is far more moderate, even if it has moved to the left on many issues, than its left wing, but the LW is the loudest, shrillest segment of the party and has come to define what the party is. ”

    This is simply not true. The President is Biden, not Sanders.

    Meanwhile, on the Right, those who refuse the Big Lie, oppose treason and don’t worship Trump are marginalized or out of office.

    At this point Kevin has become ‘Even the Liberal Kevin Drum’.

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  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    In other news, water is still wet, the sun is still hot.

    Blaming liberals for the culture wars is really stupid, namely because it takes two sides to have a war of any kind. Has the left moved further left in the culture wars? Sure. Has the conservative right moved very little in the culture wars? Of course they haven’t moved much, they are conservative. They like things just as they are.

    Gays, Trans, Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, women… They aren’t out there protesting because every thing is peachy keen and they are sitting on top of the world. And conservatives are angry because… Wait a minute, what are conservatives angry about?

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  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Barry:

    At this point Kevin has become ‘Even the Liberal Kevin Drum’.

    Snarky dismissal and personal attack against he who dares question tactics, despite agreement on virtually every actual issue. You don’t maybe think you’re illustrating Drum’s point?

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  14. Scott F. says:

    The Republicans are coddling white supremacists and openly embracing authoritarianism. Yet, the Democrats are the ones being unreasonable? Give me a break!

    If the Democrats have moved more to the left in the last two decades (the evidence of which you rightly question), it is fundamentally due to the fact that the starting point 20 years ago was markedly more to the right on the political spectrum than where the US was 50 years ago and more to the right than our peer countries in the first world.

    Have you all seen the video reporting from the NYT called A Day of Rage? Yet, you want to talk about the tone of the messaging from liberals.

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  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Scott F.:

    Have you all seen the video reporting from the NYT called A Day of Rage? Yet, you want to talk about the tone of the messaging from liberals.

    Yes, precisely because of what the NYT called A Day of Rage. (Great journalism, BTW.) Again, this goes back to the Left’s love of the classroom model. The point in class is to be right; the point of real world politics is to do good.. If all we do is annoy people – because we’re just so very right – what does that do for people living under the freeway? Life is not a seminar, there are real people who need real help and to the extent that we cannot stop unnecessarily alienating people, we are failing in our primary duty.

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  16. Stormy Dragon says:

    Look at the actual argument hear through the lens of Frum’s religion stat:

    They note that the people who consider themselves Democrats are 15% less likely to consider themselves religious.

    Frum and Joyner then assert:
    1. That what religion you believe in is primarily a political position
    2. Not being religious is a provocation to “median” society
    3. Democrats have an obligation to become religious again, otherwise right wing religious violence is their fault.

    And then conclude that this mean that Democrats, and not Frum and Joyner, are in fact the extremists.

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  17. Stormy Dragon says:

    I’d also note this post is pretty much peak “status quo is king” Joynerism. He’s literally arguing that the extremism of someone’s position should be measured entirely based on who has changed the most over time, because apparently any form of change whatsoever is extremism in his mind.

    It’s like arguing that since non-Amish society has changed more than Amish society over the past two hundred years, we should consider Amish people moderate and everyone else is pushing extremist positions with their partisan “technology” and “progress”.

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  18. Mister Bluster says:

    The phrase “under God” was incorporated into the Pledge of Allegiance on June 14, 1954, by a Joint Resolution of Congress…

    This country has been going downhill since then.

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  19. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Am I going blind? I’ll admit I’m not a close reader, but the only mention I see of religion is from you.

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  20. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Barry:

    The LW isn’t the loudest, shrillest segment of the party??? Isn’t the fact that Biden is pres not Sanders, proof the party is far more moderate than is represented by the left?

    Also there was a piece up Friday, that Sanders is being criticized from the left for working too closely with Biden.

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  21. Stormy Dragon says:

    There’s also a basic statistical issue with this analysis:

    You can’t take a time series of a statistic where the population changes over time and conclude the change in the average is the same as the average change.

    As an example of what I mean, the median age of a US resident in 1990 was 32.9. In 2019, the median age of a US resident was 38.4.

    Drum’s article here is basically the equivalent of “In seeming violation of physics, Americans grew less than 6 years older over the last three decades”.

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  22. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Am I going blind? I’ll admit I’m not a close reader, but the only mention I see of religion is from you.

    See that second column from the right on the “Change in Public Attitudes” graph that says “Religion” under it?

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  23. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    And from that you get:

    Frum and Joyner then assert:
    1. That what religion you believe in is primarily a political position
    2. Not being religious is a provocation to “median” society
    3. Democrats have an obligation to become religious again, otherwise right wing religious violence is their fault.

    And:

    I’d also note this post is pretty much peak “status quo is king” Joynerism. He’s literally arguing that the extremism of someone’s position should be measured entirely based on who has changed the most over time, because apparently any form of change whatsoever is extremism in his mind.

    That’s some Simone Biles level vaulting to conclusions. And from conclusions straight to accusations.

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  24. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Okay, so what’s you alternate interpretation of why religiousity is being used as a measure of partisan extremism?

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  25. Scott F. says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The point in class is to be right; the point of real world politics is to do good.. If all we do is annoy people – because we’re just so very right – what does that do for people living under the freeway?

    With all due respect, your voice is one of the most hectoring and strident ones in the OTB commentariat, yet you consistently garner a whole lot of upvotes. Why? Because when you’re right, you’re right and your passion is seen as a fundamental good. You’re a professional communicator, trying to influence like-minded commenters and a couple of resistant OTB authors, and I suspect you’ve selected your tone deliberately. I see a pretty fine line between what you are calling teaching and whatever you are doing.

    Life is not a seminar, there are real people who need real help and to the extent that we cannot stop unnecessarily alienating people, we are failing in our primary duty.
    I truly agree with this – except for your use of “unnecessarily” in there. This goes back to my original point.

    Drum says, “For most people, losing something is far more painful than the pleasure of gaining something of equivalent value. And since conservatives are “losing” the customs and hierarchies that they’ve long lived with, their reaction is far more intense than the liberal reaction toward winning the changes they desire. But, the customs conservatives have long lived with are racism, sexism, gun fetishism, climate change denialism, etc., while the hierarchies they want to sustain are paternalism and authoritarianism. If liberals in the US are to succeed in our primary duty, we have to get people to chose our side over the other side in our two party system. I would argue it is necessary to alienate people clinging to these things.

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  26. But people really “hate culture wars”? Or only hate that their side is not winning (or not having total victory)? I bet pro-choice/pro-live people will prefer ling in a world without culture wars where almost everybody agreed that abortion should be legal/illegal, but also prefer the culture wars to a world where abortion is solidly illegal/legal.

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  27. Eric S Pfeiffer says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Yes, yes, and yes.

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  28. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Progressives don’t do empathy and they certainly don’t do tact.

    If you’ve ever been around an abusive person RL, one particular tactic they use to get their way is to create situations where you have to ignore their bad behavior or risk causing it a scene by pointing it out, knowing that you’re likely to let them get away from it because people like MR will consider the causing a scene to be a worse offense than the bad behavior.

    Real empathy is empathy for the victims of the abuser, not empathy for the abusers social standing.

    A key part to Trumpism is importing this tactic into politics. They do something cruel and everyone has to just pretend this is completely normal or else the MR’s of the world will tut-tut their tongues at you for not being empathic and tactful toward the fascists.

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  29. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Interesting because my brother frequently declares FG to have been the canary in the coal mine for the conservative movement. My own take is that both sides suffer from tunnel vision. That and the absence of external enemies making it necessary for America to find something to fight. So, we turn on ourselves.

    In this internal fight, conservatives will “win” but only because the “enemy” will keep fracturing and fighting among its own.

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  30. @Tom Strong: It is worth point out as well that 1994 was before the parties starting sorting.

    Hence, by definition, one would expect Ds to be more liberal and Rs to be more conservative between 1995 and now.

    The analysis needs to be a bit deeper than that what is provided to really understand what the descriptive data are showing (i.e., the polling).

    Put another away: the analysis appears to be holding “Democrats” and “Republicans” as constants and the variation is how liberal/conservative they are. But the reality is both what constitutes a “Democrat” and a “Republican” in 1994 is not a constant category (nor, for that matter, is what constitute a “liberal” and a “conservative.”

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  31. Sleeping Dog says:

    My own take is that both sides suffer from tunnel vision. That and the absence of external enemies making it necessary for America to find something to fight. So, we turn on ourselves.

    In this internal fight, conservatives will “win” but only because the “enemy” will keep fracturing and fighting among its own.

    Entirely reasonable analysis. And to bring in something from Dr T’s Ohio post, the nationalization of election issues has reinforced the fighting.

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  32. Despite endless hopeful invocations of “but polls show that people like our positions,”

    I will take this and James’ correct conversation about “razor-thin”: this kind of analysis drives me crazy because it acts like the playing field is even and that, therefore, losses and wins are primarily about messaging.

    This is simply not the case.

    The playing field is not even (e.g., most Congressional races are not competitive–so that real issues about who controls congress is far more about district lines and primary contests than they are about the national party’s messaging).

    I am not saying that messaging is irrelevant, but it is not the central issue that many (including a lot of regular commenters) think it is.

    Too many people, even often despite knowing intellectually what reality is, hold in their head a model of politics wherein outcomes really are about a contest between two sets of ideas and messages and the party who competes the best wins–but that isn’t the way our system works.

    This is not to say that that politicians don’t have to compete under the prevailing rules, but everyone needs to remember that it does not work the way most conversations about US politics assume to be true.

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  33. Modulo Myself says:

    Drum’s numbers are just gibberish. My eyes can’t roll quick enough at a Economist graph showing 3 point shift vs a 1.5 point shift on a scale of 1-10 as evidence of anything.

    That said, conservative politics is a niche thing that exists only in the political world. Everything is a war crime in progress. But only in this narrow rhetoric of conservative politics. There are no conservative novelists in America; no movies, no TV shows, no actual reporters working the news. Liberal journalists had to be break the news on Andrew Cuomo, because there are no conservative reporters. Liberal media is expansive, and if you write about anything cultural you have to come at it from a wokey angle. And everything has a therapeutic bent. Everything.

    When the riots occurred last year, I read back to how Clinton responded to the LA riots. 100% law and order, and stuff about how the culture of the rioters was a culture from ours. What did Biden say last year? “We must not let pain and anger at George Floyd’s death destroy us.” 100% a thing a self help book on trauma would say.

    This is all very very threatening to the right. People who can’t handle complexity suspect that it’s there fault. That’s why when Clinton called Trump supporters ‘deplorable’ it was a wound. I honestly don’t think there’s anything to do. Drum’s solution is to moderate extreme views, as if they are not already moderated. In 10 years, we will have a woman candidate who had an abortion and is not ashamed of it, because why should she be? That will a blow a hole in so much of the centrist psyche about what’s acceptable.

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  34. Thomas William Fuller says:

    Is it possible that conservatives of the Gingrich era were already so entrenched in a ultra conservative point of view that they didn’t need to move in a rightward direction?

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  35. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    The erosion of support among Hispanic/Latin voters is a canary in the coal mine for Dems.

    I saw an article a few months back (can’t remember where now, sadly) arguing that the problem is that we treat “Hispanic/Latin” as a single group, when it would make more sense to break it up into “White Hispanic/Latin”, “Black Hispanic/Latin”, and “Indigenous Hispanic/Latin”.

    If you do, you see the Democrat->Republican shift is pretty much entirely in the “White Hispanic/Latin” group, and is primarily about them assimilating and increasingly seeing themselves as just White.

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  36. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Okay, so what’s you alternate interpretation of why religiousity is being used as a measure of partisan extremism?

    You made specific statements about Joyner and Drum and when confronted do you support your original statements? No, you demand to know what else could possibly explain the positions you mis-stated. How about you support your conclusions and accusations?

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Real empathy is empathy for the victims of the abuser, not empathy for the abusers social standing.

    Oh? How much empathy do you have for some right-wing white male who was raised to believe certain things about masculinity and now finds his worldview derided on the daily? How much empathy do you have for a Mexican-American who doesn’t want Anglos dictating how he uses his mother tongue? How much empathy do you have for a Portland business owner who’s been driven out of business by interminable Antifa protests? How much empathy do you have for someone like, say, Dave Chapelle, who made some jokes about transgender people but is quite clearly an ally nonetheless?

    Let’s take a look at this bit of intolerant bullshit:

    A key part to Trumpism is importing this tactic into politics. They do something cruel and everyone has to just pretend this is completely normal or else the MR’s of the world will tut-tut their tongues at you for not being empathic and tactful toward the fascists.

    So because I disagree on style and tactics, despite the fact that I agree on issues, I’m now tossed in with Trumpies. Thus absolutely proving my point. But carry on.

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  37. George says:

    @Scott F.:

    The Republicans are coddling white supremacists and openly embracing authoritarianism. Yet, the Democrats are the ones being unreasonable? Give me a break!

    Not mutually exclusive. Beyond that, there are far more than two sides in this. There’s great internal disagreement on most of things within the Democrats, within the Republicans, and within every other party. There are so many issues involved that to a large extent almost every person I know has a different mix of how strongly they agree and disagree.

    You know the saying “bothsidersism” (you didn’t raise it, but many do in this context)? It doesn’t apply, this is “hundredsofmillionsiderism”, and pretending that there’s anything like two uniform sides is so factually wrong its hard to understand how anyone can pretend that “both” applies, any more than speaking of “both” atoms in a litre of water.

    The joke: “Q: What happens when you put ten economists in a room? A: You get eleven opinions” is an understatement when it comes to cultural issues. People (even or probably especially within any given party) are all over the map. And often resent being pigeon-holed by the official party position.

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  38. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Too many people, even often despite knowing intellectually what reality is, hold in their head a model of politics wherein outcomes really are about a contest between two sets of ideas and messages and the party who competes the best wins–but that isn’t the way our system works.

    You’re wrong. Gay marriage for example did not rise or fall on GOP structural advantage, it won on the strength of the idea, and the lack of rational counter-argument. Ditto women in the military. Ditto marijuana legalization. Ditto trans acceptance. I could go on.

    If the GOP structural advantage (which is absolutely real) were the thing that mattered most, progressives and liberals would not have had the social issues successes that so alarm the right wing.

    The fight is at the margins: 10% in one state, 5% in another. Where we win it’s by inches, often by a few thousand votes. Those are individuals making individual choices, they are not robots.

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  39. Chip Daniels says:

    I’ve seen these sorts of essays, which boil own to advising Democrats to tack to some mysterious center, or stop stressing identity politics, or stop focusing on culture war issue, which all amount to the same thing.

    While it may sound convincing, the argument falls apart when you consider the remedy.

    What exactly would non-CRT teaching of history be?
    What would a policy platform that didn’t support trans rights consist of?

    The argument that, by bringing injustice to light, the Democrats are “starting it” is actually true.
    But Drum doesn’t bother to explain why this is a bad thing, unless we accept that “discomforting white conservatives who will never vote Democrat is a bad thing”.

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  40. @Michael Reynolds:

    Gay marriage for example did not rise or fall on GOP structural advantage, it won on the strength of the idea

    In the Court, I would note, not at the ballot box.

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  41. @Michael Reynolds: Plus, I think you are misunderstanding my point.

    Take the presidential election in 2016: Dems had more popular support, the Reps won.

    Take the election of 2020: Dems had even more popular support, we still had drama about who was going to win.

    The issue about winning and losing in US politics is a lot more than just ideas competing and winning.

    This is manifestly the case for the House, Senate, and Presidency.

    I am not saying ideas and messages don’t matter–I am saying that they are substantially filtered through structures.

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  42. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    It is not widely accepted because of SCOTUS, it’s widely accepted because of Will and Grace and Ellen and a bunch of creatives who’ve been laying the groundwork for decades, including yours truly. You know, all those progressive yutes did not spontaneously discover that being gay was OK, they were taught, worked on, propagandized.

    I’m curious, do you not teach with at least an eye on the possibility that you are changing minds and that changing minds is a good and useful thing to do?

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  43. @Michael Reynolds:

    Those are individuals making individual choices, they are not robots.

    Yes, choices are made, although exactly why they are made is a different issue and not as clear-cut as you frequently argue.

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  44. @Michael Reynolds: I am not arguing that the idea has not triumphed. But in a post about party messaging and how it affects electoral outcomes, it seems salient to note that gay marriage had to prevail via the courts and not via the ballot box either in terms of legislation nor in terms of referenda.

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  45. DrDaveT says:

    @Miguel Madeira:

    But people really “hate culture wars”?

    Conservatives hate culture wars because they bring with them the possibility of change, which is always to be resisted.

    Liberals hate the need for culture wars — they would prefer that people could be convinced by simple arguments to become incrementally and continuously less shitty.

    Progressives embrace culture wars, because they know that nothing is going to change without them.

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  46. @Michael Reynolds:

    I’m curious, do you not teach with at least an eye on the possibility that you are changing minds and that changing minds is a good and useful thing to do?

    Clearly, I think minds can be changed. I wouldn’t have beat my proverbial head against the wall writing on blogs since 2003 if I didn’t.

    But you are misunderstanding my point. I am not saying the ideas and message don’t matter. BUt they clearly and empirically don’t matter in mass politics as much as one might like–and more importantly, the structural elements matter significantly–I would argue more than the ideas do.

    And there is the pesky fact that people are not as rational and logical as they think they are.

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  47. @Chip Daniels:

    The argument that, by bringing injustice to light, the Democrats are “starting it” is actually true.

    I think this, or some version of this, is kind of important to remember. Conservatives, by definition, prefer the status quo. Liberals, by definition, want some amount of progressive change.
    And hence the conflict. Is it is the liberal’s fault for wanting change or the conservative’s fault for wanting things to stay the same? Does it matter whose fault it is?

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  48. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    But the reality is both what constitutes a “Democrat” and a “Republican” in 1994 is not a constant category (nor, for that matter, is what constitute a “liberal” and a “conservative.”

    This.

    Also, Even Kevin Drum can’t seem to resist comparing what private citizens who identify as Democrats say on the left with what elected Republican officials say and introduce legislation for on the right. The correct comparison to people who call for defunding the police is people invading the fvcking Capitol by force and shitting in its halls. Who has become more extreme here?

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  49. Scott F. says:

    @George:
    I agree with you that there are a million sides when it comes to political opinions and interests. But, as Steven has so thoroughly documented, there are also only two sides when it comes to voting. People are all over the map until they have to cast a ballot. Then, they choose the major party bus that comes closest to their location and give that party their vote.

    The question raised in this thread is whether the messaging from liberals is helping or hurting Democratic efforts to get more people to choose them. There are also questions being raised about just how moderate the messaging from Democrats should be. The Republicans have landed on historically extreme positions and it hasn’t seemed to hurt them too much – in great part due to the anti-majoritarianism of the districts and primaries model in our system. Prominent Democrats have tended to adopt the Drum model of moderating the message to seize the middle (see Biden, President), but that hasn’t resulted in the furtherance of decisive control of the government.

    Yes, liberal agenda advancement is harder. People don’t like to be uncomfortable and the system has devolved to strongly favor the Republicans, so it holds true that Democrats won’t be able to win using the same approach as the Republicans. But, liberal agenda advancement is also right, so backing off so as to keep some variable, undefinable cohort comfortable doesn’t make any sense to me.

    In short, the pot must be stirred or there is no progress. The consequences of the pot stirring will tend to be negative, but that the price to be paid. The stew settles and, but in the end, some incremental progress is made. Then, the pot must be stirred again.

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  50. Barry says:

    Meanwhile, the GOP has:

    1) Gone full Q.
    2) Gone full insurrectionist.
    3) Gone full voter suppression, with the full blessing of SCQTUS.
    4) Continued on full Trump.
    5) Have passed laws restricting the teaching of history, lest any truth get to impressionable minds.

    But remember, it’s the left who have become extreme.

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  51. Gustopher says:

    Republicans have gotten better at using their media networks to push culture wars. But culture wars have been their game plan at least since the 1980s.

    Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens, and starting his campaign in a town known for killing civil rights workers was definitely culture war. It was oblique, as his sunny demeanor wouldn’t quite match his message if it were explicit.

    There’s the famous Lee Atwater quote:

    You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

    We all know it, we’ve all seen it, it explains the Republican Party from the late 60s through George HW Bush.

    Right about that time, the Republicans found another solution to the problem Atwater presented. Rather than simply finding more esoteric ways of saying nigger, they began substituting other groups to hate. Faggots, spicks, trannies, soy-boys, (((Jews))), etc. Whatever your unstable cousin is frightened of.

    That’s not to say they’ve given up on Black folks — the biggest affront in the culture war was Obama presidenting while black. They’re hate is flexible and adaptable. They weren’t too fond of Clinton wanting to president while a woman either.

    And Drum is cherry picking. Let’s look at the recent issues: Dr. Seuss and Critical Race Theory — where was the left wing action that sparked these outrages?

    Republicans stoke their own fires of hate.

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  52. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    it seems salient to note that gay marriage had to prevail via the courts and not via the ballot box either in terms of legislation nor in terms of referenda.

    Without the culture change, I don’t think the courts get there. They would find a way to deny gay people the right to marry.

    At the Supreme Court, they are almost always balancing competing rights, and there’s a lot of wiggle room to get to their preferred outcome. See the recent trend of elevating the rights of States over their own citizens in voting rights.

    Folks on the Supreme Court watch Will And Grace too, as do their grandkids.

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  53. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Progressives don’t do empathy and they certainly don’t do tact. They proclaim and demand and scold. Their approach to politics is classroom-inspired, where they are the teachers and everyone else should shut up and listen, eyes front and spit out that gum. I’m about 90% in agreement on policy, but I get awfully tired of being lectured by people whose dogmatic intolerance perfectly mimics the voice of the not-terribly-smart teachers I ignored.

    Other than being 90% in agreement with you, is there any difference between the progressives and the conservatives?

    I think you’re finding a change in society — a hardening of lines — and asserting that it is only happening on one side. I would also note that only one side of the political divide has made empathy itself an enemy — look at the rhetoric around the Sotomayor nomination, where the Republicans were mocking her for empathy.

    All while being quite shrill and unwilling to listen, and empathize yourself. As evidence of that, I present the classic Michael Reynolds vs. Religion argument, where you call the majority of Americans brainwashed morons.

    We would be better off if Americans showed more empathy, and were a bit less strident and divided. But that’s not a thing that has changed just on the left.

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  54. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It is not widely accepted because of SCOTUS, it’s widely accepted because of Will and Grace and Ellen and a bunch of creatives who’ve been laying the groundwork for decades, including yours truly.

    I’m starting to suspect that MR’s real issue is that people he sees as beneath him are pissing him off by insisting there’s still things that need to change in our culture instead of singing his praises for having solved everything by writing a bunch of YA novels.

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  55. JKB says:

    @Sleeping Dog:What the white left and it is largely white progressives, is their unwillingness to allow disagreements on what are really fringe issues for most people. You support the entire agenda or you’re not with them.

    This is the necessary unavoidable consequence of the fact that, according to Marxist doctrine, you do not consider the possibility of dissent among honest people; either you think as I do, or you are a traitor and must be liquidated.
    –von Mises, Ludwig (1952). Marxism Unmasked (LvMI)

    Are they real Marxists or did they just appropriate the tactics of their communist and fascist forebears? Hardly matters where it came from, just that they are on the road well traveled by socialists. Which brings to mind another observation that may be of value to the less “devout” Liberals.

    “The worst thing that can happen to a socialist is to have his country ruled by socialists who are not his friends.”
    –Ludwig von Mises

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  56. Gustopher says:

    Let’s pretend Drum’s thesis is accurate. Would it change anything?

    If we ceded a bit of the culture war — if we said “sure, let’s all hate trans folks, it will be a good old time hating trans folks” — would the Republicans be satisfied?

    No. They would turn their focus onto gays. It wouldn’t change anything.

    Ok, it would change one thing: I would be their target, as bi/pan/whatever rounds to gay in their calculations. This is why I am very supportive of trans rights despite being a little uncomfortable around trans people* — I see a direct benefit to me.

    And if we gave up on gay rights, to avoid provoking Republicans, they would just move up the ladder to the next group in their hierarchy of hate.

    ——
    *: I just don’t know that many in real life. Intellectually I’m there, but emotionally, when I do meet them… I’ve got some growing to do, and I try to keep it to myself so it’s my problem not theirs. Part of it is meeting someone with such a strong motivation and fundamental need that I have absolutely no way to relate to. Do the things you need to do to make yourself happy, but I don’t get it, and it frightens me a little.

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  57. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    How much empathy do you have for someone like, say, Dave Chapelle, who made some jokes about transgender people but is quite clearly an ally nonetheless?

    Your are correct, given the choice between empathizing with my trans friends who have to go through life with people using Dave Chapelle’s “some jokes” to harass them and Dave Chapelle’s hurt feefees because people gave the show he was paid millions to produce a one-star review, I have trouble empathizing with Chapelle.

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  58. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    So because I disagree on style and tactics, despite the fact that I agree on issues, I’m now tossed in with Trumpies.

    I specified three groups: the abusers, the victims, and the bystanders and put you firmly in the bystanders groups. The fact that YOU chose to merge the bystanders and the abusers into a single group does nicely demonstrate my point.

    The problem is not that you’re a Trumpie. The problem is you are a bystander who values quiet over justice and so are more concerned about the victims making you uncomfortable by insisting on being visible than you are about the abusers preying on the victims.

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  59. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    You can break it down even further and look at the experience of these groups in the US. TX, NM, AZ & CA have significant Hispanic/Latin populations who trace their lives in the US in excess of 400 years and in reality are Hispanic/Latin in the same manner I’m Irish, romantic heritage. While most Hispanic/Latin have been in the US for only 2-3 generations or less, there has been a difference in how they’ve been treated depending on where they’ve lived. AZ & CA both have recent histories of oppressing H/Ls, while Texas and NM haven’t. Not surprisingly the movement of H/Ls from D to R was greater in TX and NM. Florida is a different case altogether and Puerto Ricans have split pretty evenly between D & R for a long time.

    But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which H/L populations Dems are losing, they can’t afford the losses period.

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  60. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    A key part to Trumpism is importing this tactic into politics. They do something cruel and everyone has to just pretend this is completely normal or else the MR’s of the world will tut-tut their tongues at you for not being empathic and tactful toward the fascists.

    Wow. You really are putting a lot of something on Michael Reynolds that is not there. He has never, to the best of my knowledge, suggested being empathetic or tactful to fascists. He can’t even manage to be empathetic or tactful to the progressives most of the time!

    He’s more a “pick the hills you want to die on” and “don’t piss off the normies on fringe issues and lose the big ones” kind of guy.

    In your abusive relationship metaphor, he’s the friend who tells the person being abused that they need to keep their head down and tough it out until they can get their own apartment because being homeless is worse. (Not wrong, more often than not)

    To drag the bad metaphor out further, he might even give his friend money for the security deposit, etc.

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  61. @Gustopher:

    Without the culture change, I don’t think the courts get there

    100%

    But we are now getting far afield of the question of how the culture war affects electoral outcomes.

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  62. Sleeping Dog says:

    @JKB:

    Your question reminded me of this Anne Applebaum column from last week.

    What has happened is that creeping authoritarianism has infected both the left and the right. I’d opine that it has effected the right to a greater extent, but YMMV. But the inability to accept reasoned difference that are argued by facts and logic is poison.

    But to respond to your quire, there are certainly some Marxists out there but mostly it is about being doctrinaire.

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  63. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Your are correct, given the choice between empathizing with my trans friends who have to go through life with people using Dave Chapelle’s “some jokes” to harass them and Dave Chapelle’s hurt feefees because people gave the show he was paid millions to produce a one-star review, I have trouble empathizing with Chapelle.

    Good comedy — good, influential, political comedy — should age badly. It pushes up against the limits of what is acceptable, repeats harmful stories and then inverts them.

    It makes us see the harmful stories as harmful.

    If a few years later on, you cringe uncomfortably at the harmful stories at the base, that means it worked.

    And yes, the cutting, old humor will be used as an excuse to tell the old, harmful stories by those losing the issue. It’s their last chance to do so with the veil of respectability. But it means they are losing.

    ——

    And then there’s that final hurrah, where your allies say goodbye to the awful, harmful jokes and stories by pointing out all the bigots passing them around, and laughing at the bigots for being so bigoted, while quietly snickering about the underlying jokes.

    That was the period where Democrats would pass around the news stories of some Republican County Hee-Haw posting a racist joke on Facebook or emailing it to everyone at work. “Look at this dumb redneck…”

    We’re not there on the gay and trans stuff yet. But we will get there.

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  64. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    But we are now getting far afield of the question of how the culture war affects electoral outcomes.

    Other than having a very small sample size of 9, I don’t see the difference.

    Add in that these 9 people are chosen indirectly through elections, and elected officials trying to cast their beliefs in stone… it’s just a matter of timescale.

    We’re missing half the court that can’t be bothered to vote, and the other chunk that blames both sides…

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  65. Gustopher says:

    @JKB:

    Hardly matters where it came from, just that they are on the road well traveled by socialists.

    So, the Republicans who kicked Cheney out of her leadership position because she wouldn’t repeat just one of the lies of the Republican orthodoxy … are they socialists?

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  66. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Gustopher:

    1. The Chapelle thing is over a Netflix special that was made in 2017 and the criticism came out immediately. This isn’t about some decades old show being reevaluated based on changing norms.
    2. If you want to pull the “it was a different time” thing, part of that is admitting that it is in fact inappropriate now (see Sarah Silverman for an example of how to do this) and coming up with new stuff, not insisting on continuing to do the old stuff and insisting people should just be okay with it.
    3. Chapelle was not “repeat[ing] harmful stories and then invert[ing] them”. He was straight up repeating transphobic slurs like the idea that trans women are secretly gay men who want to trick straight men into gay sex.
    4.Nothing has actually happened to Chapelle other than people said they didn’t like his show. He’s still a millionaire. He’s still getting big development deals with companies like Netflix. By pulling him up as an example of left overreach, what is really being said is that there’s two groups of people: those allowed to public express opinions and those that are supposed to just be passive observers of society and that your real problem is that passive observers are suddenly trying to say things.

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  67. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Continuing point 2, a lot of this is really about laziness on the part of established comedians. They’ve been coasting on doing the same basic routine over and over for decades and now they’re suddenly faced with the prospect of having to write almost a whole new act, and are mad society expects them to do their job.

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  68. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Gustopher:

    He’s more a “pick the hills you want to die on” and “don’t piss off the normies on fringe issues and lose the big ones” kind of guy.

    What hills does he want to die on?

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  69. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Honestly, that sounds like a joke that fell flat. Gay men going trans to trick straight men into sleeping with them? That’s a lot of work for not much result…

    Besides, everyone knows the way a queer guy gets a straight man to sleep with them is to get them drunk and then say “hey, I’ll do you if you do me… no homo though.”

    “No homo though” is a blanket pardon for all sorts of sodomy.

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  70. @Gustopher: I thought the conversation, starting with Drum and flowing into the comments was about culture war messaging and how it harms Ds and hurts Rs.

    I noted above that our elections are not perfect contest between ideas. MR brought up gay marriage.

    Once we get to what N=9 thinks we are are far afield of the original topic, if if one can think it back (or so I would argue)

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  71. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Gustopher:
    It’s a long time slur that’s one of the common ways transphobes justify violence toward trans women:

    Uses of the trans panic defense

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  72. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Defeating fascists. Going backwards on established rights.

    He thinks government should follow culture, and that social change happens through media first, not petulant whatever-studies kids on Twitter.

    This isn’t hard. Just pay attention to him, and it’s clear.

    He has a trans (trans-ish? I don’t remember) kid. He wants victories that last, rather than a temporary victory that is rolled back so far it makes things worse.

    I think he’s wrong in a lot of things. I don’t think you can nag the Twitter kids to be less nagging, for instance, as that’s the equivalent of yelling at the tide. Plus, that’s a part of our base, as important as every other part when we are pulling off razor thin victories.

    He’s just a bit more pessimistic about the political middle and more small-c conservative, trying to preserve what we have rather than expanding too fast.

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  73. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Michael Reynolds: My point is that the trans thing has been going on a lot longer than that. For instance, Wendy Carlos and Renee Richards. What did push it into the political sphere in your calculation?

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  74. CSK says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    Don’t forget Christine Jorgenson.

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  75. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Is it bad that I saw this headline and said to myself “Whew, this one will go nuclear in about 30 seconds. Get popcorn”.

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  76. senyordave says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: In the Court, I would note, not at the ballot box.
    And if it went to the Supreme court today there is almost no chance we would have gay marriage. Gay rights pretty much stopped bring a wedge issue after that, aided by the fact that some GOP politicians (Rob Portman, e.g.) found that it affected a family member, which triggered him going from an opponent to supporter since someone who mattered was involved.
    IMO in the short run the country is fucked because we are a recession away from total GOP control.

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  77. Ken_L says:

    Drum ties himself in knots by confusing ordinary political issues – immigration, taxes, gun laws – with manufactured ‘culture war’ conflicts, and then throws in religion for good measure, as if that attracts mutually exclusive ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ attitudes. Moreover his attempt to support his argument with quantitative data fails badly. From 2004 to 2017, liberals moved from 4 to 2 on the ‘consistently liberal’ scale, while conservatives became more consistently conservative by moving from 4.8 to 6.5. A difference of 2 v 1.7 is hardly enough to justify a sweeping meta-theory about liberals being to blame for culture wars.

    His thesis lacks historical context. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, progressives were far more ‘extreme’ than they are today, yet Democrats controlled Congress for most of that period. In short, the data simply don’t support his argument. It’s almost certainly a case of a man convinced Democrats ought to be more ‘moderate’, looking for ammunition to substantiate his gut feeling and not finding it.

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  78. James Joyner says:

    @Ken_L:

    Back in the 1960s and ’70s, progressives were far more ‘extreme’ than they are today, yet Democrats controlled Congress for most of that period.

    Yes, but that goes to a point I make in the OP and that others have made in the thread: not the same Democrats. That is, this was still the point where most of the South was still a one-party, Democratic state. Hell, Richard Shelby was elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1986. (Which is also why “bipartisanship” was more of a thing in those days. A good half of Congressional Democrats were essentially Republicans and a good quarter of Congressiional Republicans were essentially Democrats.)

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  79. George says:

    @Scott F.:

    I get you point, but the problem is that there aren’t just two major sides to voting in the United States, there are actually three sides that together make up the majority of potential voters — Democrats, Republicans, and non-voters. And of the three, the non-voters (at about 40% of potential voters) are the largest group.

    From what I’ve read 95% of people vote for the same party in every election, and don’t follow politics any more than they follow science (I’d argue that science has a bigger effect on their lives than politics, just by comparing what life was like in say 1000 AD and today, but that’s a side-issue). They just vote the way they always vote, and their votes simply aren’t in play.

    So the biggest possible area of growth for the Democrats (and as an outsider I’d say its the closest to sane party you have) is non-voters, and the question becomes what will get say 10% of them out to vote. I’ve no idea, but its interesting that no party seems to target them at all, preferring instead to motivate its own voters while trying to avoid motivating the opposition voters.

    Most non-voters (again, its 40% of the population) probably don’t care about culture war or even policies (any more than they care about quantum mechanics or the theory of evolution), possibly because they think that they’ll get shit on no matter who wins — they tend to be poor, and class has become a non-issue (or at least a tertiary issue) in American politics.

    For instance, how in the world could universal healthcare not have been a driving issue in the 2020 election? In any other western nation even the most conservatives feel public health care is a basic right, yet even the Democrats don’t push it.

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  80. Lounsbury says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I believe Mr Drum had indeed a post highlighting, who was it, one of the Sages of the Democrats on the adoption of a rather academic egg-head approach to the issues, including academic language that is at once off-putting to the less educated and less accessible. A similar observation then to your treating the political problem and communication as a seminar….

    @Michael Reynolds: Well there you go, cast out…. as if refuting your obs…

    @HarvardLaw92: No but maybe I can distract by attracting collective ire – the annoying foreigner is useful as a rallying target after all.

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  81. Ken_L says:

    @George: 40% of Americans aren’t poor. I suspect most of the non-voters aren’t disengaged “because they think that they’ll get shit on no matter who wins”, but because they believe, usually correctly, that their lives won’t change no matter who wins. Voting in America seems to be regarded as something of a challenge test, designed to deter all but the truly motivated. Plus with federal elections every two years, special elections, primary elections, state and local elections, occasional run-offs and God knows what else, it’s easy to understand why so many people say to hell with the whole process.

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