Republicans Need to Find a New Culture War to Fight

News & Politics

While Antonin Scalia's dissents in last week's two blockbuster cases were full of his usual colorful bombast (I can't wait to respond to a line of baloney someone gives me with "That, sir, is pure applesauce!"), there was one line that stuck out for me. In Obergefell v. Hodges, the gay marriage case, Scalia aimed his withering contempt at Anthony Kennedy's assertion in the majority opinion that two people can find "other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality" in the bond of marriage. "Really?" Scalia wrote. "Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality (whatever that means) were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie."

And while you're at it, tell those flapper dames to stop showing so much ankle! One can't help but wonder where Scalia is encountering hippies these days, since, as he may or may not be aware, it's 2015.

All of us are to at least some degree stuck in the world that existed when we were coming of age, whether it's the music that we love or the conflicts that shaped our perspective on the world. Antonin Scalia isn't quite a child of the '60s—he was 33 years old when all those longhairs and their tantalizingly open-minded girlfriends descended on Woodstock in 1969—but like millions of his ideological compatriots, his outlook seems to be locked in that tumultuous era when the hippies and the squares faced off across the cultural divide.

You don't have to look far to find the Republican baby boomers who still rule the party and the wider conservative movement, whether it's the politicians who lead it in Congress or the media figures like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh who man conservatism's battlements. Even if the current GOP presidential field has a healthy complement of Gen X-ers (four of the candidates are in their 40s), it's a party that in many ways is still caught in the conflicts of the '60s, holding the line for the forces of responsibility and uprightness against the unruly advocates of freethinking. The problem Republicans face is that while culture war politics worked in their favor for decades, shaking your fist at hippies is now about the last thing likely to get you to a governing majority.

Of course, there are many ways to think of the culture war—any issue that gets to the heart of people's identity and serves to define the borders between "us" and "them" can be considered part of it. But that doesn't include everything. A few years back, Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, attempted to convince Americans that the old culture war was dead, and the new culture war would be over economics. It was a fundamentally silly idea and it never caught on, but the culture war nevertheless has many faces.

And despite the hopes of some conservatives that Obergefell v. Hodges will be the next Roe v. Wade, a Supreme Court decision that doesn't settle the issue but lets it continue to burn on essentially forever, I'm pretty certain they'll be disappointed. It isn't just that public opinion has shifted dramatically on gay marriage, while opinions on abortion have been essentially unchanged for 40 years. More important, the right's arguments on gay marriage are based on absurd predictions about the future that even conservatives themselves realize won't arrive. Gay people in places like Iowa have been getting married for years, and society has remained intact. Even now that they're doing it in Texas and Alabama, the effect on straight people's marriages will be...nothing much. The need to do something about gay marriage will begin to seem less and less urgent to Republicans, especially given what a political loser the issue is for them.

You can already see it in the way the Republican presidential candidates reacted to the Supreme Court's decision—most of them made boilerplate comments about "judicial restraint," but only the fringe candidates showed any passion about it. "I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch," said Mike Huckabee, while Rick Santorum said that Justice Kennedy was singlehandedly "potentially disrupting the foundation of the world" (so if you're a hostile alien species considering an attack on Planet Earth, this might be a good time).

The very fact that those culture warrior candidates are indeed so far on the fringe shows that this is a time of transition for Republicans and for the culture war itself. Yes, conservative radio hosts will still lament the descent of America toward its appallingly libertine future, where before you know it, it will be legal for a man to marry his dog and a fish to marry a toaster. And while there are other battles to fight on the issue of gay rights, like discrimination in housing and unemployment, it will likely move away from the culture war's white-hot center.

But other issues will replace it, issues like immigration. As always, older conservatives will decry the changes to American society wrought by those who don't look like them or think like them, and liberals will tell them to embrace social change or be left behind. The culture war will never be over, because society will always change, and there will always be those who want to keep things as they are—or as they were, back in their day.

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