How Obama is turning the culture war against the Right

For going on 30 years, our friends on the Right have used the "culture wars" to maintain a death grip on the levers of government, both nationally and in the more regressive states. "God, guns, and gays" was the battle cry of the Right as they methodically seized the reins of power in the Republican Party, turning a center-right party into one that is now purely reactionary.

It has been, up to now, a successful strategy, if one looks only at the exercise of power. Of course, the backers of the modern GOP—the famous denizens of the 1%—for the most part don't care about the passions of the radical Right base. Most of them are in it solely to protect their prerogatives. But there just aren't enough of them to affect electoral politics, regardless of their wealth. They need shock troops, and the main mobilizing tool which the Right has employed has been the cultural backlash against the advances of the 1960s.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: the country kept changing. And it kept changing in ways that the right-wing culture warriors despised. Ronald Reagan promised them the nirvana of making abortion illegal via a constitutional amendment; there is no amendment, none will be forthcoming, and the "pro-life" faction is having to fight a ground war in every state. In some cases—notably the GOP base in the South—they've had some success, especially since 2010. But 2010 was a one-off, a case of an expected backlash against the changes President Obama was pushing through leading to an electoral victory for the Right which, given the country's changing demographics and the Democrats' building strength, was its swan song. Abortion rights might ebb and flow across the Deep South and the farm belt; but they're not going to be done away with by that talisman of an amendment to the Constitution.

The country kept changing. If you had told me ten years ago that eight states of the Union would have legalized same sex marriages, I would have scoffed. And yet here we are, with Illinois next on the list—even the GOP leader of the Legislature is in favor. And Obama deftly handled his own "conversion". When Joe Biden supposedly spoke "out of turn", every political pundit expected Obama to slap him down. Of course, for that to have happened, one has to believe that Biden was running loose out in the wild. After observing this Administration in action, I find that hard to believe. It just seemed too well orchestrated to have been merely another of Biden's gaffes. And in swoops Obama, declaring that discrimination against a loving couple is un-American, and that gays should have the same marriage rights as straight couples. In swoops Obama, and refuses to defend DOMA. In swoops Obama, with his support of gay marriage rights, and suddenly a political topic which at best drew 50% support, became an issue of justice; when viewed through that lens, support for gay marriage became a majority position. The "gay" leg of the culture warriors suddenly fell out from under them; they were no longer in the majority, and were looked at as being nothing but bigots—and deranged bigots at that, warning that legalizing same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy and bestiality. Obama put the Right and its political servants in the GOP on the side of discriminating against friends, family, neighbors. In a country which was constantly progressing on issues of social justice, that was a losing position to which to adhere.

The country kept changing, through tragedy. Obama was castigated during the 2008 campaign for his "clinging to guns and religion" comment. And like many Presidents before him, he didn't spend much time on gun control. But in his first term, we were treated to a regular litany of mass shootings, each deadlier than the one before, finally culminating in Newtown. In certain sections of the country, getting an A rating from the NRA is one of the cornerstones of electoral success. But Newtown changed all that. What was a sacrosanct right—the only one of the Bill of Rights which was immune to common sense regulation due to the efforts of the gun lobby—suddenly began to be seen as a danger to our inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Even those who had been Second Amendment absolutists began to question their positions. It's a sad truism that it often takes a tragedy to reconsider tough political questions. Many on the Left were convinced that Obama would punt on the issue, or offer weak palliatives; instead, he put forth the most sweeping gun regulations since the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. And he put the power and prestige of his office behind them. He didn't do this because it was the politically expedient thing to do; he did it because justice demanded it. But, as a corollary, a nation sick of gun violence is now questioning the "guns" part of the Right's culture war arsenal. Owning a firearm is no longer a right to be untouched by regulation, but one that must bend to the rights of other citizens to not live in fear of violence made easier and more deadly by the wide availability of guns. A majority of the country backs the President's proposals. And the GOP, for the most part, is going on record as being for the gun manufacturers and against the safety of school children.

As for God? That may have been the first of the Right's weapons which was neutralized. No one can look at Barack Obama and say that he's not a man of faith. Not only is he a man of faith, but that faith informs his sense of justice. That faith makes the Right's talk about God a pale, mean-spirited theology. When the Right talks about God, it talks about a God of punishment and retribution. When Obama talks about God, he speaks of a God of love, of justice, of caring. The God who urges him on is a God who wants us all to care for each other. He is the God who insists that when you care for the least of your fellow humans, you are caring for him. Most people who believe in God hold to that vision of him. Even those of us who don't believe in God for the most part believe in that sense of service and justice. Merely by being who he is, Obama has robbed the Right of exclusive claim to the definition of God. 

The culture wars are ongoing. But now they're being fought on terrain much more favorable to us. What was always a strength of the Right has been deftly turned against it, partly through their own hubris, partly through the tragedies which afflict the world. Much like Pyrrhic victory of 2010, the early victories the Right achieved through the culture wars are starting to turn to ash. Victory isn't ours yet; but it's coming, if we keep pressing the advantage.