I can’t work out what the culture war means for this election. All this week, I’ve been exploring alternative points of view. As I wrote in the Telegraph, I’m sure it will motivate the conservative base and give Obama trouble. As I wrote for CNN, I suspect most independents and younger Americans will just ignore it. Yesterday forced another rethink. A poll out on Thursday showed that half of Americans oppose the President’s plans to compel Catholic organizations to provide contraception as part of their employees’ health insurance. So does the culture war matter or not?
I think it does, but not in the way that the pundits traditionally think about it. The 2012 culture war isn’t really about culture. It’s about liberty. Culture just happens to be the way that it’s expressed. This is only way of reconciling the paradox that while Americans broadly disagree with the Catholic Church’s position on contraception (which polls suggest that they do by large amounts) they also disagree with Obama’s reforms.
On the one hand, the public’s attitude towards moral and social issues has demonstrably mellowed. Take gay rights. In 1992, 48 percent of Americans thought sexual relations between people of the same gender should be legal. Now it’s 62 percent and, for the first time, a majority of Americans also support same-sex marriage. It’s surely significant that a 2010 poll found that the favorite TV show of Republican voters is Modern Family, which features a gay couple raising a Vietnamese adopted daughter. I would argue that those born after 1975 are part of the Modern Family generation – people who still favor family, stability, self-reliance etc, but who don’t feel that it has to be defined by traditional gender/sexual roles. Whether or not they are right is beside the point: they grew up in a culture that encouraged diversity and doesn’t see alternative lifestyles as a threat.
But that concern for liberty cuts both ways. For, on the other hand, the Modern Family generation doesn’t like it when anyone tries to impose their values on anyone else. That’s what Obama and the Left don’t get about the uproar that accompanied the contraception mandate. One foolish White House aide was heard to remark, “Who are we going to really lose over this? … Catholics who don’t believe in condoms aren’t going to vote for Barack Obama anyway. Let’s get real.” But this isn’t a lifestyle issue – it’s a freedom of conscience issue. Millions of voters aren’t angry at Obama’s support or even promotion of contraception. They are angry at the fact that he tried to compel the Catholic Church to provide it.
That distinction seems to be concomitant with the Tea Party’s ethos. A lot has been written about how the Tea Party is an incubator for religious conservatives – and I am sure this is true. But the movement’s overwhelming opposition to the mandate doesn’t contradict its overall message of liberty, or its earlier insistence that it is uninterested in social issues. That’s because the mandate is a big government issue, yet another example of the federal government going beyond its remit and trying to regulate the very most intimate parts of our lives.
On balance, I’m leaning towards the view that the contraception mandate will be electorally damaging to Obama because it confirms the voters’ impression that he is an arrogant bureaucrat with a penchant for European-style social democracy. That’s why it’s so hard to track precisely the electoral effect of the culture war – for its impact is felt on a largely instinctively level.