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Barack Obama brings truce in culture war
Republicans are discovering that 'god, guns and gays' no longer fire up voters worried about keeping their homes and jobs
* Paul Harris, New York
* The Observer, Sunday 12 April 2009
For decades, the "three Gs" have been a defining feature of the American political landscape. Guns, God and gays have been reliable hot-button issues constantly used to fire up Republicans and lambast Democrats.
But there are signs of a fundamental shift away from the so-called "culture wars" that have raged across American public life since at least the 1970s. In his first two months in office, Barack Obama has moved forward on a series of controversial issues yet his popularity has barely suffered.
The president has taken a stand against anti-abortion rules in clinics and legalised funding for stem cell research. He has praised Islam and Iran on his recent overseas trip and held a Passover ceremony in the White House. Meanwhile, a series of states, including Iowa, deep in the American heartland, have legalised gay marriage and more are expected to follow suit.
Yet, for all the sound and fury this has prompted on the extreme right, Obama remains a popular president. That has led some to wonder if the culture wars are finally losing some of their power. "People are tired of this. A lot of them are thinking: let's move on," said Professor Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside.
Certainly that has been Obama's strategy. His public stance has been one of reaching out to Republicans on major legislation. Such moves have often been rebuffed, but even so he went as far as keeping George Bush's defence secretary, Robert Gates, at the Pentagon. In one recent poll, Obama - though still unpopular with Republicans - saw his approval rating tick up from 59% to 61%. Another had it attaining a healthy 66%.
Experts believe the economic crisis is largely responsible for the failure of Republicans to make any headway by trying to attack using the "three Gs". In tough times, fear of losing one's job and home far outweighs the cultural issues that have previously dominated US politics. Americans are just too afraid of the collapsing economy to pay much attention to things that have no material impact on them. "When you are losing your home, what do you care if two guys in Iowa can now wear a frock and get married?" said Bowler.
There other things going on, too, beyond the simple fact of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Many believe there is a generational shift going on in America, as young voters come of age having grown up more tolerant of issues such as homosexuality and gay marriage. For these voters the culture wars seem a relic of the past. There is also a slight slip in the number of Americans identifying themselves as Christian, down 10 points over the past 20 years. "There is some generational change, especially in Christian conservative circles. That perhaps is contributing to the diminution [of the culture wars]," said Corwin Smidt, an expert on religion in politics at Calvin University and author of the book Religion and the Culture Wars
Even in many religious circles - and these include the powerful evangelical movement - there is a growing engagement with other issues such as the environment, aid to the developing world and combating HIV. Obama has actively cultivated his own religious image and courted powerful evangelical leaders such as Pastor Rick Warren, who spoke at the president's inauguration. The decision to court Warren's approval outraged many gay activists, but Obama's team ignored their protests in favour of carving out the middle ground.
Yet a powerful wing of the Republican party refuses to let go of the culture wars. Led by right-wing media figures such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, they have sought to portray Obama as a socialist-in-waiting and a threat to US democracy. They have painted him as pro-gay, anti-religious and anti-American.
One Republican congresswoman, Michele Bachmann from Minnesota, even claimed last week that Obama planned to set up "re-education camps" for young Americans to be brainwashed in political correctness. But the impact of such extreme talk appears to have had little effect on ordinary Americans and served only to inflame conservatives who were already anti-Obama. Indeed, much of it has become fodder for jokes on late-night TV chat shows rather than serious political debate.
Against a background of moderate Democratic moves, such as deciding not to move forward on anti-gun legislation, the Republican party seems to be moving further to the right at a time when the American public rewards those politicians who play to the centre. Increasingly the party is seen as retreating to its core support of white southerners, which few experts see as a path to power. "In the future, they will need to expand their base in some form," said Smidt.
The move towards moderation and toleration in the era of Obama seems to have been typified by Iowa. The fact that the farm-belt state, often cited as an example of "heartland values", has moved forward on gay marriage is regarded as a sign that the culture wars' fire and fury is abating.
Certainly Steven Thrasher, a gay writer based in New York, sees it that way. "A lot of people found that the reaction to this happening in Iowa was minimal. Their bluff was being called," he said. Iowa's move was doubly poignant for him as the child of a biracial couple who married in Iowa in 1958 because the state allowed such unions at a time when many others would not.
"One hopes that some day, throughout the nation, gay marriages, like my parents' union, will just be seen as marriages," he said.
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