One bit from the great satirical newspaper-turned-website The Onion that has stayed with me more than any other is searingly funny, of course, but also the best-ever summary of the ugly turn that American politics has taken over the last 40 years. In its 1999 send-up of 100 years of mock front pages called “Our Dumb Century,” a 1980 election shtick involved an infographic comparing the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan campaigns. Carter’s large-type campaign slogan: “Let’s Talk Better Mileage.” Reagan’s: “Kill The Bastards.”
In 2021, Biden-era Democrats like Terry McAuliffe, the party’s tired retread for governor in Virginia, literally tried to talk better mileage with the voters as their climate change and fix-road-and-bridges promises slowly ground through the sausage maker on Capitol Hill. Over the western mountains and at the edge of suburban sprawl in the Old Dominion State, angry voters searching for their pitchforks after imbibing days of propaganda about what their kids are taught about racism didn’t want to hear about fuel efficiency. They were out for blood.
Just like Reagan in 1980, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s “Kill the Bastards” message carried the day in a state that had seemed to be trending Democratic blue for much of the 2010s. Once again, the Democrats showed up to a culture war gunfight brandishing a 2,000-page piece of legislation.
But if the green tree of universal pre-kindergarten and extended child tax credits falls in a rural community like isolated Bath County, Virginia, will it even make a sound? The New York Times — in the 367th installment of its long-running series “Trump Diners, Trump Drive-ins and Trump Dives” — sent two reporters up into the Allegheny Mountains. There, Bidenomics — like the $1,400 check most voters got this spring or the historic drop in child poverty — was on the minds of absolutely no one in a county that voted harder for Youngkin than for Donald Trump in 2020, and where off-year voter turnout was high.
Hardware store owner Elaine Neff, 61 — whose place of business is adorned with posters depicting Trump as Rambo and the Terminator, and who was in D.C. during the Jan. 6 insurrection — hailed Youngkin’s win because the coronavirus vaccine is “a poison” and because she believed Democrats had planned extermination camps for Trump supporters. Charles Hamilton, a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran, said his Youngkin vote was really to show support for Trump and his desire to get Biden and “that woman” out of the White House — boasting, “We’re a county of old country folk who want to do what they want.” Somehow, I don’t think Neff or Hamilton were waiting to see if Democrats passed paid family leave before voting on Tuesday.
Look, here’s the thing about the election. Arguably, it wasn’t the bloodbath for Democrats that the Beltway media portrayed it as. Sure, New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s race was close, but historically the GOP had always won New Jersey when there’s a new Democrat in the White House. And a slew of new progressive mayors in cities like Boston and Pittsburgh or even little Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, remind us that America in the 2020s is a complicated place. But it’s also true that the historical trends — angry passion from voters whose party just lost the presidency, apathy from the party in power — are in play headed into 2022′s midterms. That trend line — coupled with the GOP’s gerrymandering edge — suggests a big Republican House majority in 2023.
The Republicans’ culture war strategy is winning. That doesn’t mean Democrats shouldn’t pass bills like the transformational yet horribly named and marketed $175 billion-a-year “Build Back Better.” They should. Actual, mature governing is a key part of a strategic message for Democrats, and it excites some voting blocs — just not the one that the party has been unsuccessfully trying to woo back since that Reagan win in 1980, the white working class.
The Democrats will lose the culture war if they’re too aloof to even bother to fight it, and if they lose the culture war, they will lose the elections in 2022 and 2024, and it will take a long time to recover. The party that should be dominating in a nation that broadly supports its center-left policies needs to acknowledge that there is a liberal culture, that it’s baked into the soul of what makes America America, and they are in the fight of a lifetime to save it.
The Democrats need to fight a culture war — more than anything else — over voting rights, to make the argument that the red state wave of Republican voter suppression laws is a profoundly un-American activity, and that Democrats are the spiritual heirs to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Selma-to-Montgomery march, and thus the protectors of an expansive vision for democracy that works for all citizens. To do that, Team Biden needs to make clear — starting with an Oval Office address — that voting rights is his No. 1 priority, and that he will use every tool in his White House bag of tricks to force at least a carve-out of the wretched filibuster to clear the way for game-changing bills like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
The Democrats need to fight a culture war over book banning — to stop playing rope-a-dope on the bogus “critical race theory” issue and fight for academic freedom and open expression. They need to put Republicans from Virginia — where Youngkin won with an attack ad on Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” — to Texas, where American jihadists have targeted some 850 titles in school libraries — on the defensive for the book-burning mindset that our anti-fascist grandfathers fought on the shores of Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge.
The Democrats need to fight a culture war over science — to make their voters as passionate about defending the core values of inquiry and knowledge that led to the COVID-19 vaccine and our understanding of what will be needed to roll back climate change in the same way that the far right and its Facebook-fried (excuse me, Meta-fried) misinformation have fired up the right over pandemic denial and fossil fuel addiction.
The Democrats need to fight a culture war over education — to remind parents that the real fight for the future of our children is not whether we can keep denying critical parts of American history but whether we’re providing any civics education at all to our kids, and whether we can offer our young people access to the kinds of higher education that’s out of reach for far too many. There needs to be a new push to revive free community college, and Biden needs to remember his campaign promise to address student debt in a big way.
I know it’s Political Punditry 101 to decry the tribalism in modern American politics, but that feels ridiculous when the Republican tribe has made it clear it will never disarm. It’s much better for the Democrats to proclaim that they, too, are a tribe — and that its tribal values of expanding democracy and citizenship rights, valuing objective learning and knowledge, and addressing problems with actual governing are the truest American values.
This will probably not gain the Democrats more than one or two votes in Bath County, because those votes are simply not there for the getting. Nor should they be, if the county’s voters are wedded to such antithetical values. But the Democrats lost an incalculable number of votes Nov. 2 — and they’re on track to do so in 2022 — by failing to convince their core constituencies they’re fighting for their culture. What are Black and brown voters supposed to think when they see a party fight harder over property taxes in Silicon Valley or the Upper West Side than against voter suppression? What are 18- to 29-year-old voters supposed to think when West Virginia coal millionaire Joe Manchin is making climate policy?
These voters will turn out to fight for their culture — if they are called upon — because we’ve seen it happen before. Young folks and Black and brown voters turned out for Biden in 2020 less because his platform called for expanding child care and more because he pledged to fight for “the soul of America” against Trumpism. Democrats can bring these voters back next year by reminding decent, democracy-loving Americans that their party is the thin blue line between them and book burning, a culture of ignorance, and the end of free and fair elections. That would mean an end to watching the culture war from the sidelines. It means actually fighting to win — and to kill all the bastardization of real American values.
Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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