It is possible to shape social change. Will the new president try?
Ever since he announced his presidential candidacy in early 2007, Barack Obama has been promoted as a healer of America's cultural breach. His personal traits and background are depicted as unifying, even inspiring. In the words of Andrew Sullivan, "Obama – and Obama alone – offers the possibility of a truce," referring to Obama's Christian faith and political formation during a time when liberalism was on the ascent.
He is described as taking office at a time when Americans are far less likely to vote on the basis of guns, gays, and God. As Peter Beinart has noted, the economic crisis dominates the concerns of ordinary Americans, while young evangelical Christians are no longer concerned simply about abortion and homosexuality.
Both arguments have appeal. Obama possesses a first-class temperament and fascinating background; he is all but impossible to loathe, a quality which among recent presidents only Reagan and Kennedy can claim. Also, Obama may benefit from an economic slump as did Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s.
But both arguments commit the same intellectual sin: presumption. They presume that to defuse the America's cultural war, Obama can be passive, as if he can be a bystander rather than a diplomat or soldier. To give progressive thinkers credit, Obama does listen to conservatives and choose words not to offend them. But these skills or tactics do not constitute a reform agenda; hardly. Passivity never stilled a war, much less a cultural war.
What can defuse the cultural war is a bold course of action. He would seek to shape events rather than to be at their mercy. To be sure, he would need to recognise that events shape him more than vice versa; believing otherwise would commit the other form of presumption: the individual alone controls reality rather than God. Yet shaping social change can be done. Just take the following three examples.
Abraham Lincoln and slavery: Lincoln helped end the practice partly because his position on it was not only shrewd but also firm. In contrast to his rival Stephen Douglas, who endorsed popular sovereignty as the solution to the slave question, Lincoln opposed slavery's extension. In his first and only term in Congress, Lincoln took a bolder stand, proposing legislation to outlaw slavery in the District of Columbia. Lincoln's position did more than change the stakes of the 1860 election; after Lincoln won, Southern states began seceding from the Union, the precursor to the Civil War and Reconstruction. It also changed the political fate of the nascent Republican Party, which dominated American politics until the 1930s.
Lyndon Johnson and racial apartheid: Johnson helped end legal segregation partly because he took an aggressive stand in favour of civil rights. In contrast to President John Kennedy, who had proposed a civil-rights bill two-and-a-half years into his presidency and failed to lobby for it, Johnson sponsored Kennedy's legislation days after he assumed the presidency and waged an all-out battle in 1964 for the bill, deploying the full gamut of Johnsonian tactics to enact them into law. After one brow-beaten House member got a call from Johnson at 3 in the morning and was asked about his activities, he told the President that he was waiting by the phone to hear from him. A year later, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Johnson's legislative achievements did not help the Democrats politically; as he said in 1965, he was delivering the South to the Republicans for a generation. However, his efforts hurt the party less than is conventionally assumed. If New Politics liberals had not allied the Democratic Party with feminists and college-educated suburbanites, Democrats would have run stronger in the North, especially in working-class and Catholic districts.
Bill Clinton and crime: Clinton didn't help defuse the race issue for Democrats by adopting a passive course of action. Except for his suggestion during his second term that the country engage in a "national conversation" on race, Clinton's deeds were fairly bold. He hired 100,000 police officers, reformed welfare, and authorised funds for destroying high-rise urban housing projects. His accomplishments paid political dividends. Democrats won back the votes of suburbanites who had deserted the party beginning in 1972.
Following in the footsteps of these three presidents can be done. The most important step he could take is to tap a pro-life nominee to the Supreme Court, who if confirmed by the Senate would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, thereby returning the issue of abortion to the states.
This scenario, whatever else might be said of it, would help Democrats politically. Instead of being viewed as the captives of feminist and secular constituencies, the party would have an opportunity to win back religious and white working-class voters. As is, the party cannot reclaim the centre on moral issues. The vast majority of Americans oppose the vast majority of abortions performed that are permitted under Roe and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton. (Although polls show public approval for the high court's 1973 decisions, most Americans think that the rulings are limited to abortion in the "hard" cases of rape, incest, and maternal endangerment rather than the "easy" cases of economic, financial, and psychological circumstance).
A second step Obama could take is to reform his party's presidential nominating process. The current system is un-democratic and elitist: issue activists and college-educated voters dominate caucus states; one-fifth of delegates are appointed rather than elected; and half of all delegates are required to be female, while another 20 to 30 percent must be racial and sexual minorities in order to reflect their ranks in the population. These three facts drive the party to the left in general and on cultural issues specifically. Democratising the system would empower ordinary Democrats, the ones whose votes often decide who is elected president.
Obama has every political reason to undertake these two steps. For the past two generations, Republicans have owned what authors Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg called the Social Issue, a constellation of concerns about crime, social order, and morality, and as a result, have won seven of the last eleven presidential elections. But whether he has the will is doubtful. Obama's commitment to cultural liberalism has been unwavering.
All cultural wars end eventually. If Obama can't or won't, another president will.
Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party (2007, Encounter).