A tectonic shift is in process in American politics, and while individual incidents occasionally draw attention, the larger continental drift is usually not in focus. Because Democrats have started winning the so-called "culture wars."
The culture wars (at least, the modern incantation of them) began roughly in the 1980s, with the rise of the Religious Right (or the Moral Majority, as they liked to call themselves back then). Since then, sometimes the battles are fought out in the open, and sometimes there is a lull in the fighting; but over and over again Republicans (mostly successfully) used "wedge issues" to divide the Democratic rank-and-file, and thereby win elections.
"Culture war" is a polite way of saying "war over sex," of course. The Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s generated a backlash, to put it another way, and we began calling this backlash the "culture wars." But all of these issues had one common thread -- sex. Gays were a big target. So is abortion. And now, increasingly, so is contraception.
Ironically, the culture war news this week has mostly been from a state schoolchildren are taught was named in honor of Queen Elizabeth I -- or, more accurately, named for her sexual proclivity. The "Virgin Queen," in this telling, inspired Sir Walter Raleigh to name his new colony "Virginia." No other United State (unless you count the derivative "West Virginia," which I do not in this instance) can claim to be named after sexual activity, or the lack thereof.
Irony aside, though, the dustup in the Virginia legislature was over a bill which would have mandated that doctors perform a procedure on a woman -- whether she wanted it or not -- which would otherwise fall under the state's definition of "rape." This would be a legally-mandated precursor to getting a legal procedure done -- an abortion.
Then Saturday Night Live got into the act. In a segment titled "REALLY!?! With Seth And Amy" (on their "Weekend Update" fake-news show), former-SNL-regular Amy Poehler ridiculed the procedure in question:
Really. The Virginia House of Representatives this week passed a bill that required women to have a transvaginal ultrasound before having an abortion. Really?? Now, don't get me wrong, I love Transvaginal. It's my favorite airline. Got so many miles on Transvaginal that I always get upgraded to Lady Business.
The spotlight got brighter on Virginia as a result. Their Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, sees a future for himself in national politics, and he realized that this was not the way to draw attention to his state. Just before the bill was set to be voted on (Poehler was wrong: the bill had not yet passed), he publicly withdrew his support for it, issuing a statement:
Mandating an invasive procedure in order to give informed consent is not a proper role for the state. No person should be directed to undergo an invasive procedure by the state, without their consent, as a precondition to another medical procedure.
Well, he almost got it right. That last sentence should not have the word "invasive" in it -- it should read: "No person should be directed to undergo any procedure by the state, without their consent, as a precondition to another medical procedure."
Back to Saturday Night Live, this time Seth Meyers speaking:
But Virginia wasn't done -- they also passed a bill saying life begins at conception. What's next? Life begins at Last Call? Life begins when you click Send on your Match.com profile? I mean, really.
Again, Seth misspoke -- the bill hadn't passed yet. Today's news is that this bill was also put aside by the state legislature, and will not pass this year.
Now, two legislative victories isn't much, in the grand scheme of things. Republicans are busily passing all sorts of laws like these in all sorts of states across the country, below the national media's radar for the most part.
But while they're used to fighting on the abortion battlefield, the real shift in the way the public views the culture wars is on gay rights and contraception. Gay rights -- any gay rights -- used to be a winner for Republicans. Gays in the military, gay teachers in your child's school, gay civil unions -- all were potent issues which got people out to the polls in Republicans' favor. This was all before the Republican culture warriors settled on gay marriage as their prime target. Throughout the past two decades, Republicans would use gay marriage to boost voter turnout, especially in swing states. Democrats have a good shot at winning an election? Run an anti-gay-marriage ballot proposition in response. This worked over and over again to get social conservatives to the polls.
But you know what? The days this tactic will work are numbered. In the first place, you can only pass an anti-gay-marriage law once, since there's no need of another one after you achieve that. The pool of available states to try this tactic shrinks every time one passes, to put it another way. At this point, there simply aren't that many states left where this is even possible any more. In the second place, as the electorate ages, more and more of them grew up with gays being unashamedly and unapologetically prominent in American culture. The ones who grew up with such things never being mentioned are getting older and older, and dying off as a demographic. Nowhere is this seen clearer than the public's approval of the concept of gay marriage -- which now stands at 50 percent among the public at large. That's 50 percent and rising, mind you.
Rather than dividing the Democratic base, as it used to so reliably do, gay marriage now drives younger voters away from the Republican Party. "What's the big deal?" younger voters ask of their elders, and are unsatisfied with the Republican answer to that question. The anti-gay-marriage stance is seen more and more by the public as outdated and mean-spirited discrimination. Eventually, gay marriage proposals are going to become a wedge issue for the Democrats -- because every time it is brought up, Republicans just remind young Americans how out of touch they truly are in today's world. It won't happen overnight, and it won't happen everywhere at once -- but it will happen.
Republicans seem even further out of touch, and further out of date, when the question turns to birth control. The culture war over The Pill was fought in the 1960s, after all, not the 1990s. Republicans are taking a stance which shows how hypocritical their entire party creed truly is: the GOP is against "Big Government" in your life... except when it is Big Government in the same examining room as a woman and her doctor. Read that quote from Virginia's governor again if you don't believe me. He is stating, quite bluntly, that the state can force a (non-invasive) medical procedure even without the patient's consent to obtain another medical procedure she is legally entitled to have performed. That is not just Big Government, that is Big Brother. The Republicans are also fighting for any employer who doesn't agree with birth control to be able to refuse to cover his women employees in their health insurance.
Again, this is going to be a losing issue for Republicans. I've even heard one pundit predict that this election will be known for the "Birth Control Moms" (kin to "Soccer Moms," one assumes). If so, this is very bad news for Republicans. Abortion is one thing -- the American public is used to politicians battling over it. Contraception is quite another. Women who don't usually pay much attention to politics are waking up out there. They are looking at the Republicans waging their culture wars on birth control, and they are not happy about it. Many of them who don't normally bother to vote may make it to the polls this year as a result.
Republicans, for the most part, haven't realized the tectonic shift underway. Every so often one of them (like Virginia's governor) realizes that the Republican Party has gone too far in its overreach. But, in general, the party still believes that fighting these culture wars is a good tactic for them to use. Being known as the Anti-Abortion, Anti-Contraceptive, Anti-Gay-Rights party is just fine with them, in other words. Attempting to legislate morality has worked wonders for them in the past, they figure, and it'll continue to do so in the future.
More power to them. The harder they fight, the more young voters they turn away. In the year 2012, the culture wars may shift in a big way -- to the Democrats' advantage. The more old men from the Republican Party on television screens across America telling women how they should run their sexual lives, the better. Because this time, the culture war strategy may just backfire in a big way.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant