New York Times Opinion | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Pat Buchanan famously declared that American politics had become a “cultural war.” In the years since, social issues and identities have become more important in dividing Democrats from Republicans.
Traditionally, the two parties fought mostly over economics. But now cultural issues like abortion and gun control divide Americans more sharply along regional lines than economic policies. One impact of the rise of the culture war in the 1990s was to reorder the popular coalitions of the parties — for example, by attracting evangelical Protestants to the Republicans while propelling secular voters toward the Democrats. This also redefined their geographic constituencies.
But while it has been fueled by widening divisions over social issues within the American electorate, this regional realignment has left a much larger imprint on the direction of federal economic policy than on the nation’s prevailing cultural zeitgeist.
You might say that the winner of the culture wars is neither Democrats nor Republicans. In legislative terms, American corporations have claimed the biggest victories so far.
The growing sectional divide — the coasts and a handful of Midwestern and Mountain West states vote blue, while voters in the culturally conservative heartland of the South and interior West largely vote red — is magnified by winner-take-all electoral rules that concentrate representation in the hands of local partisan majorities. The Alabama Senate race was an exception, but this largely produces a stable arrangement of “red” and “blue” states and districts that seldom deviate from their normal partisan alignments regardless of the individual candidates seeking office.
On balance, the trend of rising geographic polarization has worked to the advantage of Republicans in both houses of Congress. The Republican Party has captured more seats in culturally conservative red America than it has relinquished in culturally liberal blue America, allowing it to control at least one legislative chamber in all but four years since 1994 after six decades of near-permanent minority status.
Senate Republicans especially benefit from the equal representation of thinly populated states in the nation’s midsection, which once regularly elected moderate Democrats like Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Max Baucus of Montana but increasingly favor Republicans in congressional races. Red states now substantially outnumber blue states; in the 2016 election, Donald Trump carried 30 states to Hillary Clinton’s 20 despite his loss in the national popular vote, while the outcome of every Senate race matched the state presidential result — a foreboding sign for the future fortunes of Senate Democrats.
The contemporary geographic coalitions of the parties primarily reflect the nation’s roiling cultural conflicts, but the representatives chosen via today’s electoral map are equally polarized over economic policies — and it is pocketbook issues, not social matters, that dominate the business of Congress. Increasingly unfettered by a declining bloc of dissident party moderates from the Northeast and Pacific Coast, ascendant red-state Republicans have prioritized an ambitious conservative economic agenda encompassing regulatory rollbacks, repeal of the Affordable Care Act and substantial cuts to federal taxes — like the tax bill passed last week — and entitlement programs. Departures from this small-government approach, such as the No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D programs enacted during the George W. Bush presidency, have fallen out of fashion among post-Tea Party Republican leaders increasingly devoted to the pursuit of ideological purity.
Political analysts often argue that the rise of the culture war has had an acrimonious effect on American politics by expanding the battlefield of partisan disagreement to include a set of policies that provoke moral fervor, like abortion and gay rights, or activate fundamental personal identities such as religion and ethnicity. These divisions, they suggest, do not lend themselves to negotiation and compromise as readily as differences over economics, where horse-trading and difference-splitting are more feasible solutions.
But the growth of cultural conflict has polarized Democratic and Republican politicians on economic issues as well, by providing the two parties with increasingly distinct and insulated electoral constituencies, and bitter debates over health care and tax reform have generated just as much partisan rancor in the current Congress as any other policy domain.
The numerous Republican victories in congressional elections during the past 25 years have not managed to prevent the cultural change that has occurred over the same period, from declining religious observance and increasing support for same-sex marriage to the decriminalization of marijuana and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Cultural conservatism remains essential to defining the Republican Party’s regional base, but its substantive fruits can be found more in the implementation of conservative economic measures than in the repeal of liberal social policies or reversal of leftward social trends.
Despite a 2016 campaign waged largely on cultural themes, the Republican tax bill represents the biggest legislative accomplishment of the current Congress — and, quite possibly, of the entire Trump administration. Though Mr. Trump once presented himself as a populist enemy of Wall Street, and though many corporations have come to adopt liberal positions on issues like immigration, gay rights and affirmative action, big business and wealthy individuals stand to benefit the most from tax cuts approved by congressional majorities elected on the basis of right-of-center cultural views.
That is why the true winner of today’s culture war is corporate America.