After 20 or 30 years, the American culture wars are winding down. The Republican Party is gradually recognizing this reality.
Though activists who draw their influence, and often their livelihood, from the cultural divide will hasten to disagree, the battles over abortion and gay marriage, the two most contentious social issues, are largely over. On same-sex unions, the marriage rights side has clearly won, while the controversy over abortion has settled into a stalemate.
It would not come as a shock to anyone if the Supreme Court were to rule, perhaps as early as next year, that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry. Even if the high court did not intervene, it would still be just a matter of time (my guess is a decade, give or take a few years) before there would be near-universal recognition of same-sex marriages in this country. The alternative, of having countless couples considered married in some places and for some purposes and unmarried in other places and for other purposes, is just unworkable, whatever one thinks of the underlying issues. Gay marriage is here to stay. Depending on your point of view, you should either rejoice or just get used to it.
There is no such emerging settlement of the abortion debate. More than 40 years after Roe v. Wade, public opinion is as divided as ever. While activists take largely all-or-nothing positions, most polls show a large array of opinions between the two extremes.
Since Ronald Reagan, the GOP has staked out a position on both issues that boiled down to “no,” as in no abortion in most circumstances and no gay marriage. This was politically viable only as long as most people considered “no” to be a suitable answer on gay marriage and only in places where anti-abortion positions are not politically suicidal on their face. And even in such places, the GOP’s abortion position did not ensure success. Anti-abortion Democrats have been running and winning in socially conservative districts ever since Roe came down. They are not the most popular members of their party, but they are not pariahs either. On the Republican side, though, pro-choice candidates have been a nearly vanished breed since Reagan was in office.
Things are changing, however, if only because the GOP must change if it is to remain a nationally competitive party.
Nevada Republicans voted at their recent convention to stop opposing same-sex marriage. The Log Cabin Republicans, a group that has long advocated on behalf of gay conservatives and their allies, hailed the decision. Ed Williams, the president of the Log Cabin Republicans of Nevada, said, “The state party has made it clear that they want a ‘bigger tent’ and has welcomed us into it.”
On the other hand, the Massachusetts GOP recently voted to retain its more conservative stances on same-sex marriage and abortion, leading congressional candidate Richard Tisei, who is openly gay, to boycott his own party’s convention. Progress is not a one-way street. Note, however, that Tisei is an openly gay Republican candidate for office. That fact alone would have raised eyebrows not long ago.
While anti-marriage equality sentiment remains high among older, core Republican voters, more than half of Republicans under age 30 support it, making the shift from opposition to acceptance a simple matter of time. A number of prominent Republicans have already come out in favor of same-sex marriage. Even Republicans who are not ready or willing to support marriage equality outright increasingly seem to prefer to shift the conversation away from the issue.
It is less clear that Republicans are organizationally prepared to accommodate a wider range of views on reproductive rights. Most Republicans who want to win in moderate to liberal districts simply downplay their positions on abortion. This probably accounts in no small degree for the GOP’s continuing failure to attract votes from people who might have to make such a decision about their own bodies one day. In the 2012 election, 55 percent of female voters favored Obama over Mitt Romney. (Tone-deaf comments about birth control, like those made by Mike Huckabee a few months ago, probably aren’t helping either.)
Unlike gay marriage, however, abortion is not an issue in which demographics would doom the GOP if the party refused to accommodate a wider range of views. Attitudes toward reproductive rights issues show remarkably little difference among age groups, particularly between millennials and their baby-boomer parents. In a study published last year, respondents ages 18 to 34 showed slightly less support than those ages 50 to 64 for a woman’s absolute right to choose an abortion for any reason. (Respondents ages 35 to 49 skewed higher than either of the previous groups, and respondents 65 and over skewed lower than either, but the margins were not large.) Unlike same-sex marriage, opinions on reproductive rights have not shown a nationwide change over time.
These two issues are hardly the only social policy hurdles the Republican Party faces. Thinly veiled xenophobia among some elements of the party (though not all) runs counter to the GOP’s larger tradition favoring the free movement of capital - which should include human capital, via immigration reform. A more welcoming approach toward immigration would help the GOP promote a pro-growth, pro-opportunity agenda that would appeal to voters far beyond the private-club set.
As social issues fade into the background, the GOP’s prospects hinge on forging a unified message about where the party wants to take America in the 21st century. It is not enough to simply attack irresponsible spending, redistributive taxation and malignant neglect of entitlements as Democratic policies that voters should reject, even if those things are patently true. In order to win elections, the GOP will need to offer solutions to issue voters genuinely care about. Talking about those issues, rather than social questions that voters have largely decided for themselves, is a good place to start.