When we come across references to “culture war,” most of us–whatever our political orientation– immediately think of issues raised by the political right. (I tend to envision the fundamentalist Christian Right.) However we picture the culture warriors, the battles being fought are almost always focused on so-called “family values” (women’s reproductive autonomy, homosexuality, etc.) and a “law and order patriotism” that is performative and superficial–a stubborn “my country right or wrong” approach. Plus, of course, a generous dollop of racism/White Supremacy.
Jennifer Rubin deconstructs those issues in a recent column for the Washington Post.
Republican cultural memes are galling. The GOP has made a national issue out of something that does not exist: teaching critical race theory in public schools. Republicans claim to be on the side of the police and the military, but members of the MAGA cohort have regularly scorned Capitol and D.C. police officers who defended them on Jan. 6, smeared the military as “woke,” and even called the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, a “pig” and “stupid.” Republicans claim to be “real” Americans but make traitors (e.g., Confederate generals, Ashli Babbitt) into martyrs.
But Rubin goes beyond a critique of these Rightwing tropes, arguing that a neglect to respond to Republican demagoguery and descent into anti-American authoritarianism equates to a failure to defend the ideal of multiracial democracy. She wants to see the rest of us move to reset and redefine America’s culture war.
Rubin wants Democrats, especially, to “flip the script”– to campaign on “democratic values,” and to point out that Republicans have become a party defending violent thugs and traitors.
Democrats defend the Constitution, which conservative “originalists” used to claim as their own, while Republicans support the man who sought to overturn the election (“just say the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me” he told the Justice Department, seeking pretext for his Jan. 6 gambit).
Her basic charge (which is accurate) is that Republicans who continue to echo Trump’s “big lie” or who voted not to certify election results, or who pretend that January 6th was not an insurrection, are behaving in ways that are anti-American.
Whose side was my opponent on? Why wouldn’t he/she vote to investigate the worst domestic terrorist attack in decades? Republicans have never been shy about challenging Democrats’ patriotism, and here Democrats actually have grounds to call out Republicans for refusing to both defend the Constitution and respect the votes of their own constituents. Democrats should also challenge their opponents to pledge to accept election results even if they lose and denounce any threat of violence to overturn the will of voters.
In a paragraph that really resonated with me, Rubin also advocated for policies to shore up civic knowledge. She suggests the establishment of a “democracy corps” that would pay young people “to set up civics programs, teach media literacy, serve as poll workers and engage in other pro-democracy activities.” She urges Democrats running for state and local office to endorse mandates for civics instruction in grades K-12. And she quite properly advises them to call out the racists and crackpots trying to get schoolteachers to stop teaching about the Ku Klux Klan and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The bottom line–as Rubin obviously recognizes–is the danger in allowing the Right to define the terms of America’s culture wars. There’s an old saying among lawyers to the effect that “he who frames the issue wins the debate.” Those of us who reject the Right’s stance on its issues do so because we understand their positions to be contrary to what this country and its constitution are all about–in a word, we find the misogyny, racism, homophobia and the rest to be profoundly anti-American.
Rubin is absolutely right when she argues that we need to do more than just reject that anti-Americanism. We need to wage our own culture war on behalf of the democratic norms and equal civic status required by the Americanism we embrace.
Those of us who recognize and accept the American Idea need to enlist–it’s a war worth fighting.