Why Leftist Culture Warriors Keep Losing National Elections
…and right-wing ones too often win them.
Let’s begin with some definitions before we go any further.
When we use the term “Culture warrior,” we mean a person who, in the American context, is motivated primarily by social or cultural issues when they vote. They are the people who say abortion, gay marriage, racism, or gender equality are the most important factors when they choose a party or a politician. Those aren’t the only social issues, just popular ones.
They are driven by a need to change American culture through politics. This can mean either resisting social change or pushing it.
Those who resist change, or even want to go backwards, are our social Right. Those who push for change are our social Left.
And going back to 1968, the social Left have lost every election they’ve led.
Let’s examine the evidence.
1968: the social Left capture much of the Democratic Party platform, demanding anti-war, pro-social change planks. Nixon wins 301 electors to Humphrey’s 191.
1972: Rather than adjusting to the ’68 defeat, Democrats go even further left; they place the Equal Rights Amendment at the center of their platform. They are annihilated electorally. Nixon wins 520 electoral votes; the Dems win 17.
1976: Finally learning their lesson, the 1976 platform is heavy on price controls, the economy, and Republican corruption. Jimmy Carter wins with 297 electors.
1980: The 1976 platform remains heavy on economic reform and equality, but outside factors — Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, stagflation, and the charisma of Ronald Reagan — give the election to the Republicans.
1984: While not shifting their focus on the economy, the Democrats decide to nominate Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice presidential candidate in American history. While Ferraro is not much of a culture warrior herself, her selection amplifies the very liberals Reagan has already tarred and feathered politically. Mondale and Ferraro gain little traction: Reagan wins 525 to 13.
1988: The 1988 platform is more socially liberal, with planks that focus on homelessness and the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy. Once more, the Democrats lose, and Bush enjoys a commanding 426 electors.
1992: Bill Clinton’s election has a simple mantra — “It’s the economy, stupid.” In a split field, he takes the White House with 370 electors.
1996: Bill Clinton does not take his eye off the economy in the campaign of that year. He secures the White House with a better margin than in 1992, enjoying 379 electors.
2000: Al Gore and George W. Bush have a neck and neck race over the economy and what the do with what seemed a bright future. Culture factors very little into the conversation. Bush wins via the Supreme Court.
2004: John Kerry hits Bush on Iraq, a non-social issue, but Bush manages to wedge gay marriage into the campaign, winning a decisive victory with 286 electors.
2008: Obama campaigns on economic recovery while avoiding specific talk of cultural change. He takes a supermajority of government and 365 electoral votes.
2012: Obama again campaigns on the economy and his success in restoring it. He defeats Mitt Romney with 332 electoral votes.
2016: Hillary campaigns on experience but also against “deplorable” values of her opposition. She loses the electoral college; Trump gets 304 electors.
So we have a list here. In 1968, ’72, ’84, ’88, and ’16, Democratic platforms — and the conversations that surrounded the party — were captured by the social Left. Each resulted in defeat. Even ’04 was a defeat of the social Left, though that was a case of Bush using culture against Kerry rather than Kerry stepping his foot into the political quicksand that is the cultural Left.
Why is that?
Refer to how to rethink American voters. You don’t win a national election because you get the most votes; you win by grabbing 3 out of 5 of the regional archetypes and at least 2 of the 4 generational archetypes.
And the reality is 3 out of 5 of the regional archetypes an 2 of the 4 generational archetypes don’t respond well when culture changes.
The key qualities we’re looking for is how American voters approach morality and ideology in politics. (Regional and generational archetypes, respectively).
American voters approach morality either dogmatically or spiritually. If they do so dogmatically, it’s based on clear rules, laws, and lines. This is the traditional Catholic approach to Christianity: failure to pray, to confess, to take Confession, are all aspects of a sinner and there makes one not a true Catholic. It doesn’t matter so much what a dogmatic voter believes, but how they believe it. If a dogmatic voter is motivated by racism when they vote, they will have very clear rules on who is and is not a racist. Their worldview will have few, if any, grey areas.
If, on the other hand, they are a spiritual voter, they will approach morality as many Protestant groups do. It’s less about the rules, and more about the relationship between a person and their moral core. Such a person who is motivated by racism is less interested in categorizing who is and is not a racist but by focusing on relationships between people. This will invite debate and plenty of shallow thinking: mysticism tends to do that.
Of the 5 major regions needed to win the United States electoral college, only 2 are dogmatic in approach: the Northeast and Pacific. This is exemplified by the #Oscarsowhite campaign: dogmatics voter were counting how many black people appeared on TV, a tabulation and precise measurement best suited to a dogmatic approach to race. This, of course, spooked the liberal Pacific and Northeastern archetypes nationwide, and because much of the media is dominated by both of those archetypes, their shock sounded very loud.
The other 3 regions — the West, Midwest, and South — are spiritual in nature. For these archetypes, #Oscarsowhite was a flop: what mattered was the relationship between viewers and the movies of that year. Since no movies set out to be racist in 2016, such archetypes found that a lack of black faces during the Oscars was not necessarily indicative of racism.
Thus a motivated, dogmatic group of liberals interested in social change based on their moral compass alienated 3 out of 5 of the critical voting regional archetypes with their hashtag. I’m not saying #Oscarsowhite is what cost Hillary the election: I’m saying that her campaign approached politics like it, with her deplorables comment and her surrogate attacks on Trump as a racist and sexist.
There is a reason agents of social change tend to be dogmatic.
It has everything to do with practicality. If you want to change society, you have to be consistent, organized — and most importantly — clear. Conservatives have an automatic advantage on you: they just have to hold the line or wait for you to make mistakes. They don’t need to explain anything about culture — their rules are already in effect. You’re the one coming up with the new ideas.
A social Left voter seeking change must articulate a vision of a future not yet realized. They can do this one of two ways: the Obama approach or the Hillary approach.
Obama approached social change spiritually with vague promises of a better tomorrow through elevatory language. “We can be better,” he said, without too many steps in between then and now. The 2012 campaign platform did have mention of social Leftist ideals, but they were buried towards the bottom, right above Obama’s plans for foreign policy. (Foreign policy, barring major wars, is the only issue that’s even more alienating to voters in presidential elections than social change, though for different reasons).
But this is a comparatively rare approach to morality for social Liberals. It’s much easier to go the Hillary route, constructing new social norms with clear rules and laws that emphasize that things are suddenly different. This is a dogmatic approach and it will cost a politician a national election. The 2016 platform was much heavier, and more detailed, on social change planks than the 2012 platform. That came through in the media.
Forward to 2020
If Democrats want a winning candidate in 2020, they will need one who approaches morality in politics with a spiritual, rather than dogmatic, attitude. This will not please many of the social Left, who will want clarity and assurances that their ideals will be carried out. But to indulge the dogmatic social Left will almost certainly hand the election to Trump, who will enjoy an incumbent’s advantage.
For example, much of what is written in the Democrat’s 2016 platform from pages 14 to 24 should be stripped, condensed, or rewritten. When the Democrats called to “end systemic racism,” they were using the dogmatic, litmus-tested language of the Northeast. This focused on rules, not on relationships; it doubtless cost critical votes among Midwestern archetypes nationwide. Naming each marginalized group in turn, with specific protections to be applied, was another mistake: to a voter who approaches morality spirituality, this list was notable not just for its exhaustiveness for also for those who were left off it. They saw not equalization but the emergence of a new privileged class based on a list. As this list is dripped into the media, these spiritual voters, few of whom ever bothered to actually read the platform, would see a Democratic Party seeking not equality but to establish new rules they might not think are necessary. (The “political correctness” that was so often railed against).
Pages 45–48 were another dud: once more a list of specific values, it reads like the tome of a Catholic monk calculating the moral value of every human action. This is very reassuring to fellow Catholic monks, but alienating, even repulsive, to laymen, who cannot possibly live their lives to such a daily standard.
It is not that the values within these pages are disagreeable: they are rational, reasonable, and welcome. But politics is neither rational nor reasonable. Obama’s winning spiritual approach did far more for advancing social change that Hillary’s dogmatic approach; his 2008 platform, absent though it is of gay marriage and reams of measures to protect marginalized groups, trickled into the wider media and the body politic. It resonated much better with those 3 of 5 regional archetypes who need a spiritual approach to politics, allowing him a decisive win in the Midwest and deep inroads into the South and West.
If Democrats are going to win both 2018 and 2020, they need a message dominated by the economy, healthcare reform, and the inevitable foreign policy blunders of Donald Trump. Social change is important, but it must be emphasized that the change Democrats want is for everyone. That message will not come through if Democrats put together another national platform that gives exhaustive lists of special interest groups with language that implies America will be dominated by a dogmatic social Left.