Bulwark: Are people on the left really driving the culture war? (Yes, they really are)

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

Last week I wrote about the big lie Democrats tell themselves about the culture war, i.e. that the right is responsible for it because of “asymmetric polarization.” This is basically a feel-good story for the progressive left in which all of the partisanship in the country is the fault of the people on the other side of the aisle. In fact, as Kevin Drum pointed out, there is pretty good evidence that it’s people on the left who’ve moved the most on major culture war issues. If there is an aggressor in these fights, it’s usually the left.

Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece about this last Friday which is worth a look. And over at the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan also devoted her column to talking about Drum’s piece. Today, the Bulwark has published a response which is an attempt to have your cake and eat it too. Author Tim Miller admits some of Drum’s analysis of the culture war is accurate but thinks he has found a way to still blame the culture war on right-leaning politicians.

There are political ramifications to swift leftward shifts on various cultural issues that the Democrats should reckon with as David Shor and others have argued. There are also real social and cultural ramifications. It can create social strife for culturally conservative Americans to feel uncomfortable expressing their views at home or in the workplace for fear of being chastised—or worse—over issues they have little familiarity with.

All of this is absolutely correct.

But when it comes to the actions of politicians, the aggressive, top down Culture War is being driven overwhelmingly from the right. And the shift rightward among Republican politicians on culture war issues is as dramatic—if not more so—than the leftward shift among Democratic voters on policy.

Miller offers an example by looking at the race for the Senate seat in Ohio. On the one hand you have Josh Mandel who has this as his pinned tweet:

And on the other hand you have the Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan:

Now look across the aisle at what the Democrat running for the that Ohio Senate seat—Rep. Tim Ryan—is doing with his social media feed. It is entirely made up of pablum about jobs for working families and pictures of him visiting union workers. His most recent issue-related post endorsed voting rights, infrastructure, and bringing down health care costs. He’s not running on reparations, or a program to take away the tax exempt status of churches or mandating Ibram X. Kendi books in middle-school curricula.

First off, I think there a fundamental (and possible intentional) confusion about what culture wars are. They are not always launched by politicians. In fact, they often arise from the ranks of activists and the media before politicians get hold of them. The fact that the progressive left has a lock on Hollywood and most major news outlets means there are lots of avenues for cultural warfare that don’t involve elected officials. It also means there are relatively fewer avenues for responses from conservatives except via elected officials.

As for the example he offers, it’s clearly a case of cherry-picking. Yes, Tim Ryan is a fairly moderate Democrat. He has criticized Antifa for attacking police officers. Back in 2019 he was a leading voice calling for the Democratic Party to get moderate:

“We’ve got to change the center of gravity of the Democratic party from being coastal, elitist and Ivy league, which is the perception to someone from the forgotten communities that have been left behind for the last 30 years,” he continued.

“To get those workers back on our side, so we can say we’re going to build electric vehicles, we’re going to build solar panels,” he said. “But if you want to beat (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell, (R-Ky.), this better be a working class party.”

So, granted, if you look at Ryan as your example, they you might reasonably say Democrats aren’t culture warriors, but are fighting for moderation. But of course that doesn’t really exhaust your options. What if you look at some of the other voices in the Democratic Party. Here’s one of their top fundraisers launching an entire culture war battle on immigration:

Here’s another elected official AOC endorsed on the 4th of July. Forgive me but this seems a bit culture war-ish:

We could go on but the point is you could pick any member of the growing Squad and find them tweeting all sorts of culture war material pretty frequently. That doesn’t mean all or most Democrats are doing that, certainly not those trying to survive in red districts, but some elected Dems do indulge in culture war fights. So choosing a moderate Democrat like Tim Ryan to make your point is cherry-picking.

But again the larger point is that Democrats have a lot of other outlets for pushing their views including movies, TV, news outlets and social media of all kinds where a certain brand of very-online progressive activist is ubiquitous. If you think progressives aren’t pushing the culture war simply because a few moderate Dems aren’t doing so you’re really side-stepping where a lot of these battles actually begin.