If I sometimes seem obsessed with the cultural dimensions of contemporary politics, it's because I am in a continuing rage over two dumb ideas that far too many Democrats are determined to embrace, losing election after losing election: (1) economic issues, if you scream about them loudly and abrasively and "populistically" enough, will trump cultural issues, which are essentially phony, and (2) there's no way to deal with voters' cultural anxieties without abandoning Democratic principles, since cultural issues are all about banning abortion and gay marriage and so forth.
The first idea is palpably, demonstrably wrong, as established by frequent trial and constant error. And the second idea misses the whole point of cultural anxiety, which has far less to do with abortion or gays than with a widespread sense that a whole host of traditional values are being threatened and perhaps extinguished by cultural forces ranging from globalization and commercialization to sex-and-violence saturated entertainment products and the moral flatulance of the celebrities whose "lifestyles" and views assault us from every direction.
But when it comes to the political impact of cultural angst, hey, don't listen to me, listen to a real witness who has just personally experienced the kulturkampf. Listen to U.S. Rep. Brad Carson, who lost to conservative wild-man Tom Coburn in a Senate race in Oklahoma last week, and who has penned a remarkable article for The New Republic on the subject. Please read it all, but here's a pertinent passage:
For the vast majority of Oklahomans--and, I would suspect, voters in other red states--these transcendent cultural concerns are more important than universal health care or raising the minimum wage or preserving farm subsidies. Pace Thomas Frank, the voters aren't deluded or uneducated. They simply reject the notion that material concerns are more real than spiritual or cultural ones. The political left has always had a hard time understanding this, preferring to believe that the masses are enthralled by a "false consciousness" or Fox News or whatever today's excuse might be. But the truth is quite simple: Most voters in a state like Oklahoma--and I venture to say most other Southern and Midwestern states--reject the general direction of American culture and celebrate the political party that promises to reform or revise it.
We're the "wrong track" party when it comes to the cultural direction of the country, and we have to decide whether to bravely swim upstream out of loyalty to hip-hop and Michael Moore and Grand Theft Auto IV and Hollywood campaign contributions, or do something else, like at least expressing a little ambivalence about it all. Changing the subject is cowardly and insulting no matter how you look at it.