How Republicans stopped losing the US culture war

US Politics: Judges and overreaching progressives have helped achieve a small recovery

When William Buckley launched National Review, and with it the modern US right, the aim was to stop the "radical social experimentation" of the hour. It was 1955. The age of Eisenhower and the draft, of the Hollywood Code and low immigration: if this scandalised him, his air of dejection as he neared the end of his gilded life half a century later becomes easier to fathom.

Among the experiments he had been unable to thwart were the sexual revolution, creeping atheism, normalised if not quite legalised cannabis and the doubling of the foreign-born population as a share of the US total. His conservative movement had been an electoral success and a howling cultural failure.

And now? There is no chance of a full or even substantial reversal of what was once called the Permissive Society. But, if nothing else, the pace of conservative retreat is slowing. In 2022, Republicans might gain control of Congress and still count it their second biggest prize of the year. Much dearer to them would be a raft of supreme court decisions curbing abortion and affirmative action while doing the opposite for gun ownership.

If these materialise, the conservative supermajority on the bench will have been worth the decades of work. The Federalist Society college chapters, the grooming of young “textualists” and “originalists”: this is the closest the right has ever come to a Gramscian march through the institutions. Given the relative youth of the Donald Trump-appointed justices, it might still be paying off in the middle of the century.

In the more public terrain of electoral politics, things are almost as promising for the cultural right. Republicans are sure that new progressive norms on race and gender are losing propositions for the Democrats – as are, for that matter, lots of Democrats. Parental qualms about what children are being taught eased a Republican into the Virginia governor’s mansion in November (though, after Covid-enforced school closures, so did an impatience to have them taught at all). Democrats will never win over cultural conservatives. The danger is that they lose strict liberals for whom group rights and the invigilation of speech are heresies.

The right can count on presidential overreach here. Bill Clinton used to scold incendiary rappers. Barack Obama was the "deporter in chief" to disappointed immigration liberals. Despite his more conservative instincts, Joe Biden has been slower to make overtures to non-progressives. His voting rights Bill contains much of value. But if opposition to it is "Jim Crow 2.0", as he claims, that is news to a country in which 1 per cent of people name elections as a major problem.

Conservative jurisprudence, progressive hubris: both are in the normal swing of politics. The role of racial minorities, the third force to whom the cultural right owes its small recovery, is more surprising. There is no one reason for the gains that Republicans have made among Latino voters. Tying Democrats to the “socialism” of the countries some of them fled has helped. But another word is difficult to ignore.

According to the Pew Research Center, only 3 per cent of these voters use the gender-neutral term “Latinx”. When it passed the president’s lips last summer, it was unlikely to resonate. Democrats will have to decide how long to persist with the underlying philosophy from which it springs.

As for other minorities, the legal case against Harvard’s affirmative action scheme is that it disadvantages Asian-Americans. A suit against the University of North Carolina argues much the same. Racial diversity has not had the uniformly progressive side-effects that Democrats believed (or rather that Republicans believed Democrats believed). Cultural conservatives are left to caress an irony or at least an incongruity. Their comeback owes in part to their old defeat on immigration.

The danger here is to overstate the extent of that comeback. Even if the supreme court rulings transpire – conservative judges have disappointed the “movement” before – the right will, in boxing terms, have pulled back a round after losing the previous 11. In 1996, Americans were more than two-to-one against same-sex marriage. They are now in favour of it by the same margin. Church membership is down. Even the right’s embrace of someone of Trump’s – let us go with “bohemian” – lifestyle shows how limited its options are.

Precisely because the rout of cultural conservatism has been so total, though, any recovery is news. It is hard to know whether Buckley was unlucky or blessed not to live to see what passes for success. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022