Reaping as they sowed: How the culture wars are smiting the GOP

April 8, 2016
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Credit: MATT MAHURIN

In 2004, Republicans viewed the specter of gay marriage as a political gift from the gods.

One year earlier, the Massachusetts Supreme Court had struck down state laws that limited marriage to opposite-sex couples. In February 2004, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (now California’s lieutenant governor) authorized marriages of same-sex couples inside the city limits, though courts soon put a stop to that.

To Republican strategists generally, and to Karl Rove, chief strategist for President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign, in particular, the very thought of gay marriage wending its way from such Gomorrah-like settings as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and San Francisco to a church near you provided a path not just to boost evangelical turnout in November’s election, but also to convince that great silent majority, on whom Republican candidates relied, that Democrats and liberals threatened the moral fabric of the nation.

U.S. President George W. Bush (L) puts his arm around White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove after Rove announced his resignation at the White House in Washington, August 13, 2007.  REUTERS/Jim Young    (UNITED STATES)

President George W. Bush (L) puts his arm around White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove after he announced his resignation at the White House in Washington, August 13, 2007. REUTERS/Jim Young

In swing states like Ohio, fear of same-sex marriage, which Rove had made sure to stoke, was a major reason why Bush prevailed over Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

But that was oh, so then.

If it wasn’t obvious before, it’s become hi-definition clear in the past few weeks that the culture wars, long a powerful wedge that Republicans wielded against the Democrats, have now become a dagger that cleaves GOP ranks down the middle.

In one GOP-controlled state after another, legislatures have enacted measures that enabled businesses to discriminate against same-sex marriage partners or against gays and lesbians generally, only to face ferocious opposition from that pillar of Republican rectitude, American business. In many cases, opposition is so fierce it has led a number of Republican governors to veto the measures.

In Georgia last month, Republican Governor Nathan Deal vetoed a bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse to provide services to soon-to-be newlyweds if they were of the same sex, after coming under pressure from the state’s business establishment — including such iconic Georgia institutions as Coca-Cola. Republican governors have vetoed similar legislation in Arizona, Indiana and Arkansas (where Wal-Mart’s opposition clearly made a difference).

A protester (C) demonstrates during a U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump campaign rally in West Allis, Wisconsin, United States, April 3, 2016.     REUTERS/Jim Young

A protester (C) demonstrates during a Donald Trump campaign rally in West Allis, Wisconsin, April 3, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

In North Carolina, however, similar legislation zipped through the legislature and received the signature of Governor Pat McCrory in just 48 hours, which gave businesses no time to mount an opposition. After the fact, more than 120 major corporations, including the Bank of America, the state’s largest employer, voiced their displeasure. PayPal, which had just announced an expansion in the state, cancelled it on Tuesday — and the 400 new jobs it would have created.

The wedge of the culture wars still cuts deep, but for Republicans, it’s been turned inward. Moreover, Donald Trump has risen to the top of this year’s GOP presidential candidate heap without placing any emphasis on the kind of culture-war issues that excite evangelicals. His recent floundering on abortion makes clear he’s barely given the issue any thought.

How did the Republicans get into this fix? In the first and most fundamental instance, there’s been a major shift in public opinion away from many of the phobias and bigotries on which Republicans have long relied. In particular, the dog-whistle and sometimes overt homophobia, xenophobia, racism and sexism, which have evolved as the American right’s electoral staples, are far less prevalent among the young. Which goes a long way to explaining the party’s dwindling numbers among voters under 40. The rising number of secular Americans (a 2015 Pew Foundation survey found that 23 percent of Americans and 35 percent of millennials were unaffiliated with any denomination) further underscores the growing marginality of right-wing evangelicals.

A box of cupcakes are seen topped with icons of same-sex couples at City Hall in San Francisco, June 29, 2013. Same-sex couples rushed to San Francisco's City Hall on Saturday to be legally married after the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals officially ended California's ban on gay marriage following a landmark ruling at the Supreme Court this week. REUTERS/Stephen Lam (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY POLITICS FOOD)

A box of cupcakes topped with icons of same-sex couples at City Hall in San Francisco, June 29, 2013. REUTERS/Stephen Lam (

The rise of a tolerant mass market, in turn, has convinced the corporate sector that it’s bad business to back a number of discriminatory practices. (When it’s good business to back discriminatory practices — such as systemically underpaying women — that’s something else again.) Moreover, as gays and lesbians have felt it safer to come out of the closet during the past several decades, even business leaders have discovered friends, relations and co-workers who were gay — if indeed, like Apple’s chief executive officer Tim Cook, they weren’t gay themselves. For all these reasons, corporate America has become unprecedentedly vocal in opposing the evangelical war on gays.

Nor is the Republican universe limited to the increasingly warring factions of business and evangelicals. Trump has brought into Republican ranks a new third camp — secular working-class whites, many of them apparently open to racist and xenophobic appeals but largely unconcerned with the sex-centered issues that so vex the evangelicals, who have flocked instead to Senator Ted Cruz’s banner.

The extraordinary 2016 presidential election process has already revealed the massive disenchantment of working-class Republicans with what the party establishment has long viewed as Ronald Reagan’s holy writ: tax cuts for the rich, scaling back entitlements, overseas interventions and free trade. Now, the GOP’s evangelical base has run smack dab up against the party’s financial base — corporate America.

Beset by both a class war and a fierce culture war, Republicans are reeling. No longer merely a party in search of electable candidates, they have become a party in search of an identity.

16 comments

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They brought this on themselves, and they aren’t finished shooting themselves. If they get the brokered convention they’re positioning Cruz for, and which is the only reason why Kasich is still in the race, the millions of Trump voters will be lost forever. Blatantly denying the will of your voter base is the last bullet right between the eyes for the party.

This is fun.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

The Republicans have clearly suffered from a lack of leadership. However, so too have the Democrats although not on the social issues you discuss in the article. We must keep in mind that the US only has two parties and where else can social conservatives go but to the Republican Party. Perhaps the future will simply see less focus on social politics and more economics and provide the Republicans with a new majority. Perhaps Trump is just symbol of that shift. I, for one, do not believe that he is Satan incarnated as the “well educated” seem to.

Posted by RichmondRob | Report as abusive

GOP is dead. Republicans should have dropped the bigoted south long ago, like the Democrats had to do in civil rights era. It hurts at first to lose the numbers, but you build back up.

The republican party no longer has the ability to build back up. They are dying off, faster than they are being replaced. Their politics are too backward and bible-thumping for young voters to sign on to republican life-control.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

I have become socially moderate/liberal, but am fiscally conservative. Strong 2nd Amendment supporter. Where am I SUPPOSED to go? Trump? No way. Hillary? No way. Guess I will leave my Presidential ballot blank, and vote down-ballot.

Posted by Mr_Creosote | Report as abusive

Barry Goldwater predicted back in the 80’s (I still have the magazine article) that the Christian evangelicals that were starting to dominate the party would eventually, “become a millstone around the neck of the party”. The same is true about the “Tea Party” zealots. People who oppose compromise absolutely also oppose government. Compromise is the oil that allows the machinery of government to turn.And the single issue voter is the absolute enemy of a functional democracy. Let’s hope they die out quickly.

Posted by elcantwell | Report as abusive

A great article, thanks. But a dagger does not ‘cleave’ — that would be a sword. A dagger stabs.

So what’s happening with the Republicans is: ‘things have got so bad, Republican candidates are stabbing each other in the front.”

Posted by peetee | Report as abusive

If Christians are permitted to refuse service to gays, then in the future, won’t Muslims be permitted to refuse service to women not wearing head coverings?

Posted by Perpetua | Report as abusive

The article is incoherent: “Donald Trump has risen to the top of this year’s GOP presidential candidate heap without placing any emphasis on the kind of culture-war issues that excite evangelicals” So the “culture wars” are pretty much irrelevant to the Republican party of 2016 except insofar as the PC virus has zombified the brains of NeverTrumpers.
Meanwhile, PC has brought down Democrats’ principal bastion, the universities to new lows of public derision. Fortunately in the new America, what the public thinks makes no difference whatsoever to the the few who control most of the wealth and all of the power.

Posted by MichaelKochin | Report as abusive

Neither Trump nor Cruz are electable in a general election. Landslide coming. Republicans…. this is your own fault.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Latest news; ‘Singer Bryan Adams cancels Mississippi show to protest same-sex law’
No show for you!

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

Love when right wingers finally admit their party is complete disaster but have to throw in the Democratic party as having similar issues. Look kids, we’re generally very pleased with our leaders, the direction the party is taking the country, the economic gains under Obama, and the prospect of Clinton or Sanders as the next President. We’re happy and prosperous, sorry.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

GOP establishment is fed up with a black man in office making gains for the economy. Wants a foreign-born Cuban-Canadian to take office and get gasoline prices back up to $5 a gallon again.

Good plan. Good luck with that.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

More news; Bruce Springsteen announced the cancelation of his North Carolina concert in light of new law passed in the state that has been criticized as discriminatory to LGBT rights.
No show for you!

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

Deutsche Bank Won’t Expand In North Carolina Because Of Anti-LGBT Law:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/deut sche-bank-north-carolina_us_570d00d9e4b0 836057a25437

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

North Carolina loses 400 jobs as PayPal pulls facility

http://money.cnn.com/2016/04/05/technolo gy/paypal-north-carolina-lgbt/

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

No jobs for you!
It appears there are consequences for being bigots.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive