Guns, Abortion, and the American Flag
Can Democrats turn the tables?
And the American flag.
For a long time, most Democratic campaign strategists viewed wading into these topics with about as much enthusiasm as running naked through a patch of poison ivy. There were exceptions, but the thinking was that guns and abortion were the kind of so-called “culture war” issues (more on that phrase in a moment) that animated the right flank of the political spectrum. And flag-waving patriotism was also something that Republican candidates tended to carry off more naturally (and successfully) than their Democratic counterparts.
Coverage of politics often takes on the vocabulary of war. And these issues were considered Republican turf, easy for the GOP to defend and weaponize for their advancement. In political campaigns, these topics were often treated as three fronts of the same battle. Republican candidates frequently have used their definition of patriotism — which includes expanding gun culture and ending a woman’s right to choose — as a rallying cry for their voters to come to the polls. This has been the strategy across decades of elections, around the country and at all levels of government.
The way conventional wisdom tends to work in politics is that it doesn’t shape only how campaigns are run, but the coverage of campaigns, as well — and thus, by extension, the broader political dynamics of the country. There is a feedback loop between what campaigns think will work and what reporters say does work. So these strategies are trotted out, election season after election season, because they are assumed to be effective. And what I have witnessed over the years suggests those assumptions were mostly correct.
But here’s the funny thing about conventional wisdom: It is true until it isn’t. The nature of politics makes determining what works and what doesn’t quite difficult to tease out. People vote for candidates for a variety of reasons, and ultimately it often comes down to a binary choice. Do I pull the lever (or circle in the bubble) for the person with an R next to their name, or a D? What motivates people to get out and vote is the secret sauce of effective political movements. And there is a school of thought that political campaigns tend to make the mistake of running the playbook of the previous election, just as armies make the mistake of fighting the last war.
The purpose of this column isn’t to dive into the social science research of voting patterns or to analyze the larger trend lines of previous elections. We may return to some of these issues in the future, such as the rural/urban divide and the reliability — or unreliability — of the youth vote. We will note, as we have in the past and will likely do again in the future, that race and views about race command an outsized influence in our political dynamics.
At this moment, however, I want to suggest that perhaps we are at an inflection point on guns, abortion, and even the definition of American patriotism that could upend the political calculus of the country. On the other hand, maybe we are in for more of the same.
The headwinds for Democrats in the midterms appear to be at a gale force. There is the reality that the party not occupying the White House usually wins seats in Congress, and often a lot of them. So Democrats, with their thinnest of majorities, are presumed by most election handicappers to be in trouble. When you add to these historical headwinds a very unpopular president and spiking inflation, the picture becomes even bleaker.
The mantra of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid,” doesn’t sound too good for the Democrats now. It doesn’t matter if the causes of inflation, and high gas prices in particular, are global and complicated. The party in the White House usually takes the blame, regardless of which party it is.
You can add the potential for voter apathy to the mix of dangers the Democrats face. Without Trump on the ballot, and with economic and other uncertainties unsettling the electorate, there’s a real question of how many Democratic voters will show up in November. The party tends to have trouble with turnout in midterm elections. And while some Republican voters and independents who lean that way voted for Biden in 2020, will they return to the GOP this time around?
The difficult case the Democrats have to make is that yes, the economy is in a rough place, and yes there is uncertainty, from the pandemic to war in Europe, and yes much of Biden’s agenda has been stymied in the Senate, but the Republicans are not to be trusted with your future or that of American democracy. It can be boiled down to “authoritarianism is a lot worse than high gas prices.” You would hope it would be an easy sell. But it must start with people believing the existential threat to America is real.
And this is where the “culture wars” come in. I use this phrase because it is part of our current political parlance, but I don’t like it. It suggests that these are issues of culture rather than health and safety, or autonomy, or basic decency. It assumes opposing forces with absolutist beliefs and no room for compromise. And it suggests those forces are of equal or at least near-equal strength.
Abortion and guns have animated our political discourse for a long time. There is clear delineation between how the political parties view these issues, at least today. It wasn’t always the case. Yet the political polarization isn’t matched by the beliefs of the population at large. There is overwhelming support for some limits on gun ownership, such as background checks, raising the minimum age of purchase, and red flag laws. On abortion, there is also majority support for women having control of their own bodies. And yet the Republicans have made pushing their minority views a hallmark of their political posturing and their selection of judges.
The Supreme Court may turn out to be an unwitting ally for Democratic get-out-the vote efforts. With decisions pending that will apparently overturn Roe v. Wade and weaken gun control measures, the court is injecting a combustible uncertainty into the elections. So too are governments in red states, which are passing draconian measures on both issues that are far outside of the mainstream American consensus. There is an open question, however, of whether these provisions, as unpopular as they may be, will spur opposition at the polls. People say they don’t like abortion restrictions and do want commonsense gun laws, but will they be motivated to vote because of it?
But there is another issue at play that may amplify the electoral energy for Democrats, and that is the very definition of America. After the first night of congressional hearings into the coup attempt of January 6, it is clear that the events leading up to that day, and the explosion of violence on January 6 itself, will be a storyline in the fall elections. The high ratings for people tuning in to watch the hearings suggest there is a lot of interest across the country. This is the most egregious attack on America’s constitutional order since the Civil War. The rioters who used American flags to beat police officers at the Capitol and who waved Confederate flags in the halls of Congress represent as clear a definition of the antithesis of American patriotism as you are likely to find.
Guns. Abortion. And the American flag — it is a narrative that provokes a series of piercing questions:
Do you want to live under reactionary minority rule?
Can you trust our government with people who claim fealty to autocracy?
Is this the America you know and love?
Or even recognize?
Over the course of my life, I have seen the pendulum of American politics swing back and forth. Overall, however, the path has been one of general progress toward becoming a more just and inclusive democracy. In recent years, however, one political party has swung far to the extreme, both ideologically and in terms of desperation to retain power. Democrats will try to make the case that this is a dire and untenable state of affairs, an existential threat to America. Will they get enough voters to look past the pronounced challenges of the present to repel extremism and vote to strengthen American democracy for the future?