What is wrong with Kansas, anyway?
I often hear the claim being made that the GOP will never actually overturn Roe v. Wade or pass an anti-gay marriage amendment, because these "values" issues are their goose that lays golden eggs; the minute the "culturally conservative" voters get what they want, the Republicans can no longer use abortion, homosexuality, etc. as "wedge issues," and these voters--mostly rural and not all that well-off--might go back to casting ballots based on their economic interests--in other words, they might vote Democratic. Since the GOP can't allow this to happen, they will never actually deliver on their promises to these people, but rather just keep stringing them along, so they can continue to inflame them.
I think this is a very, very dangerous way of thinking. It is quite risky to assume that the Republicans don't mean exactly what they say about abortion, gay rights, and the rest. The best strategy is for us to assume that they have every intention of enacting the agenda of the Religious Right.
Gary Ashwill at Facing South, in a post on Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter with Kansas?, makes a similar point.
The central idea of ... What’s the Matter with Kansas? is that the modern right wing is powered by a contradiction: the grassroots, the ground troops of the movement, are recruited on the basis of a culture war against liberalism; but the politicians they put in power are concerned first and foremost to implement a right-wing economic agenda. A cultural “phony war” ensues, year after year, over abortion, gay marriage, school prayer, evolution…but, with few exceptions, little changes on these fronts. The myth of an all-powerful liberalism that always frustrates “real” Americans fuels constant outrage, a self-sustaining rebellion that keeps the troops (and their opponents) busy while the real business of undoing the New Deal, cutting taxes, and gutting regulations can go on largely unhindered. A "fake" culture war underwrites the "real" economic one.
The trouble with Frank’s argument is, you really can't fake this sort of thing, not in the long run. Passions are inflamed, and eventually the grassroots will demand their due. Frank assumes that, on the whole, progress is never made on the cultural front; that’s the perpetual-motion machine that powers hard-right politics. But it’s important to keep in mind that, in fact, conservatives have made, and continue to make, important gains on cultural issues.
Take abortion rights, one of Frank’s main culture-war examples. Conservative activists haven’t yet succeeded in overturning Roe v Wade (though they are closer now than ever) – but they have steadily, incrementally chipped away at women’s right to choose, state by state, while beginning to demand a bolder stance from their leaders.
Gary is right: Republicans have been making "progress" on these issues, and there is no reason to suppose that they're going to stop any time soon. Yes, overturning Roe v. Wade may lose the GOP its advantage among anti-choice voters--but it may not. Even in a country where Roe is no longer the law of the land, and where there are state or even federal bans on abortion, it's very possible that they will still be able to scare people into thinking that the return of legalized abortion is only one Democratic president away. And the same goes for gay marriage, etc.
The GOP has already done this with terrorism. There haven't been any terrorist attacks in the U.S. for three years, but they manage to keep the populace frightened into submission by constantly warning that the next attack could come any time. The Right has never had a problem creating bogeymen.
Plus, even if we agree with Frank's premise that a decisive victory in the culture wars for the Right would mean their electoral doom, that still doesn't entail that they won't actually try to achieve such a win. For one thing, their own evaluation of the situation may differ; they may not believe that overturning Roe, for instance, will hurt them electorally.
And second, politicians do not always act in the long-term interests of their party. If Dubya were faced with a situation where he could score political points, or bail himself out of political trouble, by, say, appointing an anti-choice justice to the Supreme Court, I can't seem him declining to do so on the basis that it might hurt the party 4, 8, or 12 years down the road. As we saw with the invasion of Iraq, these people aren't the best long-term planners.
Another point made by Ashwill is worth noting:
... liberals, having abandoned economic populism and severed important connections to their natural constituency in the working class, have nowhere left to fight but on cultural grounds.
In a way, this is the most important lesson that the Democrats need to learn. They have allowed the phenomenon that Frank describes to take place, by abandoning the working class and the poor in favor of a Republicanesque corporate agenda. People wonder why the "red-staters" continue to vote against their own economic interests, but the answer is simple: they have learned not to expect either party to look out for them economically. They have given up on that expectation entirely. They no longer vote on economic issues because they're convinced that doing so would be useless, and they're not entirely wrong.
Faced with a situation where no one's offering to help them economically, they give up on that hope and vote based on more trivial issues like gay marriage.
So while it's the Republicans who are exploiting this situation, it's the Democrats who let the situation come about. And now, with the GOP in control of all three branches, it's hard to see how the Dems can even begin to try to restore their image as advocates for the not-so-privileged classes.