Amid the Bickering, Shards of Hope

John Kenneth White

This election season finds the nation mired in political bickering almost without purpose – save the mere acquisition of power. The intense partisan warfare now underway has been waged without end over the past decade – despite assurances from two presidents of different political parties to stop it.

George W. Bush promised to be a “uniter [sic], not a divider,” but his presidency plunged the country even deeper into the culture wars. At first, Bush looked to make good on his campaign promise. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the culture wars were set aside in favor of a real war against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. But the unity that followed the 9/11 attacks did not last. Seeking reelection, Bush won largely by emphasizing cultural differences – especially his opposition to gay marriage.

Tired of the polemical back-and-forth, Barack Obama introduced himself to voters in 2004, saying: “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. … We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”1 Campaigning for the presidency four years later, Obama held forth the ideal that his lofty rhetoric could inspire a renewal of national unity. But after being besieged by Republicans unwilling to work with him as president, and by angry Democrats frustrated by his bipartisan overtures, Obama acknowledged his failure to end the squabbling. In a 2011 60 Minutes interview, Obama blamed Republican intransigence for his inability to call a truce, and he likened himself to a sea captain unable to “control the weather” – in this case the partisan squalls that dominate the news headlines and are further amplified on the internet.2

State of Catatonia

This small-minded politics has prompted two respected political analysts, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, to author a 2012 book with the dour title, It’s Even Worse than It Looks.3 According to them, the use of a potential filibuster for nearly every Senate vote (thereby creating a threshold of sixty ayes needed for passage) has plunged Congress into a state of paralysis. This catatonic state was given additional life support after the 2010 elections, when Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell made his intentions clear: “Our top political priority during the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.”4 This call to arms led to an unusual and debilitating standoff in Summer 2011 over the nation’s debt ceiling. In the past, raising the U.S. debt limit was a pro-forma vote routinely supported by both parties. But the heightened state of partisan warfare, combined with the near-running out of the debt clock, resulted in the downgrading of the U.S. credit rating for the first time in modern history. Voter approval of Congress plunged to a mere 12 percent, and Obama’s job performance also took a direct hit following the debt debacle.5

For Republicans, the goal of removing Obama from office has led them to double down on their rhetoric. Florida Congressman Alan West recently took a leaf from the late Sen. Joe McCarthy’s playbook and charged that “seventy-eight to eighty-one members of the Democrat Party … are members of the Communist Party.” (The numbers West cited happen to coincide with the total membership in the House Democratic Progressive Caucus.) Democrats, too, have engaged in political excess. A former member of the Florida congressional delegation, Alan Grayson, charged that Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act (read: Obamacare) amounted to “Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.” From the House floor, Grayson read the names of people who have died without health insurance and blamed Republicans for their demise.

Men, married couples, faithful church attendees, whites, seniors, land-line telephone users, Dunkin Donuts coffee drinkers, and gun owners are inclined to back Romney.

The 2012 presidential campaign is almost as mean-spirited. Barack Obama and his Chicago operatives spent the summer trying to disqualify Mitt Romney by painting him as a shadowy character who has pursued unsavory business practices. Romney and his Boston team accuse Obama of abandoning his uplifting 2008 campaign promises and operating as a typical Chicago pol and big government spender. Both acknowledge the economy is a top concern, but neither seems to have a plan for tackling it.

Amidst this, polls show that a values divide continues to shape the outcome – just as it did in the presidential contests of 2000, 2004, and 2008. Women, singles, seculars, minorities, young people, cell phone users, Starbucks coffee drinkers, and non-gun owners are predisposed to support Obama. Men, married couples, faithful church attendees, whites, seniors, land-line telephone users, Dunkin Donuts coffee drinkers, and gun owners are inclined to back Romney.

Evidence of New Consensus

Absent efficacious leadership, Americans have taken matters into their own hands on two issues that once defined the culture wars – abortion and gay rights – and they are coming to a consensus that gives each side reason to hope. According to the Gallup Organization, more Americans described themselves in 2009 as being “pro-life” rather than “pro-choice” – the first time that had happened in the long history of the Gallup poll.8 Today, Gallup finds the pro-life position holding firm: 50 percent describe themselves that way; 42 percent are pro-choice, the latter being the lowest number ever recorded. The same poll also found 51 percent agree that abortion is “morally wrong;” only 38 percent believe it is “morally acceptable.”9 Moreover, 59 percent think abortion either should be “legal in a few circumstances” or “illegal in all circumstances.”10 Finally, 64 percent favor laws that would “make it illegal to perform a specific abortion procedure conducted in the last six months of pregnancy known as a ‘partial birth abortion,’ except in cases necessary to save the life of the mother.”11

Without question, the pro-life movement has reached new heights as Americans rethink abortion and have concluded that it should remain, in the words of Bill Clinton, “safe, legal, and rare” – with emphasis on rare.12 Though this does not mean that the public favors overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision (64 percent agree with it), the data strongly suggest that the pro-life supporters have made significant progress in wooing voters to the notion that abortion is something that should be exercised with great caution and only in extremely rare cases.13 Conservatives are encouraged by the general agreement on this once-touchstone issue of the culture wars.

But liberals and progressives can also claim progress in an emerging consensus concerning gay rights. When the Massachusetts Supreme Court issued its 2003 ruling making gay marriage legal in that state, the controversy gave George W. Bush a weapon he employed with relish during his 2004 campaign. Using the platform of the State of the Union Address, Bush proposed a federal constitutional amendment that would overturn the Bay State’s judicial ruling, declaring that he and his fellow Republicans “must defend the sanctity of marriage.”14 Eleven states followed suit in 2004 by amending their own state constitutions to ban gay marriage.

Today, less than a decade later, the number of Americans supporting gay marriage – or some variant of it – is at an all-time high. Seventy percent favor some means to legally recognize gay partnerships: 37 percent believe gay marriage should be recognized outright; 33 percent want a legally recognized partnership that is called something other than marriage; and just 25 percent express outright opposition.15 Moreover, 64 percent say that twenty years from now most states will permit gay couples to marry.16

This is an extraordinary change. Gay Democratic congressman Barney Frank believes one reason for this transformation is that many Americans either know a gay person or have a gay person as a family member. According to Frank, making gays part of the culture wars means that “you’re not just beating up on gays and lesbian kids, you’re beating up on all their relatives.”17

Women, singles, seculars, minorities, young people, cell phone users, Starbucks coffee drinkers, and non-gun owners are predisposed to support Obama.

One such person is Mary Cheney, the daughter of former Republican vice president Dick Cheney. Her homosexuality had long been a taboo subject within her family.  In an infamous 2007 interview, her father, the then-Vice President, bristled when asked about the birth of a grandchild to Mary Cheney and her lesbian partner. But in one more sign of the times, Mary Cheney married her long-time partner, Heather Poe, in a civil ceremony in Washington, D.C. (where gay marriage is legal) on June 22, 2012, without fanfare. A few weeks later, on July 7, Barney Frank married his long-time partner, Jim Ready, saying he wanted his congressional colleagues to see a married gay member before he left office. And in 2012, for the first time ever, a major party presidential candidate, Barack Obama, expressed support for gay marriage. The Democratic Party followed suit by endorsing gay marriage in its 2012 platform. Candidates from both parties have publicly acknowledged their homosexuality. In virtually every case, their sexual orientation is not a political liability – and can be a political asset since it opens up new avenues of fund-raising. Simply put, the anti-gay campaign run by George W. Bush in 2004 would backfire in 2012.

Gun-Shy About Gun Control

Something important is happening. As the shifting data on abortion and gay rights demonstrate, Americans are seizing the initiative. The result is a muting of the culture wars on these two fronts. Such progress provides some reason to believe that with the passage of time (and as both sides take time to learn from each other), the culture wars need not be an enduring feature of our politics. Amidst the hyper-partisanship, there are shards of hope.

When Americans are willing to rethink a cultural issue there are strong suggestions that these issues will fade. However, on one topic – guns – the public seems unwilling to reassess its hardened positions.

How much light these shards of hope will reflect is uncertain. When Americans are willing to rethink a cultural issue – or have been exposed to new variants of it – there are strong suggestions that these issues will fade. However, on one topic – guns – the public seems unwilling to reassess its hardened positions. Despite the tragedy of the Aurora, CO, movie theater killings, Americans have shown no inclination to support new restrictions on gun sales. A Pew Research survey finds that 67 percent believe the shooting is an act of a troubled individual; only 24 percent say it reflects broader problems in American society.18

The American love affair with guns, and the near-sanctification of them in the Second Amendment, have precluded any rethinking of the issue. Gun rights advocates say that the problem is not one of new statutes, but enforcing those already on the books. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were gun-shy following the Colorado murders, with neither proposing a public dialogue on the issue. Instead, both focused their sympathies on the victims, with President Obama promising not to mention the name of the perpetrator – as if not mentioning his name would somehow make the subject go away.

By contrast, another touchstone issue – race – gives reason to hope. The dramatic rearranging of the U.S. demographic landscape is altering how we think about race in the twenty-first century. By 2050, it is estimated that whites will be a minority. But the shifting racial composition of the U.S. is even more complicated than at first glance. While non-whites are assuming a larger place in both society and politics, the number of Americans who identify with more than one race is on the rise. In 1970, the number of interracial couples totaled 300,000. Today, that figure has jumped to 5.4 million.19

How we think about race used to be as simple as black and white (even though it was always more complicated). Today, defining one’s race is much more of a slippery slope. The U.S. government has acknowledged this fact. Since the 2000 Census, respondents have been allowed to check more than one race on the form. In 2010, more than nine million people did so.20

Living in a racially heterogeneous nation means that race is likely to diminish as a political issue as more people marry someone of a different race, go to school and have friends from different racial backgrounds, and/or live in a mixed-race neighborhood. In short, our expanding experiences mean that de facto segregation is less likely, and the ways in which we think about race are sure to change in the years ahead.

Addressing the Congress in 1862, Abraham Lincoln famously said: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”21 Today, Americans are engaged in thinking anew some formerly held cultural positions. Amidst the bickering that will dominate the months remaining in Campaign 2012, there are indeed shards of hope.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and is the author of several books on U.S. politics. His latest is Barack Obama’s America: How New Conceptions of Race, Family, and Religion Ended the Reagan Era (University of Michigan Press, 2009).


1  Barack Obama, Address to the Democratic National Convention, Boston, MA, July 27, 2004.

2  Quoted in David Nakamura, “Obama Criticizes GOP Intransigence in 60 Minutes Interview,” Washington Post, Dec. 11, 2011.

3  Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How America’s Constitutional System Collided with the Politics of Extremism (Basic Books, 2012).

4  Mitch McConnell, Speech to the Heritage Foundation, Nov. 4, 2010.

5  CBS News/New York Times, poll, July 11-16, 2012.

6  Quoted in Darius Dixon, “Alan West: 80 Communists in the House,”, April 11, 2012.

7  Quoted in New York Times: Times Topics, Nov. 4, 2010. See…

8  Lydia Saad, “More Americans ‘Pro-Life’ Than ‘Pro-Choice’ for First Time,” Gallup poll, press release, May 15, 2009.

9  Lydia Saad, “‘Pro-Choice’ Americans at Record-Low 41 Percent,” Gallup poll, press release, May 23, 2012.

10  Gallup poll, May 3-6, 2012.

11  Gallup poll, July 15-17, 2011.

12  Bill Clinton, Acceptance Speech, Democratic National Convention, Aug. 29, 1996.

13  Quinnipiac University poll, Feb. 14-20, 2012.

14  George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2004.

15  Fox News, poll, May 13-15, 2012.

16  Fox News, poll, May 13-15, 2012.

17  John Kenneth White, interview with Barney Frank, Washington, D.C., Dec. 20, 2000.

18  Pew Research Center, poll, July 26-29, 2012.

19  See John Kenneth White, Barack Obama’s America: How New Conceptions of Race, Family, and Religion Ended the Reagan Era (University of Michigan Press, 2009), p. 61, and U.S. Census Bureau, “2010 Census Shows Interracial and Intermarried Married Couples Grew by 28 Percent over Decade,” press release, April 25, 2012.

20  U.S. Census Bureau, “2010 Census Shows America’s Diversity,” press release, March 24, 2011.

21  Abraham Lincoln, Annual Message to Congress, Dec. 1, 1862.