Ending or Winning?

There's a lot to agree with in Peter Beinart's piece about Obama's quest to "end" the culture wars - particularly his point that as far as style and symbolism goes, a black liberal may be better-positioned than a white liberal to build the kind of bridges between the secular left and the religious middle that an enduring Democratic majority requires. (In a somewhat similar vein, I suspect the GOP's quest to build a bridge between the religious right and the religious middle would have been better served had George W. Bush been a Catholic rather than an Evangelical - though that's an argument for another day.)

But Beinart's argument is shot through with the characteristic liberal conceit that the culture wars are a one-sided affair, in which right-wing culture warriors start fights and peace-loving liberals try to avoid them. In reality, what makes Obama promising to liberals isn't his potential to "end" culture-war battles - it's his potential ability to win them, by dressing up the policies that Planned Parenthood or the Human Rights Campaign or the ACLU or whomever would like to see in the kind of religiose language and fuzzy talk about consensus that swing voters like to hear. So waiting a day to reverse the ban on overseas funding for groups that provide abortions, for instance, isn't a compromise in the culture wars, or an act of moderation - it's a way of making a victory for the left seem like an act of moderation to people who aren't that invested in the issue. And the same will doubtless hold true when the stem-cell debate comes around, or the next Supreme Court vacancy, or any flashpoint you can think of: Liberals will praise Obama for taking steps to defuse the culture war, but what they'll mean is that he's taking steps to win it.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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