Liberals Are Losing the Culture Wars

Tuesday’s elections, which hinged on social issues such as gay rights and pot, call into question Democrats’ insistence that Republicans are out of step with the times.

Chris Tilley / Reuters

In Tuesday’s elections, voters rejected recreational marijuana, transgender rights, and illegal-immigrant sanctuaries; they reacted equivocally to gun-control arguments; and they handed a surprise victory to a Republican gubernatorial candidate who emphasized his opposition to gay marriage.

Democrats have become increasingly assertive in taking liberal social positions in recent years, believing that they enjoy majority support and even seeking to turn abortion and gay rights into electoral wedges against Republicans. But Tuesday’s results—and the broader trend of recent elections that have been generally disastrous for Democrats not named Barack Obama—call that view into question. Indeed, they suggest that the left has misread the electorate’s enthusiasm for social change, inviting a backlash from mainstream voters invested in the status quo.

Consider these results:

  • Ohio voters rejected a ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana by a 30-point margin.

  • Voters in Houston—a strongly Democratic city—rejected by a 20-point margin a nondiscrimination ordinance that opponents said would lead to “men in women’s bathrooms.”

  • The San Francisco sheriff who had defended the city’s sanctuary policy after a sensational murder by an illegal immigrant was voted out.

  • Two Republican state senate candidates in Virginia were targeted by Everytown for Gun Safety, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s gun-control group. One won and one lost, leaving the chamber in GOP hands.

  • Matt Bevin, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Kentucky, pulled out a resounding victory that defied the polls after emphasizing social issues and championing Kim Davis, the county clerk who went to jail rather than issue same-sex marriage licenses. Bevin told the Washington Post on the eve of the vote that he’d initially planned to stress economic issues, but found that “this is what moves people.”

There were particular factors in all of these races: The San Francisco sheriff was scandal-ridden, for example, and the Ohio initiative’s unique provisions divided pro-pot activists. But taken together these results ought to inspire caution among liberals who believe their cultural views are widely shared and a recipe for electoral victory.

Democrats have increasingly seized the offensive on social issues in recent years, using opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage to paint Republican candidates as extreme and backward. In some cases, this has been successful: Red-state GOP Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock lost after making incendiary comments about abortion and rape in 2012, a year when Obama successfully leaned into cultural issues to galvanize the Democratic base. “The Republican Party from 1968 up to 2008 lived by the wedge, and now they are politically dying by the wedge,” Democratic consultant Chris Lehane told the New York Times last year, a view echoed by worried Republicans urging their party to get with the times.

But the Democrats’ culture-war strategy has been less successful when Obama is not on the ballot. Two campaigns that made abortion rights their centerpiece in 2014, Wendy Davis’s Texas gubernatorial bid and Mark Udall’s Senate reelection campaign in Colorado, fell far short. In most of the country, particularly between the coasts, it’s far from clear that regular voters are willing to come to the polls for social change. Gay marriage won four carefully selected blue-state ballot campaigns in 2012 before the Supreme Court took the issue to the finish line this year. Recreational marijuana has likewise been approved only in three blue states plus Alaska. Gun-control campaigners have repeatedly failed to outflank the N.R.A. in down-ballot elections that turned on the issue. Republicans in state offices have liberalized gun laws and restricted abortion, generating little apparent voter backlash.

An upcoming gubernatorial election in Louisiana is turning into a referendum on another hot button issue—crime—with Republican David Vitter charging that his opponent, John Bel Edwards, wants to release “dangerous thugs, drug dealers, back into our neighborhoods.” The strategy, which has been criticized for its racial overtones, may or may not work for Vitter, who is dealing with scandals of his own. Yet many liberals angrily reject the suggestion that the push to reduce incarceration could lead to a political backlash based on anecdotal reports of sensational crimes.

To be sure, Tuesday was an off-off-year election with dismally low voter turnout, waged in just a handful of locales. But liberals who cite this as an explanation often fail to take the next step and ask why the most consistent voters are consistently hostile to their views, or why liberal social positions don’t mobilize infrequent voters. Low turnout alone can’t explain the extent of Democratic failures in non-presidential elections in the Obama era, which have decimated the party in state legislatures, governorships, and the House and Senate. Had the 2012 electorate shown up in 2014, Democrats still would have lost most races, according to Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist, who told me the turnout effect “was worth slightly more than 1 percentage point to Republican candidates in 2014”—enough to make a difference in a few close races, but not much across the board.

Liberals love to point out the fractiousness of the GOP, whose dramatic fissures have racked the House of Representatives and tormented party leaders. But as Matt Yglesias recently pointed out, Republican divisions are actually signs of an ideologically flexible big-tent party, while Democrats are in lockstep around an agenda whose popularity they too often fail to question. Democrats want to believe Americans are on board with their vision of social change—but they might win more elections if they meet voters where they really are.