The Democrats’ New Spokesman in the Culture Wars

The left desperately needs someone to stand up to Republicans’ rights rollback. Is Gavin Newsom up to the task?

A photo illustration of Gavin Newsom on a blue background
Getty; The Atlantic

On May 4, two days after Politico rocked Washington by revealing the draft of a Supreme Court decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion, California Governor Gavin Newsom delivered remarks at a Los Angeles Planned Parenthood office—and triggered a small earthquake of his own.

Newsom pledged that, however the Court ruled, California would ensure legal access to abortion. But it was something else he said that really stood out: Republican-controlled states are moving not only to restrict or outlaw abortion if the Court allows it, he said, but also to ban books, restrict how teachers can talk about race, make voting more difficult, and target LGBTQ rights through measures like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. In a sudden geyser of frustration, Newsom asked why Democrats at every level were not doing more to combat, or even call attention to, this sweeping offensive.

“Where the hell is my party? Where’s the Democratic Party? You guys paying attention to what’s going on?” he asked. “Why aren’t we standing up more firmly, more resolutely? Why aren’t we calling this out? This is a concerted, coordinated effort. And, yes, they’re winning. They are. They have been. Let’s acknowledge that. We need to stand up. Where’s the counteroffensive?”

In an interview at his office in Sacramento on Tuesday, Newsom told me he was surprised at how “resonant” a response he received from Democrats around the country to viral video clips of that moment. But several Democratic strategists I talked with this week said the governor should not have been shocked. The reaction, they said, reflects the anxiety mounting within the Democratic coalition over the ever bolder effort by red states, with crucial support from the GOP-appointed majority on the Supreme Court and Republican U.S. senators wielding the filibuster, to rescind or restrict seemingly long-settled rights.

That unease has created, in effect, a job opening in the Democratic Party—a vacancy for a leader to formulate a comprehensive case against the rights rollback in the 23 states where Republicans hold unified control of the governorship and the state legislature. For “any politician who wanted to gain a national platform, that message is really resonating with where our voters are,” says Sean McElwee, a progressive pollster.

This is not a job that President Joe Biden, by temperament or inclination, is well positioned to fill. The party’s senior congressional leadership is otherwise engaged and, as a collection of political veterans mostly in their 70s, is not particularly well suited to the task, either. Newsom isn’t the only Democrat who could step into the void. But he is perhaps the best person to do so, and he has one distinct advantage over the alternatives: There might be no one in the Democratic Party who is itching more for a fight with the Republican governors leading the red-state charge.

The rights rollback is advancing “like a wildfire,” Newsom told me. “That was kind of the point I was making [at Planned Parenthood]: Is anyone paying attention to what’s going on? It’s happening in real-time. Literally the progress of … at least the last half century is being wiped out in the last 15 months.”

The new red-state laws have rapidly diffused across the country, often becoming more extreme along the way. The Ohio House of Representatives, for instance, recently passed legislation requiring participants in school sports who are “accused” of being transgender to undergo a genital exam. Many states acting to limit or ban abortion have removed once-common exemptions for victims of rape or incest. Taken in sum, these laws amount to an attempt to reverse the “rights revolution” of the past 60 years, through which Congress and the Supreme Court created a robust baseline of guaranteed national rights and limited state’s abilities to curtail those rights.

Newsom isn’t the only Democrat who has tried to sound this alarm. Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow rocketed to national attention with a speech in April in which she rebutted a Republican colleague who had accused her of “grooming” children for sexual abuse because she supported LGBTQ rights—a now-common slur. Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker also received a strong response, the day before Newsom’s Planned Parenthood speech, when he appeared alongside a crowd of mostly female state legislators and promised he would “fight like hell, not just for the women of Illinois, but for every person in our state and every person across this nation who believes not in limiting civil rights and human rights, but in expanding them.” Governors Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Kathy Hochul in New York also have moved decisively to protect abortion rights in their states.

But Newsom, 54, who handily defeated a Republican-led recall drive against him last fall and is now cruising toward reelection for a second term in November, might be uniquely positioned to provide national leadership on these culture-war issues. As the governor of the nation’s most populous state and one of its most diverse, Newsom offers a logical point of comparison to Governors Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas, the most visible proponents of the Republican-led rights reversal. He already has a history of sparring with Abbott and DeSantis (whose name Newsom habitually mispronounces as “DeSan-tos) over their approaches to the economy, education, health care, and the pandemic.

Newsom very consciously has worked to define California as an alternative to the lower-tax, lower-services models of Florida, Texas, and most other Republican-controlled states. If the even more fundamental divide in modern American politics is between those who welcome and those who fear the way the country is changing demographically and culturally, as I believe it is, then the political leadership in California stands clearly on the other side of that chasm from leaders in Texas, Florida, and other big Sun Belt states who are working to lock into law the preferences of their predominantly white, Christian, Republican coalition.

In most circumstances, Democrats might consider a president from their own party to be the most logical choice to call out this important national shift on rights. And since Newsom delivered his cri de coeur last month, he has been inundated with questions about whether he was criticizing Biden or the Democratic congressional leadership. “I have such deep admiration and respect for Joe Biden … I would stand up for him for anything,” Newsom told me when we spoke. “This is not about Joe Biden.” He likewise said he didn’t think it was a responsibility of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to take the lead in calling out the red states. Newsom’s view is that Democrats everywhere—in local, state, and federal office and in all of the party committees—need to shine more attention on what’s happening.

Yet Newsom agreed with me when I suggested that leading the fight on these issues was not exactly in Biden’s comfort zone. Biden has criticized restrictions on abortion and voting, as well as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. But his political theory for his presidency has always been to focus on delivering benefits to working-class families while limiting his personal engagement in polarizing cultural disputes. As a 79-year-old white Catholic who once opposed school busing for desegregation and initially supported a constitutional amendment to allow states to overturn Roe v. Wade, Biden is not likely to fill the role of the inspirational defender of an inclusive, multiracial, multicultural society. The Justice Department has filed or joined legal suits against Republican-controlled states on issues including abortion, voting rights, bans on transgender girls participating in sports, and heightened penalties for public protest. But Attorney General Merrick Garland is a 69-year-old former judge whose moderate and institutionalist instincts likewise leave him ill-suited to galvanize the public against this rollback. Vice President Kamala Harris, in background and temperament, offers a better fit, but the administration generally hasn’t deployed her to deliver important political messages.

Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, the vice president and chief strategist at Way to Win, which funds campaigns and organizations focusing on voters of color, says Democrats haven’t responded more forcefully for a reason. Many Democratic strategists, she notes, operate on the belief that voters with conservative social views are more likely to vote on those views than voters with liberal social attitudes. Among Democrats, “there’s a fear that if I start talking about this, then are people going to think this is all I care about, and they won’t think I care about kitchen-table issues,” Fernandez Ancona told me. With so little sustained attention, Democrats have failed to articulate “the connection between all of these issues,” she continued, and created a politically fraught situation “like a Whac-A-Mole: One day you are talking about LGBT, one day abortion, one day about trans, one day about critical race theory and education in the schools.”

Jon Favreau, the former White House speechwriter for Barack Obama and now a co-host of the podcast Pod Save America, argues that Democrats don’t need to be “super-extreme” on cultural issues to counter a “super-extreme” Republican approach. “They have given up the entire broad middle,” Favreau says of the GOP. The real challenge for Democrats is to explain, “if we are going to be a multiracial democracy in the U.S., what does that look like? … No one has put it together in a story,” he says. “That’s where the vacuum is.”

Newsom doesn’t pretend he has divined the best approach to counter the red-state rights rollback, in terms of either tactics or message. He is open to reforming or eliminating the Senate filibuster, which Republicans have used to kill House-passed legislation on voting rights, LGBTQ equality, and abortion. But he is ambivalent at best about that idea. “I have mixed feelings because the minute we are no longer—which is a hot minute, potentially—in power, you better be ready to pay the price,” he told me.

He’s even more leery of another response to the rights rollback that many on the left are touting: enlarging the Supreme Court. Adding more justices, Newsom said only somewhat facetiously, would lead to a Supreme Court with 63 members, after the two sides leapfrogged each other with expansions each time they traded power in Washington. “One has to be careful about even having these conversations about stacking the Supreme Court, changing the rules,” he said, warning that they could alienate voters already inclined to think that Democrats “don’t have the respect” for American traditions.

In the near term, Newsom argues, blue states can try to compensate for the rights that red states are retrenching. He says he expects to sign a bill this year shielding transgender kids and their families who relocate to California from legal action in their home states. The California state legislature also is advancing a package of bills designed to help provide abortions to people from out of state. But he doesn’t see any of these policies as long-term solutions. “It’s a hell of a way to live,” Newsom told me. “We have abundance now and [could have] scarcity in a year and a half, when the effects of a recession are felt, and all of a sudden now we can’t accommodate these 33.6 million reproductive-age women from the 26 states that all want to descend on three or four blue states that were generous enough in the beginning but no longer can be as generous. I fear that.”

Besides, Newsom said, it’s dangerous for the core civil rights and liberties available in roughly half the states to diverge radically from those available in the other half. “Our capacity to live together, and advance together across our differences, is in peril,” he said. “That’s foundational in any civil society, and that’s why the illiberal impulses, the populist impulses, the nationalist impulses, which are not unique to America, are being exploited to great peril.”

The “existential” question, Newsom said, is how to preserve the rights that conservatives are targeting, which he believes will extend beyond the current list to same-sex marriage, contraception, and even interracial marriage. “I don’t have a great answer for it,” he admitted. An infinite list of practical questions is looming for Democrats and civil-rights advocates about how to respond to the GOP drive to rescind rights—a campaign that has included years of efforts to reshape the federal courts, solidify control of state legislatures, and encourage the spread of conservative ideas through groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council and Heritage Action. Democrats have spent years trying to develop responses, and they face years’ more work ahead. But the party’s urgent need now, Newsom seems to be arguing, is to clarify to the public that the fight is even happening, building awareness and rallying resistance. “We’re arguing about changing the rules,” he told me. “I’m arguing for changing our mindset and waking us up.”

Part of that effort, Newsom said, must be to encourage more engagement from business leaders, who might put out statements supporting reproductive or LGBTQ rights but who mostly have been “passive” and “complicit,” in his view. Newsom told me that at a recent dinner, he had pressed a group of 30 to 40 business leaders on their tepid responses to the red-state moves, particularly DeSantis’s punishment of Disney for opposing his policies. “I said, ‘Beware of what you wish for … Don’t think for a second [California] can’t play that same game.’” Newsom said he told the business leaders that he could just as easily demand that they “shut up on any piece of legislation” or else face rollbacks on “tax credits across the board, permits, zoning” and via his “bully pulpit.” His point wasn’t that he actually wanted to do such things; it was to confront the business leaders with the implications of their reticence. What DeSantis and other red-state governors are doing, Newsom said flatly, is “authoritarianism.”

Newsom has been voicing these complaints to his staff for months, but until his Planned Parenthood remarks, he had not expressed them much in public. He remains uncertain about how far to press this case, both because he realizes he doesn’t have all the answers and because he recognizes that, in taking these arguments to a national stage, he will inevitably face speculation that he’s running for president in 2024 or beyond. For the record, he told me, “I don’t know how many times you can say no in ways that others don’t say no.” One shouldn’t rule out the possibility of the governor of the nation’s largest state seeking the presidency someday, but for now Newsom does not seem interested in challenging Biden if he seeks a second term, or contesting Harris, a longtime ally, if Biden does not.

Fernandez Ancona said that building awareness of the rollback of seemingly settled rights will require a party-wide commitment that goes far beyond the effort of any one Democratic figure. “It’s going to take all of us beating this drum,” she noted. Newsom agrees, but he’s also clearly ready to turn up the volume on his own contribution. He is still debating whether the right time to speak out is during his general-election campaign this fall or after he (almost certainly) begins a second term. Either way, he appears ready to step forward. “I used to sort of feel like: ‘I am in my lane. I am just mayor of San Francisco. I am just lieutenant governor. I am just the governor,’” he told me, listing his previous offices in California. “I feel right now so frustrated that I feel like we need to amplify and express ourselves.”