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Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson listens as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on 23 March. Alex Brandon

Larry Donnelly Republicans are reviving the culture wars ahead of the US midterm elections

Our columnist says Republicans in the US are agitating around the culture wars to energise their base ahead of the US midterms in November.

“CAN YOU PROVIDE a definition for the word ‘woman’?” So asked Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of President Joe Biden’s choice to take up a seat on the United States Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson.

I daresay that the framers of the constitution and students of the history of Supreme Court nominations never imagined that this question would be posed to a nominee at a hearing. Jackson, a federal appeals court judge, answered indirectly: “I’m not a biologist.”

Senator Blackburn retorted that “the fact that you can’t give me a straight answer about something as fundamental as what a woman is underscores the dangers of the kind of progressive education that we are hearing about.”

Misguided questioning

Although this line of interrogation is objectively bizarre, it actually is no surprise with midterm elections coming in November that conservatives are agitating around the culture wars.

Indeed, during the hearing, several GOP senators played to the cameras and an audience of the party’s grassroots and many millions of Americans who believe the “liberal agenda” has gone way too far.

It’s been said here before, and it is worth repeating, that the US is anomalous in that a significant percentage of the electorate, mainly on the right but also on the left, votes first and foremost on social issues. James Carville, Bill Clinton’s adviser, coined the famous mantra: “it’s the economy, stupid.” Not always, however.

Both parties, largely due to the influence of powerful vested interests, have drifted to the ideological poles on these topics. By way of tangible example, the anti-abortion Democrat and the pro-choice Republican have one thing in common: as an officeholder, each is a virtually extinct species.

That said, owing to some systemic realities and the inescapable truth that the US is still a fundamentally conservative country in lots of respects, the Republicans’ hard pivot rightward has been politically advantageous and the Democrats’ lurch to the left has been a political liability.

Culture wars

The two new grounds on which the culture wars are being waged are on the rights of transgender persons and on parental control of what is being taught in American public schools. Republicans have moved quickly as of late to capitalise on what their political consultants tell them can be gained here.

On the latter, it is arguable that the upset triumph of Glenn Youngkin over Democratic stalwart Terry McAuliffe in the 2021 gubernatorial election in Virginia – in addition to the clever manner in which Youngkin finessed his relationship with Donald Trump – stemmed from a remark McAuliffe made at a debate between the two men. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

This may seem a perfectly reasonable statement in the abstract. But in an already inflamed climate, many parents – and more importantly, grandparents – took it to mean that their kids would be exposed to social engineering and to radical, ultra-secular indoctrination. And some parents whose outlook is progressive were aggrieved because they believe that matters such as religion and sexuality should be their preserve and introduced to their young children at home, not in school.

Democrats should obviously avoid duplicating gaffes like McAuliffe’s. Rather, and even if it might appear incongruent with the party’s overarching philosophy, they should make the case that what is to be covered in the public school curriculum beyond the “As, Bs and Cs” should be decided at local level by school committees and boards who, crucially, must listen to the input of justifiably concerned parents.

Republicans have sponsored an array of legislation that would deny rights to transgender persons. For instance, a bill rendering it a crime punishable by life in prison for parents to seek out gender-affirming health care for their transgender children was just passed by a 55-13 majority in the Idaho House of Representatives. The proposed law may be of dubious constitutionality; it nonetheless has garnered the vociferous approval of a huge majority who reflexively deem all of this insane.

This is an exceptionally complex and sensitive area that involves a tiny segment of the population. Most of us cannot comprehend the lived experiences of transgender persons. Democrats should not offer pronouncements that can be perceived as condescending and instead personalise the subject: What would any parent do if a child was in this position and struggling? Parents would want to help, and the type of assistance provided would naturally depend on the needs of the individual child.

Furthermore, Democrats should cite the refusal of Spencer Cox, the Republican Governor of Utah, to sign a bill that would prohibit transgender athletes from participating in girls’ sports. Cox, noting that there were only four transgender children out of 85,000 student athletes in the state, opined that “rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few” and expressed the worry that an outright ban could place the lives of these four children at risk.

The abortion question

Of course, abortion remains the single biggest obstacle to electoral success for Democratic hopefuls in red or purple states. Almost on its own, a broad aversion to the practice guarantees Republican dominance in what has been derisively termed “flyover territory.”

The politically astute formula Bill Clinton employed to encapsulate a stance that won him elections in Arkansas – “safe, legal and rare” – has since been dismissed as a misogynistic relic by pro-choice activists in the party.

The language of the platform is similarly uncompromising and efforts to soften it have been repelled. Notwithstanding the inflexibility of the Democratic National Committee and big money donors, candidates should add the following caveat when quizzed: “For many Americans of all races and creeds, abortion is a complicated moral issue. It is something on which people of good faith can disagree. And it is to be welcomed that the rate of abortion in the US continues to drop.”

In the end, much of the rest of the world wonders at what might aptly be described as a uniquely American preoccupation with the culture wars. But the political potency therein is extraordinary, perhaps, especially during midterm election campaigns. The women and men who cast ballots in them tend to be older, whiter and more religious. That is why Republicans are going “back to the well” again. Doing so certainly benefits their standard bearers and they would be foolish not to.

Not because I am particularly prescient, but because the culture wars are a perpetually vexed quandary for Democrats, I wrote here a year ago that “congressional Democrats and their strategists have no excuse for not anticipating what is coming down the tracks. Will they be ready for it this time?” Consider the foregoing as unsolicited advice.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with The Journal. His new book – The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family – is published by Gill Books and is now available in all bookshops.

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