WASHINGTON – The uproar set off by legislation in Indiana and Arkansas that sponsors billed as religious freedom measures not only signaled a revival of the culture wars, but also threw into stark relief the expectations and tensions in the coalitions that now make up the two major political parties.
The contrasting reactions to the proposals – Democrats united in opposition, Republicans torn by dissent – illustrates how the parties have effectively traded places.
Democrats, for decades a heterogeneous and often fractious amalgam of voters, have become overwhelmingly liberal on cultural issues like gay rights and abortion. Their belief reflects a party now dominated by a socially progressive coalition of millennials, minorities and upscale whites, many of them secular.
This is the party of Barack Obama.
“The voters that President Obama brought into the process as activists have moved these issues forward in the Democratic Party,” said Anita Dunn, a former top aide to Obama. “He brought a great number of people into our coalition as participants, not just voters, which has really helped bring a degree of cohesion around these issues.”
That few Democratic strategists believe the party’s full-throated opposition to the legislation represents any kind of political risk underscores their assumption that they are now on the offensive in the culture wars. Indiana and Arkansas, therefore, offer wedge issues to be exploited, not divisive issues to be straddled.
“After a generation of Republicans using social issues as a club over the head of Democrats, they now work in Democrats favor,” said Doug Sosnik, a longtime Democratic strategist.
For Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presumed Democratic presidential front-runner, the only peril she could have faced within her own party would have been if she had not weighed in unambiguously, as she did, to criticize the proposals as discriminatory.
Thanks to both the shifting cultural consensus in the country and a more ideologically uniform party, the defensive politics once practiced by former President Bill Clinton and other Democrats trying to appear in the mainstream on issues like gay rights and race is no longer required.
Now it is the Republicans who are being pressed to demonstrate their political dexterity on cultural issues. They must pacify a Christian conservative base that increasingly feels under siege while also not turning off their business wing and the broader electorate, both of which have moved to the left on what they see as matters of equality.
Tensions have long existed between both more libertarian-leaning and economic-oriented conservatives and those drawn to Republican politics because of their faith. But those tensions were more easily papered over in an era where the cultural consensus was further to the right. Now, with that consensus changing, bottom line-focused businesses like Wal-Mart have made common cause with Democrats, prompting Republican governors such as Mike Pence of Indiana and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas to re-evaluate their support for what proponents refer to as religious freedom measures.
This has left many Christian conservatives feeling politically abandoned.
“What was driving this train wreck over the last week is a corporatist domination of some sectors of the Republican Party,” said Russell Moore, a senior official with the Southern Baptist Convention, decrying what he called “an Ayn Rand-ian vision of the public good.”
“When it comes to the sort of cringing apologies that we’re seeing out of some Republican leaders, they seem to be saying: ’We have nothing to fear but Wal-Mart itself.’??”
The anger at those leaders has been raw, and the broader debate has blurred many traditional allegiances.
This week, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, took aim at Wal-Mart, long a target of the left. “You want to rollback religious freedom?” Perkins wrote on Twitter, questioning the country’s largest employer and a historically conservative institution. “Goodbye Walmart, Hello neighborhood grocery.”
The Tea Party movement has fostered a rising skepticism among some conservatives toward big business, but those sentiments had previously lacked a cultural element. That has changed. Already, some in the party are seizing on what they see as an opportunity to fuse social conservatism with at least rhetorical populism.
“The Fortune 500 is running shamelessly to endorse the radical gay-marriage agenda over religious liberty,” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican presidential candidate, declared Wednesday in Iowa. Yet to others in the Republican coalition, the contentious debate on display this week about how to reconcile religious liberty with nondiscrimination was but an inevitable, if unsightly, moment in a party’s transition.
“The party is less anti-gay now than it was five years ago and I think five years from now it will be even less anti-gay than now,” said the longtime Republican pollster Glen Bolger, noting how many young Republicans support same-sex marriage. “The whole country is changing and the Republican Party is changing, too, just more slowly.”
A Wall Street Journal-NBC poll released last month found that 40 percent of Republicans supported same-sex marriage. In 2013, just 27 percent of Republicans backed such unions.
What could be significant in the coming Republican presidential contest, however, is the convergence of events around gay rights. Not only are Christian conservatives losing the argument against same-sex marriage, they are losing through judicial decisions that they believe undermine the democratic will of states that have barred such unions.
“They’ve lost, they believe they’ve lost unfairly and now they’re being told you have to go along with practices you consider to be a grave moral offense,” said Henry Olsen, a conservative scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, referring to the prospect of businesses being made to offer services at same-sex weddings.
The combination is sure to stoke Christian conservative demands that Republican presidential prospects speak with a clear voice about marriage and religious liberty.
“This, in turn, will force a harder choice on the candidates about what degree they want to embrace these positions that will help them win the support of a large, but not determinative, element of the Republican nominating electorate,” Olsen said.
Evangelicals such as Cruz, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas wasted little time this week positioning themselves as protectors of what they see as religious liberty.
Other candidates in the race eyeing different or broader coalitions – including Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida – were either quiet about the issue or tried to strike a more nuanced position.
Democrats say it is as a familiar situation.
“What’s happening in their party is the very conservative, evangelical wing is still trying to drive the party in a way the activist groups really drove the Democratic Party in the ’70s and ’80s,” said Al From, founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Coalition. Democrats came to more of a consensus, From said, but something fundamental eventually happened. “The country has changed dramatically.”