Trump Wants a Culture War. Are Democrats Ready to Fight Back?

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Photo: Pete Zarria / Flickr
Media Outlet: New Republic

Lee Drutman was quoted in a piece from the New Republic about how issues of culture and economy are going head-to-head in our current political divisions. 

Yes, Trump won Democratic-leaning voters with an economic message of preserving the social safety net and upending job-stealing global trade agreements. But to a large extent “Make America Great Again” was a cultural message disguised as an economic one—an air raid siren, rather than a dog whistle, to voters who feared an increasingly diverse country.
Democrats appear to be aware of this. You only have to look at the cultural minefields that are not mentioned in Better Deal: immigration, gay rights, abortion, Black Lives Matter. This represents a huge shift for Democrats, who heavily emphasized these issues in the Obama years and in Hillary Clinton’s presidential run, presuming America’s changing demographics had permanently tilted the culture wars in their favor. In the case of Clinton, they were wrong.
Trump outflanked Clinton and the Democrats with so-called populist voters, those who generally favor socially conservative and economically liberal policies. This gave rise to that unlikely figure, the Obama-Trump voter, who voted for Barack Obama and the man most famous for perpetuating the racist myth that Obama was not born in the United States. Six months into Trump’s presidency, it’s increasingly clear that he thinks that his cultural message is the more important of the two. A study conducted by the Voter Study Group’s Lee Drutman largely bore this analysis out, finding “the primary conflict structuring the two parties involves questions of national identity, race, and morality, while the traditional conflict over economics, though still important, is less divisive now than it used to be.”
To an extent, both parties are now retreating to terrain that has produced success in the past. “It’s a battle over what the most salient set of issues will be,” Drutman told me. “Is it economic? Or is it culture and identity? Democrats rightly win if it’s about economics, but they lose if it’s about culture. Their obvious strategy is to make it more about economics because they’ll perform better if those concerns are more salient. Republicans’ obvious strategy is to try and make it more about culture and identity.”

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Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the program on political reform at New America. He is the author of The Business of America is Lobbying (Oxford University Press, 2015).