When Edsall says middle- and working-class cultural conservatives vote for Republicans who then use their power “for noncultural objectives,” he is voicing a familiar liberal lament: All would be well if voters would vote based on important issues — material, economic concerns; their wallets — rather than unimportant ones such as abortion, the definition of marriage, the coarsening of the culture and other moral anxieties. But if those issues are unimportant, why is it that liberals, adamantly supporting partial-birth abortion and celebrating judicial redefinitions of marriage, are so uncompromising about them? ~George Will, The Washington Post

Via Rod Dreher

On the whole, Will shows Edsall to be a strange, unreconstructed progressive of the truly old school, for whom redistributive justice is not a contradiction in terms but a guiding principle, and duly belittles the bizarre canards that Edsall throws out that bring us back to the winter of 1995, the winter of bitter contempt (”the Republicans want to destroy the welfare state”! if only!).  But I think he is so caught up in smashing Edsall to tiny bits on everything else that he has missed something important here by mischaracterising the nature of Edsall’s point.

I think I see how Will drew his conclusion from Edsall’s statement quoted above, but surely if there is anything that Edsall echoes here when he complains about cultural conservatives’ support being translated into support for an agenda unrelated to the very cultural questions that win the GOP these conservatives’ support it is a cultural conservative’s lament.  This is the lament that says more or less the following: cultural conservatives are being foolish, not because they ought to vote their ‘real’ economic interests and allow cultural issues to confuse them into voting GOP (the Thomas Frank thesis), but because they lend their support as cultural conservatives to a party that does next to nothing to advance their interests in the “culture wars” beyond the merely rhetorical.  In other words, they vote for fighting the culture wars and get government expansion, profligate spending, tax cuts and foreign wars; yes, they get some of their judicial appointments, which are many cultural conservative bafflingly regard as sufficient and good reason to accept the ongoing neglect they receive, so long as they get the appropriate lip service every once in a while.  As a co-dependent cultural conservative might say, “You had me at ’culture of life’.” 

If Will has quoted Edsall correctly, Edsall has hit on something that most liberals/progressives tend to miss in their general fear of the coming theocracy and all the angry conservatives coming to terrorise them: that middle and working-class cultural conservatives have been ripped off on precisely those things that matter most to them.  Not only would a progressive regard this harping on cultural issues to be a kind of misdirection from the things that ‘really’ matter to these folks (and here Will is right to make a connection with the What’s The Matter With Kansas argument), but here Edsall makes it plan that the whole thing is a rather elaborate con to win supporters who will receive no ‘payoff’ in the form of getting an agenda that they want. 

Forget questions of growing wage inequality for a moment; forget all of the “bread and butter” issues on which Democrats are (in their own quaintly deluded minds) “better.”  What Edsall claims is what some traditional conservative already know: the GOP is diffident, if not sometimes outrightly subversive, in its support for precisely the things that cultural conservatives take seriously.  Then, having successfully conned these people out of their support in exchange for no substantive policy changes, they throw them bones in the form of obviously over-the-top, zany crusades, such as federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case.  This would be like the abusive husband buying the battered wife some elegant piece of jewelry to show her that he really loved her, and never mind about the time he slammed her head into the wall.  Likewise, look at the craven pandering of the Terri Schiavo intervention–as clear an attempt to buy off supporters as the GOP’s exploitation of Elian Gonzalez for propaganda purposes was–and never mind about sticking a shiv into Judge Roy Moore during the Ten Commandments fight (Bush), or signing off on Plan B (Bush) or approving federal funding for stem cell research (Bush again), and so on and so forth.  For some cultural conservatives, the entire faith-based initiative was the ultimate Trojan Horse for a secularist invasion of Christian charities in particular.  Where real cultural conservatives–or at least those who would consider themselves to be the ‘real’ thing and not the knock-off version–see the intrusion of the government in the form of government money, and all the attachments and requirements that can potentially bring with it, “compassionate conservatives” see a useful way to exploit the issue of some generic “faith” to show that the GOP cares about “values” more than the other guys.  Yet for the people who actually embrace these “values” as a way of life, the actual policies of “compassionate conservatism” represent the same kinds of unwelcome intrusions on their way of life under a different flag.  Nothing could point more clearly to the disjunction between what the GOP proposes and what many of its religious and cultural conservative voters want to see.   

For dedicated conservative anti-Republicans, such as myself, none of this lament is news, but it is interesting that an otherwise unimaginative and rather dreary liberal seems to appreciate this point, since I have personally encountered liberal Democrats who simply stared at me with a look of confusion mixed with horror when I brought up a similar point.  I was dining with an academic and his wife from Indiana-Bloomington one night in the spring before the ’04 election and they were making various lamentations about the general foolishness of Indiana voters (”they just vote on abortion!” and other such stellar What’s The Matter With Kansas observations before WTMWK came out).  Trying to put an unusual spin on this tired old story, I said something like, “The ridiculous thing is that the Republicans will do nothing for their pro-life cause.”  Evidently they did not see this as particularly relevant, and the conversation moved to something else.  Edsall is interesting to me in that he sees this observation of the GOP’s considerably cynical exploitation of cultural issues as relevant to his own side’s way to combat Republican advantages among these folks. 

Meanwhile, Will satisfies himself with the easy batting practise of knocking Edsall’s much more obviously inane observations out of the park.  Batting practise is fun for columnists and bloggers–I personally enjoy the fat, hanging curveballs served up on a regular basis at The Corner–but occasionally even the sloppiest pitcher can slip one by you if you become complacent.