For the GOP, the Culture War is Especially Risky

Doubling down on the culture war could lead to trouble for the Republicans

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2021. Image Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As a political science student, I had the good fortune to read Morris Fiorina’s “Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized America.” As the subtitle suggests, the book maintained that the view we have of entrenched red and blue Americans is largely false—that strong numbers of Americans share the same opinions, even on moral and religious questions. At the time I read the book—the very end of the George W. Bush years—it seemed almost impossible to believe that we weren’t irrevocably divided as a country on any number of issues, and particularly on ones as visceral as abortion and gay marriage.

But it turns out that Fiorina’s argument was not only accurate then, but it really holds up. As hard as it is to believe, even in 2023, Americans still aren’t as divided on moral issues as much of the media would have us think. Clear majorities of Americans believe that our national defense should be at least as strong as it is now (88%), abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances (85%), same-sex marriage should be legally recognized (71%), and that it’s very or somewhat important for companies to promote ethnic and racial diversity in the workplace (75%).

In the face of seemingly endless reports of how polarized we are as a nation, the fact that we share so many commonalities seems like great news on the surface. Yet both parties seem to be interested in waging a culture war these days, with Republicans and Democrats both fighting about where the country’s headed on a range of social issues, from abortion to transgender rights to classroom curriculum.

Democrats surely have their own culture war troubles: Their stances on several social issues simply don’t match where the bulk of the country currently stands. A plurality of Americans believe, for example, that when it comes to views on issues surrounding transgender and nonbinary people the pace of change is going too fast. And while most Americans say abortion should be legal in some situations, they’re not supportive of extending the right to abortion throughout pregnancy: Less than 30% believe abortion should be legal at 24 weeks, for example, while nearly 50% say it should be illegal at that point. This disconnect between where the Democratic Party stands and where many Americans stand could herald some turbulence in next year’s elections.

But it’s the Republican Party, which has at least to date staked much of its 2024 messaging on culture war matters, that may have the most to lose. In reality, Republican voters are far from a monolithic bloc in their opinions on what should be done regarding the hot-button culture war issues of the day. Should Republican candidates continue doubling down on fighting “woke-ism,” come November 2024, they may find themselves on the outside looking in, wondering where it all went wrong.

Republicans Aren’t So Sure about the Culture War

Without a doubt, culture war issues have come to dominate conservative discussion over the past few years. Some leading voices in the party and conservative media frequently say that critical race theory has infiltrated American classrooms, companies are kneeling at the altar of wokeness, and the left is on a rampage to destroy traditional American values. But once you get out of this conservative elite echo chamber, you find that these views don’t really match what the GOP electorate is thinking and feeling.

Recent polls show that a sizable chunk of the GOP electorate doesn’t think the culture war is as big a problem as the party’s messaging indicates. The most important issue facing America? According to a March NPR poll, Republicans believe far and away that it’s the economy. Pocketbook issues tend to matter most to voters across the political spectrum, and with the possibility of a recession looming in the not-too-distant future, Republicans’ concerns about economic and financial matters are likely to grow. In contrast, minuscule numbers of Republicans say abortion and education are the most pressing issues facing the country (5% and 2%, respectively).

But what about ground zero for “wokeness”—schools? A 2022 Ipsos poll finds that only 3 in 10 Republican parents believe they have too little say in what their kids are being taught. Furthermore, three-quarters of Republican parents say that their children’s school “does a good job keeping [them] informed about the curriculum, including potentially controversial topics.” This doesn’t exactly match the GOP message of woke schools running amok. Perhaps parents believe wokeness in schools is a problem happening elsewhere, but they don’t see it as a problem in their own kids’ schools.

Mickey Mouse’s Worst Nightmare…or the GOP’s?

So that’s the backdrop we have going into 2024: There’s seemingly a mismatch between the GOP’s messaging on the culture war and what many Republican voters actually believe about that fight. Still, not surprisingly, wokeness has already emerged as a major storyline for the GOP presidential primary.

And so far, although he hasn’t officially announced a run for the presidency, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has set himself up as the most “anti-woke” candidate in the race. He’s set out to remake the traditionally progressive bastions of higher education in the Sunshine State. He’s just signed a state ban on abortion at the six-week mark as well as a bill last month allowing Floridians to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. And of course, he’s been at war with Disney since its opposition to his “Don’t Say Gay” law a year ago.

Ironically, DeSantis built his reputation in Florida on competent and smart governance—crafting COVID policies that balanced health and business concerns—rather than culture war issues. But it seems that in DeSantis’ mind, the culture war strategy is a winning one. But is he right? After winning reelection in November by almost 20 percentage points, one would be foolish to discount his political instincts. However, more and more signs suggest that he might be miscalculating. While there’s still a long way to go before any votes are cast, support for DeSantis’ expected candidacy has fallen in recent months.

According to the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls, the governor trails Donald Trump by almost 30 percentage points. There are a number of reasons why that may be happening—lack of name recognition (again, he hasn’t even entered the race yet), a perceived lack of charisma or connection with voters—but his stance on culture war issues may also be turning off some Republican voters.

Take, for example, the state’s new six-week abortion ban. A March University of North Florida poll found that more than 6 in 10 Florida Republicans oppose the ban. Again, the vast majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in certain circumstances, and this ban seems to be a bridge too far for even many Republicans to accept. The same goes for DeSantis’ high-profile feud with Disney. According to a recent Ipsos poll, a full 36% of Republicans believe that DeSantis is punishing Disney for simply exercising the company’s free speech rights—in this case, over Disney’s opposition last year to enactment of a Florida law banning the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation through the third grade. While this is a minority of Republicans, it’s still a sizable one—and one that could hurt DeSantis (and divide the party) in the primaries and cut into his support from Republican leaners and independents in the general election.

This taps into an ultimately inescapable problem within the Republican Party when it comes to the culture war: Taking a stand on culture war issues frequently also means taking a stand on the role of government. Should the government stay out of cultural matters—or should the government be used to remake society in a more culturally “conservative” way?

Last week, Florida state Sen. Joe Gruters—who up until earlier this year was chairman of the Florida Republican Party—voted against a DeSantis-backed bill to annul two special agreements that allowed Disney to bypass state control over certain government functions on the property that houses Disney World and other company theme parks. After his vote, Gruters said that “people’s pocketbooks are more powerful at influencing corporate behavior than the heavy hand of government.” At this point, it looks like Gruters has a better sense of what Republican voters might want than his governor and some other party leaders on this issue.

Electoral Peril

The results of the 2022 midterm elections show the danger of going all-in on culture issues. While certainly a big reason behind the GOP’s worse-than-expected performance in several states was poor-quality candidates, culture war issues also made a difference in some close elections that Republicans ended up losing. Take the Wisconsin gubernatorial race, where incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers narrowly defeated the Republican candidate, Trump-endorsed business executive Tim Michels. This was a race in which a culture war issue did loom large: With the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban took effect—a law that made it a felony for doctors to perform nearly any abortion.

Thus, abortion became a central issue in the campaign, but not in a way that helped the GOP. Indeed, exit polls showed that more than 3 in 10 Wisconsin voters considered abortion the issue that most affected their vote; and of those voters, more than 8 in 10 cast their vote for Evers. Now, history could be on the verge of repeating itself—this time at the national level.

Already, DeSantis’ commitment to the culture war is something that other declared and undeclared candidates seem to be willing to exploit in their own quests to win the GOP nomination. Trump has called DeSantis’ fight with Disney a “political STUNT!”, while Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich recently tweeted, “President Trump wrote ‘Art of the Deal’ and brokered Middle East peace. Ron DeSantis got out-negotiated by Mickey Mouse.” Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley rolled out the red carpet for Disney on Twitter, saying that “my home state will happily accept your 70,000+ jobs if you want to leave Florida.” She continued: “SC’s not woke, but we’re not sanctimonious about it either.”

While the Trump camp has largely focused on the idea that DeSantis has been out-maneuvered by Disney, other prominent Republicans have criticized DeSantis’ heavy-handed use of government in his Disney dealings. Former Trump White House counselor Kellyanne Conway recently told Fox Business’ Larry Kudlow that DeSantis “spends way too much time on the culture wars, and that begins with Disney and includes many other things…. Woke is important, but you can’t have that as a replacement for a bold, growth-centric economic plan.” Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—now considering another presidential run—recently told Semafor: “I’m a conservative, and I believe as a conservative, the job of government is… to stay out of the business of business. I don’t think Ron DeSantis is a conservative based on his actions towards Disney.”

So rather than being a galvanizing and uniting force for the GOP going into what’s sure to be a bloody primary season, the culture war is emerging as a wedge issue among Republicans. DeSantis and other primary competitors will likely try to prove their anti-woke bona fides in an attempt to win the support of more extreme voters, who are more likely to vote in primaries. But even if that strategy works, once primary season is over the nominee will have to run back to the center, trying to pick up enough moderates and even Democrats to be elected president. That will be particularly challenging to do if the culture war remains a central topic of discussion among Republicans.

Meanwhile, independents make up a larger share of voters than either party, and most are fairly moderate on cultural issues. For these voters, who traditionally determine the winner in presidential contests, a Republican candidate who has made the culture war a cornerstone of the campaign will likely be a non-starter.

It’s also worth considering what a commitment to fighting the culture war above all else will mean for the GOP should the party lose the presidency in 2024. Let’s say that DeSantis becomes the Republican nominee but then falls short in the general election. If exit polls indicate that his loss was driven by his stance on abortion and other culture war matters, the GOP will be forced to do some real soul-searching. His loss would send a strong message that Republicans had gone too far on social issues. After several years of vociferously standing up to all things woke, the GOP would truly be adrift.

Does any of this really open the door for a Republican presidential candidate who’s opposed to the culture war fight? Maybe not. So far, the one candidate explicitly running against the culture war, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, is polling at less than 1% among Republican voters. But at the very least, it indicates a soft shoulder for the GOP in the general election. When it comes to the culture war, the GOP would be wise to tread more carefully than it has to date. Otherwise, bitter party division and more electoral losses will likely be coming.

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