David Weakliem writes:
Thomas Edsall has a piece in which he cites a variety of work saying that Democratic and Republican voters are increasingly divided by values. He’s particularly concerned with “authoritarianism,” which is an interesting issue, but one I’ll save for another post. What I want to talk about here is the idea that the recent rise in political polarization is the result of a rise of “cultural and lifestyle politics” at the expense of economic issues. The reasoning is that it’s easier to compromise on economics, on which you can split the difference, than on cultural issues, which involve principles of right and wrong. The idea that culture has been displacing economics as the main axis of political conflict been around for about fifty years—it was first proposed in response to the developments of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I think it has value (although with some qualifications which I discuss in this paper), but I don’t see how it can explain the rising polarization of the last decade or so. In that time, the single most divisive issue in American politics has probably been the Affordable Care Act. This is basically an economic policy, and a very complicated one involving a lot of technical issues—that is, exactly the kind of issue where it seems you could make deals, offering a concession here in return for getting something there. The second most divisive issue has probably been the combination of bailouts, tax changes, and stimulus spending that gave birth to the Tea Party: another complicated set of economic policies that seemed to offer lots of room for compromise. Meanwhile, some leading cultural issues have faded. For example, same-sex marriage is widely accepted—even people who aren’t enthusiastic about it have mostly given up the fight. Another example involves drugs: a consensus seems to be developing in favor of legalizing and regulating marijuana, and the rise in opioid abuse has been treated as a public health problem rather than producing a “moral panic.”
What I think these examples show is that both economic and cultural issues can be more or less “moralized.” There was a period in the middle of the 20th century when leading politicians of both left and right accepted the basic principles of the welfare state and government intervention to maintain high employment. But that consensus had not been around before then, and it isn’t around now. Now issues that were once part of what Seymour Martin Lipset called “the politics of collective bargaining” are part of the “culture wars.”
This is an excellent point. Weakliem should have a regular column in the New York Times.