Members Only | February 23, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

‘Culture-war issues’ are human-rights issues worth fighting for

Remember this, Democrats.

Gretchen Whitmer.
Gretchen Whitmer.

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The culture wars … are a distraction,” Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer said at a National Governors Association meeting last week.

That’s a common refrain among Democrats, as the Post’s EJ Dionne wrote. Pundits and politicians argue that trans issues, immigration, abortion and school censorship are niche issues intended to divide the polity. They’d rather talk about supposedly universal topics, like the economy and good jobs at good wages.

If you abandon human rights, you will find it very difficult to argue for, or build support for, programs designed to advance human dignity and equity.

Matthew Yglesias pooh-poohed Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ efforts to ban books that discuss Black history or that portray LGBT people … as LGBT people. Concerns about this, he said, were just “identity politics for librarians.” Democrats should instead, he argued, focus on DeSantis’ plans to gut Social Security.

The economy is important. So is Social Security. 

But ignoring fascist attacks is a mistake.

They harm real people
The “culture wars” are a massive, ongoing, rightwing moral panic that has sweeping, terrifying health and security effects on Black people, women and LGBT people, among others. Ignoring that, or suggesting it’s unreal or a “distraction,” is immoral.

When “culture wars” occur in other countries – for example, when China puts Uygurs in reeducation camps or when Russia bans public discussion of LGBT people’s existence — we refer to them as “human rights violations.” 

Human rights abuses in the US cause great suffering. The Supreme Court assault on abortion rights could increase maternal death rates by 24 percent. There are numerous stories of women in critical medical condition who were refused care because doctors feared prosecution under abortion bans.

Similarly, the growing orchestrated campaign of hatred against trans people has led many states to try to ban health care for trans youth. This puts trans young people at significantly higher rates for depression and suicide

Black people face pervasive discrimination that leads to brutally disproportionate incarceration rates and terrifying maternal death rates, to name just two outcomes.

These are real, material consequences. 

They harm real people. 

Racism, leveraged
Moreover, as many Democrats have pointed out, they motivate real people to vote.

Abortion was a powerful issue in driving Democratic voters to the polls to defeat Republicans in the 2022 midterms. That’s part of why Democratic governors like JB Pritzker in Illinois and Whitmer have pushed for laws expanding abortion rights.

Black voters are central to the Democratic coalition. In 2020, they voted 92 percent to 8 percent for Democrat Joe Biden over former President Donald Trump.

Furthermore, contra Yglesias, book bans aimed at marginalizing Black and LGBT people are incredibly unpopular.

Eighty-three percent of Americans say books should not be banned for criticizing American history. Before the midterms, 75 percent of voters said preventing book banning was important to them when they went to the polls.

Perhaps even more importantly, culture war issues — or human rights issues — are not distinct from economic issues. They have a direct effect on our ability to ensure economic prosperity for all. 

“Culture war” is meant to make voters fear that the wrong people will receive aid. Rightwing moral panic has been a powerful force in undermining class solidarity and progressive economic programs.

In his 2018 study Race and the Undeserving Poor, political scientist Robbie Shilliam argues that the poor have historically been divided into deserving and undeserving on the basis of race and racialized categories. 

Poor relief in England, Shilliam argues, was attacked and undermined because relief was said to reduce virtuous English men to the status of enslaved people. Those on relief were, in Shilliam’s term, “blackened.” 

Racism was leveraged against the poor of every race.

‘More crudely racist’
Shilliam’s study is focused on the UK, but you can see the same process in the US.

Republican strategist Lee Atwater infamously explained that seemingly race-neutral economic policies like “cutting taxes” were popular with some (white) voters because they understood that those policies would ensure that “blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

Arguments for gutting the social safety net are persistently framed through racist framing. Ronald Reagan referred to “welfare queens” — Black women who Reagan said didn’t need aid, but who supposedly gamed the system to become wealthy. 

That image became central to the attack on welfare recipients as undeserving. It allowed Bill Clinton and the New Democrats to add work requirements to welfare, making the poorest families poorer and disconnecting many families with children from the social safety net entirely. 

Shilliam argues that the Democrat’s use of dog whistles and their social conservative focus on the undeserving poor in this period “was arguably more crudely racist and misogynistic” than even the GOP.

The same issue
The successful stymieing of Biden’s anti-poverty initiatives continues to follow the same pattern. Opponents target a supposedly undeserving underclass with barely concealed racist dogwhistles.

Biden’s Expanded Child Tax Credit was incredibly successful in lifting children out of poverty. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and other conservatives, however, opposed renewing the CTC because they worried that the payments would lead parents to quit jobs and spend more money on drugs. 

There is no evidence that the CTC led to higher drug use or lower employment. Manchin was simply channeling racialized myths about the undeserving poor. He might as well have called CTC recipients “welfare queens.”

Racism, sexism and worries about gender nonconformity create an impetus and an excuse to frame certain people as undeserving and noxious. That allows conservatives to shred the social safety net. 

Yglesias urges politicians to ignore DeSantis’ attack on Black people and LGBT people, and focus instead on his threats to Social Security.

But these issues are the same. 

DeSantis is trying to build hatred for marginalized people so that the public sees them as undeserving. DeSantis can then use claims of “undeserving” recipients to attack programs like Social Security.

By the same token, DeSantis wants to cut Social Security in large part so he can immiserate marginalized people.

Nothing good is safe
Democrats are vacillating. 

Like Whitmer, they say “culture wars” — human rights — are not worth fighting for, even as they take steps to buttress abortion and LGBT protections. They see the importance of fighting for marginalized people but are tempted by conventional wisdom and Clintonian triangulation.

We shouldn’t go backwards. 

There is no way to defend the safety net while ignoring the attacks on those who most need it.

If you abandon human rights, you will find it very difficult to argue for, or build support for, programs designed to advance human dignity and equity.

The public, which supports voting rights and opposes book bans, understands this. Democrats should as well. 

When you let fascists pick their targets unopposed, nothing good is safe. 

Not even Social Security. 

Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

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