The Year When Only the Economy & Budget Mattered: State Edition

Regular readers of my stuff here and there probably know that I have spent a lot of time this election cycle mocking the Beltway belief that voters–and particularly Republican voters–are fixated with a steely resolve on economic and fiscal issues to the exclusion of everything else. This has been a corrollary of the even more fundamentally erroneous belief that the GOP’s Tea Party faction was especially focused on such issues, and/or that the Christian Right is dead or dying.

The recent lurch of the GOP into what even many Republicans are describing as a losing battle on contraception coverage has pretty much resolved this issue at the national level. And anyone paying attention to what conservative legislators and governors have been pushing at the state level, particularly in those states when they seized total power in 2010, sees the salience of cultural issues even more.

John Gramlich has penned a nice summary of this phenomenon for Stateline which you should read; here is an excerpt:

Even though most legislatures are still in session, 2012 already has seen debate on a wide range of social issues that range from gun control to sex education. But it has been abortion and gay marriage that have attracted the most attention.

Virginia was one of several all-Republican states, including Alabama, Idaho and Pennsylvania, where lawmakers debated legislation requiring women to undergo ultrasound tests before having an abortion. Virginia’s measure sparked national protests due to a provision — later removed — that could have forced some women to undergo invasive vaginal ultrasounds. A barrage of criticism from groups representing women and physicians led McDonnell to demand that lawmakers remove the provision before he would sign it.

Republicans in Idaho faced their own backlash, tabling their ultrasound measure for the year, but many other abortion restrictions have moved forward. Among the most prominent is a new law in Utah, where Republicans tripled the waiting time before women can have abortions, from 24 hours after an initial consultation with a doctor, to 72 hours, the longest such period in the nation.

“Usually, in major election years, we see less attention on social issues, including abortion,” says Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion-related legislation at the state level. “This year, we’re seeing more attention around abortion and family planning issues.”

What seems to have made this trend surprising to a lot of people is the inability to grasp that these issues are why a lot of conservatives go into politics to begin with. If pushing a culturally counter-revolutionary agenda harms their electoral prospects, so what? It’s an end in itself:

“The social conservatives looked at the [political] conditions and said, ‘Here’s our time,’” says Dan Palazzolo, a political science professor at the University of Richmond.

Progressives should find this sort of reasoning familiar, since it echoes their own debate about whether in 2009 the Obama administration should have focused on landmark achievements or on mid-term election prepositioning. At some point, you do have to ask: what are these successful political coalitions for anyway, if not for moving the dial on what we most care about?

In any event, much as GOP pollsters and “strategists” keep deploring the cultural-issues focus, with even some notable culture-warriors like VA Governor Bob McDonnell suggesting his comrades are going too far too fast, it’s unlikely to stop. It’s not so much that conservatives can’t help themselves–it’s that they just don’t want to. If, after all, you believe America has begun to resemble Nazi Germany in its “Holocaust” of the unborn (not a very good direct analogy since the Nazis had very tough anti-abortion laws of their own, but you get the idea), or various ancient decadent societies like Babylon and Rome in its “moral relativism,” then why just mess around with stuffing money into the craw of corporate executives or vitiating the social safety net? That’s all important and worthy, conservatives mostly agree, but why just focus on bringing back the economy and the public sector of a distant Golden Age when you can bring back the culture as well?

For an awful lot of conservatives, of course, it’s really not a choice: cultural decadence, as represented by the emancipation of women and the tolerance of degenerates, is the root of all evil, including the noisy demands of “looters” for economic equality. The same “originalist” views of the U.S. Constitution, as informed by the divine-and-natural-rights language of the Declaration of Independence, dictates fetal “personhood” and special privileges for conservative Christians as well as absolute private property rights and the repeal of the New Deal and Great Society. So a lot of the debate you hear in the chattering classes about economic/fiscal as opposed to cultural issues is quite literally nonsensical to the kind of people making laws and waging culture wars around the country.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.