In his recent visit to Lawrence, President Barack Obama talked about the economy, which he said was improving — more jobs, lower budget deficits, cheaper gas. The political battle over who deserves credit for those improvements is getting underway, but few doubt the improvements are real.
We don’t need a presidential address, though, to know that the nation’s financial health is improving. Just look around. The culture wars are coming back.
Last week, likely Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee sparred with comedian Jon Stewart over sexuality and music. Huckabee is troubled by Beyoncé but is just fine with Ted Nugent. Conservatives and liberals argued over the boffo box office for the film “American Sniper” — is it a pro-war statement? Anti-war? Both?
Americans’ political differences are real, but the red-blue divide has always been as much about culture as political party. That can be hard to see when the economy slumps, because everyone is mad when gas is $4 a gallon.
When the economy improves, the culture wars come roaring back.
In 2000, a Democratic labor leader at his party’s national convention told me that his members were leaning toward supporting Republican George W. Bush that fall, even with strong wages and low unemployment.
Why? I asked. They think Democratic nominee Al Gore’s going to take away their guns, he replied.
Guns, school prayer, abortion, drugs, same-sex marriage, Beyoncé or Ted Nugent. If jobs continue to grow and wages increase, the 2016 presidential election debate may seem numbingly familiar.
There is a chance the pattern can be broken. Young voters, in particular, seem tired of rehashing arguments over personal choice — it’s one reason same-sex marriage seems inevitable and marijuana is becoming legal. Better, they say, to talk about such 21st-century challenges as education and online privacy, not another dispute over what kids should read or what adults can do in their bedrooms.
That message seems clearest from Paris, of all places, where as many as 2 million people recently reaffirmed the value of free speech — even distasteful speech. While American liberals and conservatives agree on almost nothing, almost everyone endorsed the French protests as an important reminder that liberty interests can transcend cultural differences.
Thinking freely, it turns out, could be the one thing that unites most of us. Let’s hope the 2016 presidential contenders grasp that fact, notwithstanding the recent revival of the culture wars.