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Why Are Liberals Winning the Culture Wars and Losing the Tax Battle?

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During the memorable summer of 1969, men walked on the moon and the Stonewall Riot in Greenwich Village inspired the gay-rights movement. It was also a time when Richard Nixon, at the height of his liberal reformer phase, declared in an Oval Office address, "Abolishing poverty, putting an end to dependency – like reaching the moon a generation ago – may seem impossible. But in the spirit of Apollo, we can lift our sights and marshal our best efforts."

These days, presidents no longer invoke the utopian dream of eradicating poverty. But in a stunning cultural transformation – unimaginable to the protesters who rebelled against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn – the Senate voted Saturday, by a lopsided 65 to 31, to repeal the military's discredited "don't ask, don't tell" policy. In four decades, the nation has gone from arresting gays for drinking in a bar to allowing them to serve openly in the Marines.

These are heady days for cultural liberalism. Five states plus the District of Columbia perform gay marriages – and civil unions, once the daring left-wing position, are for the politically timid. Once the Bush administration was over and political pressures dissipated, both Dick Cheney and Laura Bush declared their support for gay marriage. Marijuana use is quasi-legal across a broad swath of the West – and 46 percent of California voters backed a 2010 ballot measure to end legal restrictions on personal use.

Gay RightsThe polling trend lines suggest that both gay marriage and marijuana legalization are the wave of the future. The gay-marriage debate is no longer dominated by evangelical ministers and the heirs to Archie Bunker. White voters, in fact, are evenly divided on gay marriage, according to a series of recent polls by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. An October Gallup poll found support for legalization of marijuana at a historic high-water mark (44 percent). In contrast, back in 1969, only 12 percent of those surveyed favored ending marijuana laws – and pollsters could not even imagine asking questions about gay marriage.

At the same time, the liberal economic agenda is in full retreat. During the high-decibel tax debate, no prominent Democratic political leader had the moxie to suggest that the proper policy would be to restore tax rates to their levels under Bill Clinton, once the economic downturn is over. Maintaining the Bush tax rates for the middle class is about the only bipartisan cause in this polarized era. The Obama health-care bill (even though it maintains the central role for private insurance companies in providing coverage and was stripped of its public option) proved politically toxic in an election year in which the Democrats lost 63 House seats.

So why are liberals winning the culture wars while simultaneously losing the political battles over big government?
"It's generational change – each generation is more socially liberal than the last," says Karlyn Bowman, a polling analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. The millennial generation (those born after 1980) are disproportionately liberal, backing Democratic House candidates by a 55-to-42 percent margin amid the 2010 GOP sweep, according to exit polls. This age group is the most supportive of gay marriage favoring it 53-to-39 percent in the Pew surveys. The polling on marijuana legalization is less generationally definitive, since baby boomers (no jokes about graying male ponytails, please) also remain culturally liberal on pot usage.

What is fascinating about gay marriage and marijuana legalization is that these remain issues that prompt most Democratic politicians to retreat to their own version of "don't ask, don't tell." As Scott Keeter, the director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, puts it, "It is remarkable in the case of gay marriage that public opinion has led the political leadership." More than 40 percent of the nation backs gay marriage and marijuana legalization -- without any major cheerleading from active politicians in Washington.

My favorite 2010 election statistic: More than 400,000 more California voters backed legal pot (4.27 million) than supported free-spending Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman (3.85 million). The pro-marijuana movement has probably been the most successful stealth cause of the last decade. Trying to explain it, demographer Cheryl Russell refers to a sociological rule (she cannot recall its author) that says: "When you get one-third of the population behind you, you can get political results." As Russell explains, "With one-third support, if you can get the independents who are neutral, you're over the top."

A Gallup Poll released on Dec. 9 found that 67 percent of all voters endorsed eliminating "don't ask, don't tell" and a nearly equal number (66 percent) backed keeping all the Bush tax cuts. Unlike other surveys, this particular Gallup poll question did not give voters the option of extending the Bush tax cuts only for the middle class. But the poll did underscore the Democratic conundrum: Why have they won the argument on gay rights and lost it on taxes?

An obvious guess is that these positions correspond with the world view of the entertainment industry. Whether it is gay rights, sexual permissiveness or just-say-yes attitudes on recreational drugs, Hollywood has long been at the barricades. But since the days of "Norma Rae" (1979), few movies or TV series have taken a definitive position on the class struggle. My hunch is that a poll of Hollywood would find about 98 percent support for gay marriage but a self-interested majority would object to higher taxes on those earning more than $250,000 per year.

Not many high-priced Washington lobbyists and lawyers get entangled with social issues, since these are not the kind of causes that pay the rent on K Street. When they do get involved out of conviction – such as conservative attorney Ted Olson and liberal lawyer David Boies (the two principal litigators in Bush v. Gore) challenging the California gay marriage ban – it is usually on the socially permissive side of the ledger. In contrast, Washington lobbyists are paid to be fierce battlers in favor of lower tax rates for their clients, a major factor in tilting the congressional tax debate in the conservative direction.

Maybe it all comes down to the simple answer that the American people are, at their core, libertarians -- suspicious of both the taxman and the government's attempts to regulate social behavior. But whatever the explanation (and, as they say in academia, the topic deserves further study), Saturday's Senate vote was a cultural watershed.

In fact, I wonder if any of the New York cops wielding billy clubs during the 1969 Stonewall Riot mockingly shouted, "Tell it to the Marines!" at anyone who protested their civil rights were being violated. Now 41 years later -- with the patchwork Clinton "don't ask, don't tell" compromise repudiated -- gay Americans finally can tell it to the Marines.

Follow Walter Shapiro on Twitter (lucky you).
Filed Under: Democrats, Gay Rights, Taxes

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94 Comments

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Rob & Kathy

Winning? Have you seen the approval rating of Obama and the Democratic Congress lately?...The results of the last election?...

December 21 2010 at 12:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sysaphus71

Walter,
How about this in a nut shell,
Let the people who would like to make money, do so with out fear of being singled out for that success.
Let the people be free to be who they are ,just as long as your rights end at my nose.
A free an independent people will live on.(well longer than most)

December 21 2010 at 10:17 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
designmefashions

THIS IS NOT GOOD

December 20 2010 at 10:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
methnkng

The fact is Americans are basically fair people, and have come to see that gay marriage rights is just basic equality, and that marijuana laws are just plain dumb.

Americans are also begining to see that our tax laws are not fair. Give it a few years, and we will see a proper balance in ownership of national wealth restored.

December 20 2010 at 10:13 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
sndmthru

Big government costs big money .... paid only by a few, for many who feel they are "entitled" to take rather than earn. Social culture .. it doesn't cost bucks to "marry", so who really cares. But I find it strange: biology discriminates against same sex marriage, & civilization generally moves ahead on scientific knowledge. Funny how PC folks dump science on this issue. The marriage license, legitimizes what kids? Same sex folks never have, & never will produce naturally a kid. Every person on earth has come from a hetersexual union, even the gays, & that's not going to change with a marriage license.

December 20 2010 at 9:44 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
petergrfx

This article hasn't much to say about the second half of it's thesis: why liberals are losing the tax battle. They're losing the tax battle because that fight is a stand-in for the overall economic policy and ideology struggle, which is about fundamental questions of power. Except for a handful, today's liberals, especially including President Obama, have conceded the power struggle to corporate America - Teddy Roosevelt's "malefactors of great wealth" - and its ideological front-men, free-market ideologues. The only argument is about what few concessions the liberals might wring from the economic powers-that-be as long as they don't challenge that power itself. That's why Obama's health care reform, however laudable its potential achievement in covering 33 million Americans, does NOT establish health care as a right instead of a market-place commodity.

Class warfare, you say? The class war is over; the winners are just collecting their tribute - military-industrial complex supporting wars without end, privatized everything, lower taxes, weaker and fewer unions, phony corporate-approved net neutrality that does not cover today's mobile-computing center, etc.

December 20 2010 at 9:29 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
bellerophon85a

As the culture gets more liberal there are fewer conservatives willing to pay the tab.

December 20 2010 at 8:39 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bellerophon85a's comment
ubroc

It is an article of faith of conservatism that they never have and never will want to pay the tab.

December 21 2010 at 8:25 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Jen

Why because, The top 1% earners pay 40% of the countries taxes. The bottom 50% earners pay less than 3% of the countries taxes. Liberals do not deal with facts, they deal with an ideology that has failed in every country already tested.

December 20 2010 at 8:28 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Jen's comment
petergrfx

The deregulated economy of the free-market ideologues' dreams just sent the world's economy into the worst tailspin since the Great Depression. It is a proven failure, yet the social democracies of Europe, despite recent trimming, have provided a higher quality of life for decades, especially as measured by health and longevity. When you say,"Liberals don not deal with facts, they deal with an ideology that has failed in every country already tested," methinks thou doth project too much.

December 20 2010 at 9:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ubroc

And in what country has unfettered, unregulated capitalism produced success and not financial calamity.

December 21 2010 at 8:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Frankie

Liberals are winning because the constitution throws social conservatives a curve ball.

December 20 2010 at 8:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
robertsdvm

Socially liberal but fiscally conservative? Sounds like Libertarian to Moi.

December 20 2010 at 7:48 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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