It’s Easier to Avoid Culture Wars When You’re White and Male

Back in February, Washington Post political reporter David Weigel shared a revealing exchange with a man selling merchandise at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual event where the Republican Party bares its most primal instincts. The merchandise seller admitted that he was having a problem finding buyers for his hats and t-shirts attacking the president: “I can’t give the Biden stuff away.”

The story reminded me of an afternoon in 2016 I spent outside the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, where the GOP nominated Donald Trump. Walking the streets, I saw stall after stall of almost pornographically misogynistic merchandise featuring Hillary Clinton. Here’s a sample (it’s hideous, so feel free to skip this part):

Black pin reading DON’T BE A PUSSY. VOTE FOR TRUMP IN 2016. Black-and-red pin reading TRUMP 2016: FINALLY SOMEONE WITH BALLS. White T-shirt reading TRUMP THAT BITCH. White T‑shirt reading HILLARY SUCKS BUT NOT LIKE MONICA. Red pin reading LIFE’S A BITCH: DON’T VOTE FOR ONE. White pin depicting a boy urinating on the word Hillary. Black T-shirt depicting Trump as a biker and Clinton falling off the motorcycle’s back alongside the words IF YOU CAN READ THIS, THE BITCH FELL OFF. Black T-shirt depicting Trump as a boxer having just knocked Clinton to the floor of the ring, where she lies faceup in a clingy tank top. White pin advertising KFC HILLARY SPECIAL. 2 FAT THIGHS. 2 SMALL BREASTS … LEFT WING.

The vendors in Cleveland weren’t struggling to give this material away. To the contrary, it captured the convention’s real message better than anything Donald Trump said inside the hall. 

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Why does this matter now? Because as Joe Biden passes the one-hundred-day mark of his presidency, commentators are praising him for avoiding the culture wars that could impede his bold economic agenda. In an article titled, “No Culture Wars for Joe,” a writer for the Bulwark recently noted that, “Biden has been a de-escalator. It’s clear that he wants no part of this stuff. That seems smart to me.” A recent New York Times column argued that, “Biden’s strategy is to lower the volume on culture war issues by refusing to engage.” Democratic political strategist David Axelrod recently told the Associated Press that Biden is “a difficult target” for Republicans because “he’s not a provocative personality.”

OK, but why isn’t Biden a “provocative personality.” It’s not as if Biden’s strategy—emphasize popular expansions of the American welfare state while downplaying polarizing questions of racial, gender, sexual and religious identity—is unique to him. To varying degrees, it’s been the strategy of every Democratic president and presidential nominee in modern memory. In fact, Biden has probably downplayed such identity questions less than his recent predecessors. Neither Barack Obama’s 2008 nor his 2012 convention acceptance speeches included the word “racism.” Neither even included the words “African American” or “Black.” By contrast, Biden’s acceptance speech last year vowed to “root out systemic racism” and declared that, “the African-American community stood up again for me [in the 2016 primaries]. They always have my back, and I’ll have yours.” Imagine if Barack Obama had said that.

Similarly, it was Biden who in his 2020 acceptance speech used the word “transgender.” In hers in 2016, Hillary Clinton never did.

Obviously, this shifting language is partly the result of shifting times. Progressive activist movements have forced Democrats of all stripes to speak more forcefully about racism and transgender rights then they did a decade, or even five years, ago. But these examples also underscore how misleading it is to suggest that what distinguishes Biden is his strategy of avoiding culture wars. As if that never occurred to anyone else.

Obama and Clinton tried at least as hard as Biden to avoid language that threatened white men. But they proved less successful because their identities themselves primed many white men (and some white women) to perceive a threat.

Even when Obama framed his policies in non-racial terms, his critics often detected an anti-white agenda. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly all described the Affordable Care Act as a “reparations” bill. And when Obama did discuss race, however gingerly, he often paid a high price. For the first six months of his presidency, Obama’s approval numbers remained north of sixty percent. But they slid in July and August of 2009, a decline that the Pew Research Center attributed in large part to Obama calling the arrest of Black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. “stupid.” According to Pew, whites disapproved of Obama’s comments by a margin of more than two-to-one. Obama apologized for his remark but could not shake his reputation as polarizing. In polls, Americans were far more likely to describe Obama as “liberal” than they are to describe Biden now—even though Biden’s domestic policies are undoubtedly further left.

The contrast between public responses to Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden is even more dramatic, and even harder to attribute merely to differences in political strategy. In the summer of 2020, during the heart of his presidential campaign, Biden’s net approval rating—the percent of Americans who approved of him minus the percentage that disapproved—was zero. For Clinton at the same period in 2016, it was negative twenty. Among white men, the discrepancy between Clinton and other Democratic nominees was even more dramatic.

This discrepancy isn’t unique to Clinton and Biden. Women politicians are almost always less popular than comparable men. Throughout 2020, Bernie Sanders’ net approval rating was consistently positive—usually by double digits. Elizabeth Warren’s was consistently negative. During the 2012 campaign, Republicans attacked House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi in television ads seven times as frequently as they attacked Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. In 2016, they invoked her three times as often. Pelosi is more unpopular than Chuck Schumer today, despite having achieved far more.

The media tends to prefer personality-oriented explanations to structural ones. And it prefers stories about change to stories about things remaining the same. These impulses have combined to create a storyline that celebrates Biden for doing something innovative (avoiding divisive cultural issues) when, in fact, he’s doing something familiar. He’s just doing it more successfully because it’s easier to avoid being culturally divisive when you’re white and male. 

These realities may be neither particularly exciting not particularly uplifting. But they have the virtue of being true.

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