Politico, Dem Consultants Dismiss Immigration, Police Reform as “Culture War’ Issues, Despite Materially Impacting Tens of Millions of Working People
A recent Politico article framing a DCCC poll shows how casually identity-specific oppression is dismissed as frivolity, rather than a matter of material livelihood.
Politico released select findings of an alleged Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) poll that insisted Democrats running for Congress should avoid so-called “culture war issues” as the 2022 midterms loom. Aside from the fact that the poll was presented as good faith advice rather than what it almost certainly is—preemptive scapegoating of progressives in anticipation of a near-certain midterm blow out—the article offers useful insight into how very serious, material issues are dismissed as “culture war” frivolity simply because they are seen as disproportionately impacting people of color or LGBTQ.
The headline, “GOP culture war attacks 'alarmingly potent,' DCCC warns,” gives one the impression the article will be about Republicans going after Democrats for focusing on online debates about the diversity of an upcoming Marvel film or spending tremendous political capital defending sophomores at Oberlin who thought banh mi at the cafeteria was cultural appropriation. So what were these “culture war” issues?
When faced with a “defund the police” attack, for instance, the presenters encouraged Democrats to reiterate their support for police. And on immigration, they said Democrats should deny support for “open borders or amnesty,” and talk about their efforts to keep the border safe.
It says everything about the casual racism and default reactionary posture of U.S. media and our political consulting class that meaningful post-George Floyd police reform and the push towards humane immigration are trivialized as “culture war” issues without any pushback.
The U.S. spends nearly $300 billion annually on policing and incarcerating 2.2 million people. As Tara O'Neill Hayes writes, “the societal costs of incarceration—lost earnings, adverse health effects, and the damage to the families of the incarcerated—are estimated at up to three times the direct costs, bringing the total burden of our criminal justice system to $1.2 trillion.” Police stops, harassment, court fees, lost income—even aside from the humiliation, emotional and mental costs—are absolutely a kitchen table economic issue. If getting stopped, fined by police, and thrown in jail—where one remains for weeks if not months or years—isn’t an “economic issue,” then what is?
Families struggling to enter the U.S. aren’t doing so because it’s a “culture war” preference. They’re entering the U.S. to seek economic opportunity and better their economic security after, in many instances, their home countries were ruined by U.S. economic and foreign policy. Years of deductive wars and coups in Latin America that helped cause the rise in immigration weren’t carried out by the WTO, DEA, US Army-training programs and the CIA because of a whimsical cultural preference: They did so for material, economic reasons. Their impacts are thus a material, economic issue.
Though not explicitly said, the subtext of Democrats’ “obsession” and “focus” on “culture war issues” in the Trump era almost always has had a parenthetical and implied “trans issues.” “Trans bathrooms” or “trans issues” are routinely dismissed as pointless culture war time-wasting Democrats can set aside for some longer term, larger political victory. But again, discrimination and, yes, cultural hostility, very much have downstream economic impacts. Anti-trans bigotry impacts trans people’s ability to find shelter, healthcare, and employment. Trans people are disproportionately poor and anti-trans policies, hundreds of which are making their way through state legislators, threatens to worsen these economic stakes.
This isn’t to say “culture war” issues cannot exist in the sense that relatively low stakes culture issues take center stage at the expense of bigger issues. The recent two-day news cycle about the gender of M&M’s comes to mind. But police budgets, severe border crackdowns, and the basic humanity of trans people are tremendously urgent political contests with real human stakes. Just because they don’t appear to impact our culturally understood and implied “swing voter” of Joe White Guy in the suburbs doesn’t mean they are mere “culture war” fodder. (Though it’s worth noting many of these so-called “culture war” issues, like directing resources from police to social welfare would help working class whites. But since they are only used an avatar for left-punching from our cynical elite rather than humans, this is deemed irrelevant.)
Ultimately, running right on “culture war issues” is what a party does when it can’t offer big picture economics wins. When it doesn’t support single payer healthcare, universal basic income, free college, or myriad other nominally race-neutral policies, If it cannot provide a meaningful enough alternative to Republicans, just tweaking differing Covid relief packages, then this is the logical end point. The idea that Democrats don’t have the image of a party that cares about “kitchen sink” issues because they haven’t recently done anything to promote robust, cross-racial economic populism, and thus ought to do more of it, isn’t even entertained as an option. No, it must be because they talk about other “culture” issues that are perceived to impact people of specific races rather than white people, or in some post-racial way. The solution therefore isn’t to become more economically populist—it’s to run from anything that polls badly and hope people don’t notice.
Pay close attention to this sleight-of-hand: how our media takes a seemingly common sense observation—that politicians can often focus on relatively unimportant issues not impacting the material conditions of working people—and subtly pivots from this to urgent, very much material, economic issues with massive stakes for working people. Just because an issue has been racialized or is perceived as only impacting “those weird queer people over there” doesn’t mean it is a mere “culture war issue,” for many of our most vulnerable working people they are very much matters of life and death.