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Can Biden End the Culture War?
Biden's State of the Union address was boring. For a country defined by identity politics, there was almost nothing about identity. That’s a good thing.
Welcome to new subscribers who read my piece on Andrew Tate’s conversion to Islam in. As you’ll find here, the question of how we think about culture and identity and what it means for American democracy is at the forefront of my thinking and writing, for better or worse. Which is why I found myself somewhat surprised by Biden’s speech.
One of the most under-appreciated developments of the Biden era is just how productive it’s been. In his State of the Union address, the president made note of this several times. He’s right, even if he exaggerated the scale of bipartisan cooperation. Like in life and love, things are never quite as good as a politician says they are. The good thing, though, is that they’re rarely as bad as you think they are, either.
As the writer James Sutton argues in an important piece, Congress is more functional today than it has been at any point in at least a decade. Some of the bipartisan legislation is minor—the sorts of things you’d have to be a monster not to support. But some of it is significant, substantive, and even good. The myth of American gridlock is precisely that: a myth.
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Two massive and ambitious spending bills—the American Rescue Plan Act and the Inflation Reduction Act—were certainly productive but they were not bipartisan, passing as they did along party lines. But there was the historic $1 trillion infrastructure bill which cleared the senate on a 69-30 vote. There was also the CHIPS Act—$280 billion to boost domestic semiconductor manufacturing and research—passed on a 64-33 vote. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Senate passed a (modest) bipartisan gun control bill by a vote of 65 to 33.
I’ve been following these trends for some time, and even I find them somewhat remarkable. Am I missing something? Is this real? Yes, it is.
No one likes polarization, or at least no one says that they like it. It’s a topic for another post, but I think polarization gets a bit of a bad rap. For the health of democracy, at least some polarization is necessary. Polarization means not only that citizens are disagreeing, but that they are disagreeing on foundational questions. And they probably should, because no one should be asked to suppress what they believe to be true. America is a diverse society, so conflicting opinions should see the light of day—on when life begins (or when life ends), what it means to be a nation, what it means to be a citizen, and what it means to be one gender or another or no gender at all. Opinions on issues as contentious as these should be discussed and debated openly without fear of legal sanction. And that’s what American democracy makes possible for all its faults. It’s unruly, chaotic, and overwhelming but also as vibrant and alive as I can remember it.
But of course there is such a thing as too much polarization, when it becomes felt so intensely that one party is unwilling to accept the democratic outcome if the other party wins. As I discuss in my book The Problem of Democracy, this is, well, the problem: what do we do when democracy produces “bad” outcomes, particularly when we as citizens no longer agree on what constitutes good or bad outcome in the first place?
So it’s good that politicians, including presidents, decide at least every now and then to dial things down. It may or may not be sincere. Just like with “political conversions,” we know not the hearts of men. But we can listen to what they say, because when they have influence, when they are the leaders of their party, they set a tone. The more a president talks about culture war, the more the other party will talk about it. The less the president talks about it, the less others will talk about it, too.
I don’t know how long it will last, but this is why I appreciated the de-polarizing tone of Biden’s address. If an alien had descended from outer space with no prior knowledge of American politics or the fights of the past few years, they probably would have been surprised to discover that America’s most consequential divides are those about identity, culture, and religion. Because Biden barely talked about them.
The vast majority of the speech was about relatively boring things like the economy and how America is great and special. Which it is. (Read my “love letter” to America here). The latter can be controversial if one gets into specifics about why it’s great or whether it’s as great as it once was, but as boilerplate political rhetoric, this is pretty tame stuff. The only real exceptions were somewhat awkward mentions, almost in passing, of abortion and transgender rights. There were also brief mentions of policing and race as well as gun control, but these were presented in vague enough terms to be mostly inoffensive, even to some of the more unhinged folks in the crowd. After all, it’s one thing to be sort-of racist or racist-adjacent (as I imagine Marjorie Taylor Greene might be) but it’s quite another to think that some action shouldn’t be taken to make it harder for police officers to use deadly force against unarmed black men.
Of course, with the horrific killing of Tyre Nichols last month, the role of race and racism was less obvious, so it would have been much harder for even the most enterprising culture warrior to fashion a narrative of “white supremacy.” The five men who beat Nichols to death were black.
Biden’s address was a reminder that cultural escalation is not inevitable. It is a choice. The Democratic Party doesn’t have to choose it. And it can choose its leaders accordingly. This isn’t to say that Biden has completely resisted the pull of hyper-wokeness. He hasn’t. And there’s probably no way to avoid it entirely if you’re a Democratic politician. But, for a moment, it was possible to imagine a country where the culture war, real as it is, becomes less of a war and more of an uncomfortable reality that we learn to live with.
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