The laws and bills emerging from many of America's statehouses are farther to the right than they've ever been. But the population overall continues to trend moderately leftward. How to explain this growing divergence between the government and the people?
Mostly, it's about the money.
Alabama, Tennessee, North Dakota, and Mississippi are among the latest to impose unprecedented restrictions on women's access to abortion services. All told, in the first three months of this year, 694 provisions related to reproductive health have come before state legislatures, more than half of them involving abortion restrictions.
We are seeing a similar surge of opposition to science education: in Missouri, Montana, Colorado, and Oklahoma, legislators have introduced bills intended to smuggle creationism and religious dogma into public school classrooms. And the Virginia attorney general is seeking to revive anti-sodomy laws: the way the law is written, that also means no oral sex in the Old Dominion, not even for married straight couples.
But public opinion polls do not suggest that Americans as a whole are trending toward support of this type of legislation. On abortion, the most noticeable feature of the survey data is how flat the trend lines are over the past decade. If anything, they show a very modest drift away from the hardline criminalization position on abortion and a shoring-up of support for Roe v Wade (now at around 70%, per Gallup and Pew). Studies also indicate that support for school-sponsored prayer is on the decline. The fairly dramatic, leftward shift in attitudes toward gay rights is well-established. And the re-election of President Obama – portrayed by the hard right as the epitome of everything wrong with America – should count for something.
Consider North Carolina. On the national stage, the state is as purple as it gets, with nearly 50-50 results in 2008 and 2012. So what brought on the red tide in the state capitol? A few years ago, Art Pope, a wealthy businessman with a far right political vision, decided to, in effect, buy the the state government. He invested millions of dollars in political campaigns, established thinktanks, and funded fellowships. Now, it's payday: North Carolina presently has an extremely conservative legislature and an extremely conservative governor, whose agenda includes the privatization of schools, an end to early education, and elimination of the state's income and corporate tax rates.
Oh, and the governor has just appointed Art Pope the state budget director. That's like the putting the man who wants to burn your house down in charge of fire prevention.
Of course, money can talk for liberal causes, too. It just happens that conservatives are getting more targeted political funding, and they have tended to invest it where it gets the biggest political bang: in the statehouses.
In recent years, the relative impact of money on our political system has gone up. Part of this is due to the US supreme court: by identifying money with speech, it has endowed rich people and corporations to speak loudly in the public sphere. Another part is due to the privatization of the lawmaking process. Groups like Alec, SPN, and Americans United for Life now serve as de facto lawmakers in many state governments. Such organizations bring together in secret meetings big donors with the politicians who need their campaign contributions, and then provide the legislation, word for word, that will make the money move from one pocket to the other. According to Brendan Fischer, general counsel for Center for Media and Democracy:
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"It is not unusual for politicians to hold fundraisers at Alec meetings, where lobbyists and corporate representatives are already gathered. But what is unique is the level of secrecy and excessive influence that they facilitate."
The rise of an increasingly powerful minority at both the national and state levels also has much to do with that ugly part of the political machinery called gerrymandering. The redrawing of state and congressional districts in order to lock in partisan advantages has created a slew of seats where Republicans are guaranteed to win. The consequence of that is that the Republican primary determines the winner of that seat. Because America's right flank is turning a deeper shade of red, in the Republican primary, the extremists have extraordinarily disproportionate influence.
It is by now familiar to see this empowerment of an increasingly reactionary minority dominating the economic and fiscal debates. In a country where overwhelming majorities support the continuation of social security, Medicare and Medicaid, the debate in Washington is all about how much to cut from these programs. While majorities routinely endorse a shifting of the tax burden toward the wealthy, the policy debates are mainly about how to shift them to the poor. And while creating jobs should be a top economic priority, the political establishment focuses excessively on deficit reduction.
So, how does the money end up in the culture war?
It is no secret that if you want to get large numbers of lower-income people to support a rightwing fiscal agenda, social issues are a necessary distraction. There is, however, another factor at work, and it has to do with the machinery of American politics. Where do you find the army of activists necessary to push through a rightwing economic agenda? How do you motivate people to commit the time and energy to run for minor political offices? How do you mobilize campaign staffers and volunteers?
That's where the culture wars come in. Pushing complicated tax schemes to sustain oil companies in their riches won't get a lot of state legislators and their supporters up in the morning. On the other hand, opposing abortion, stopping sodomy, and taking back the country for God will.
The culture war also allows this militant minority to sustain the delusion that it speaks for the majority. By wrapping guns and crosses in American flags, they derive power from falsely believing that they represent the "real America". And as they become bolder in their claims, those of us who, in fact, represent the majority – supporting equitable policies on taxation, gun safety, access to reproductive care and the like – tend to limit ourselves. We begin to believe that we represent a minority in our country. We don't.
Younger voters may, indeed, be shying away from extreme positions in the culture wars. But we can't rely on demographics to win these battles for us. Far-right ideologues are a smaller piece of the American pie – and yet, they are winning. The solution is for the rest of us to actively engage in the political process, on all levels.