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Raising the Volume

Candidates of both parties want to sit out the culture wars, but that's not possible.

February 29, 2004|Jonah Goldberg | Jonah Goldberg is editor at large of National Review Online and a syndicated columnist.

Meanwhile, American liberalism has grown cowardly and anti-democratic. It boldly spouts cliches about "giving power to the people," but in reality it increasingly distrusts the people. Unable to win at the polls and unwilling to compromise on ideological objectives, liberals empower judges to fight their battles for them. Gay marriage advocates claim to favor federalism, but federalism requires that local communities democratically decide the issue. That's what happened in a referendum in California, and yet when Mayor Gavin Newsom broke the law, the harshest criticism from gay activists was Massachusetts' Rep. Barney Frank's admonition that the mayor's "timing" was bad.

We like to say that the increasingly ugly battles over judicial nominations are a sign of increasing partisanship in the culture, when in reality they are a completely rational outgrowth of the culture wars. Because from abortion to affirmative action to gay rights (all issues where the bulk of the public disagrees with elite liberal opinion), liberals have gladly ceded the unpopular choices to an imperial judiciary that is more or less immune to democratic correction. John F. Kerry says he's against gay marriage, but does anyone doubt that he would appoint precisely the sorts of judges who rubber-stamp the practice? Indeed, speaking of America's leading "multilateralist," one could say that the Democratic Party's fetishization of the United Nations, the International Criminal Court and "coalition-building" generally suggests that many liberals would like to outsource all their losing issues to undemocratic institutions and hence absolve themselves of any responsibility for unpopular policies.

Of course, this White House hasn't been a profile in courage on so-called wedge issues itself. It's waffled on affirmative action, did as little as politically possible on abortion and has been "compassionate" to a fault on immigration. The calculation behind "compassionate conservatism" is illuminating. The White House is operating on an interesting insight into American politics in the wake of the culture wars: Majorities can feel as aggrieved as minorities. In part because of the megaphone given minorities -- racial, sexual, religious -- in our culture, we've reached a point where numerical representation in American life has been decoupled from cultural dominance. Bush emphasizes inclusion and tolerance partly because he actually believes in it, but more certainly because he knows that white moderates hate being called bigots. The 2000 GOP convention's cavalcade of diversity may not have garnered that many black votes, but it certainly encouraged moderate whites to vote Republican.

Or just look at the reaction of "orthodox" Christians -- some 100 million of them -- to last week's release of the movie "The Passion of the Christ." Their defensiveness in the face of a comparatively tiny number of (mostly liberal) Jews and secularists made it seem as if Christians are oppressed in this country.

And in a sense, they are. In Alabama, for example, Roy Moore's illegal Ten Commandments statue surely offended only a tiny, tiny number of people in that community. But the debate in the national community treated the incident as if half of America felt oppressed or "excluded" by the tablets. Moore's defenders asked: Who's hurt by a display of monotheism's central text? A few liberals responded, "I am." Well, today, many of the same liberals defend gay marriage by asking: Who's hurt by a loving same-sex couple getting married? The answer is obvious: millions of Americans who see state-sanctioned gay marriage as a symbolic affront to their values no less powerful than the symbolic affront posed by the state-sanctioned display of the Ten Commandments.

How all of this will manifest itself in the election is hard to say because neither candidate wants to be blamed for inflicting these issues on the American people. But the reality is that the American people will inflict these issues on the candidates. And then we will blame those candidates for doing something about them.

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