It was a revealing convergence Monday when the five-member conservative Supreme Court majority delivered the Hobby Lobby contraception decision even as President Obama announced that House Republicans had officially shelved immigration reform.
Both disputes reaffirmed the GOP’s identity as the champion of the forces most resistant to the profound demographic and cultural dynamics reshaping American life — and Democrats as the voice of those who most welcome these changes.
And both clashes captured a parallel shift: While Republicans took the offense on most cultural arguments through the late 20th century, now Democrats from Obama on down are mostly pressing these issues, confident that they represent an expanding majority of public opinion.
Veteran pollster Stanley B. Greenberg captures this almost unprecedented Democratic assurance when he declares flatly: “Republicans are on the losing side of all of these trends.”
Beyond contraception and immigration, the parties are escalating their conflicts over a broad suite of issues that divide the electorate along cultural lines, including gun control, gay rights, abortion, and climate change (which politically pivots on trust in science). Combined, these confrontations are stamping the GOP as what I’ve called a “Coalition of Restoration” primarily representing older, white, religiously devout, and nonurban voters who fear that hurtling change is undermining traditional American values. Democrats in turn are championing a younger, more urbanized, diverse, and secular “Coalition of Transformation” that welcomes the evolution in America’s racial composition and cultural mores.
As Obama struggles through his second term, it’s clear one of his signal legacies will be cementing the Democrats’ connection with that coalition’s cultural priorities. It’s easy to imagine Hillary Clinton or another future Democratic presidential nominee offering more centrist fiscal or foreign policies than Obama. But on cultural issues Obama has led his party across a Rubicon.
Reversing their frequent ambivalence after the 1960s, Democrats are now following their president into an unswerving embrace of cultural and demographic change. That shift reverberates through Obama’s defiant recent pledges to act unilaterally if necessary to ensure equal workplace treatment of gays, protect undocumented immigrants, confront climate change, and overcome the Hobby Lobby decision allowing religious-based private companies to exclude contraception from their health insurance plans.
Some disagreement has persisted, but Democrats have unified around this agenda far more than on similar questions earlier. Even red-state Democratic senators facing reelection, such as Arkansas’s Mark Pryor and Alaska’s Mark Begich, quickly condemned the Hobby Lobby decision. No Senate Democrat last year voted against either immigration reform or legislation prohibiting employers from discriminating against gay workers; only four dissented on universal background checks for gun purchases.
In mirror image, Republicans are solidifying against these ideas. Not only red-state but also swing-state Republicans uniformly praised the Hobby Lobby decision. Though some GOP senators sided with Obama, House Republicans have blocked action with little dissent on immigration reform, workplace protections for gays, and universal background checks. House and Senate Republicans uniformly decry Obama’s climate initiatives.
The risk for Republicans is that on each of these conflicts, polls show Obama’s position represents majority opinion today — and that majority will likely grow because the groups that generally support his views most are increasing as a share of voters.
A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, for instance, found that Americans backed the contraception mandate by a 53-41 percent majority. But at least three-fifths of minorities, millennials, and college-educated white women — the growing groups central to the modern Democratic coalition — welcomed the mandate.
Likewise, in a Gallup Poll last fall, more than three-fifths of Americans supported a ban on employers discriminating against gay workers, which Obama now plans to address through executive order. But those numbers soared past 70 percent among millennials and college-educated white women. And while just over half of all Americans support gay marriage, that number again reached around 70 percent with both groups, according to Pew Research Center polling.
Those same two groups also express the most concern about climate change — and along with minorities display preponderant support for immigration reform. Conversely, the older and blue-collar whites who now anchor the GOP coalition typically express the most opposition to action across all these fronts.
The biggest crack for Democrats in this alignment is that Hispanics and African-Americans (especially older ones) take less-liberal positions than upscale whites on gay rights and abortion. But the GOP has failed to exploit that opening because its commitment to the views of its older white base on other issues — such as immigration, health reform, and the social safety net — has alienated those minority communities.
The result is that amid public unease over Obama’s economic and foreign policy record, cultural affinity has become the Democrats’ most powerful electoral weapon. The party’s deepening embrace of cultural liberalism may make it tougher for it to hold some red-state House and Senate seats, but is improving its position with the cosmopolitan states and growing demographic groups that key its presidential majority. In a year when so many other clouds are gathering over them, that’s a trade most Democrats would probably take in a heartbeat.
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