The Aggressor Principle in the Culture Wars
Also, what Biden was trying to do on Thursday night
The Aggressor Principle
The political terrain on abortion has changed; this much is clear. The obvious practical reason for this change is Dobbs, but Dobbs prompted a mood shift, a critical one, that implicates the aggressor principle.
What is the aggressor principle in culture war politics? Put simply, the aggressor principle is that when it comes to culture war issues in our politics, the side that is perceived to be the aggressor is the side that is likely to lose politically. I believe this principle generally holds up, but even if/when it doesn’t, I think it’s helpful to think about how your candidate or your cause might be viewed by some as the aggressor, not just as a matter of political strategy, but as a civic practice.
One of the things Roe did was it made it very difficult for the pro-life side to be viewed as the aggressors, because there were significant restrictions on what pro-life advocates could actually accomplish. With Dobbs, one of the biggest hurdles to more aggressive pro-life legislation and action is gone, and so the plausibility of the pro-life side as the aggressors in this culture war battle has significantly increased. Indeed, Dobbs itself is perceived by many to be an unthinkable act of aggression or imposition.
Some pro-life advocates get this, I think. For instance, both Ramesh Ponnuru (with the National Review) and Catholic ethicist Charles Camosy have come out calling for congressional Republicans to engage more actively on abortion. Ponnuru wants Republicans to propose legislation to ban (just!) late-term abortions. Camosy writes for Fox News:
But what if Republicans in New York focused on the fact that the Empire State, after the passage of the Reproductive Health Act, is a haven for some of the worst abortion extremism in the entire world? What if Republicans all over the United States had a coherent campaign focusing on the fact that the Democratic Party itself stands for this same kind of extremism?
Back in 2016 I wrote a joint op-ed in the Los Angeles Times showing that the party’s position was unequivocal support for abortion, with a pledge to repeal all state and federal laws restricting it. They even insisted that abortion was "core to women’s, men’s, and young people’s health and wellbeing." They removed protections for religious freedom and insisted pro-lifers should have to pay for abortions with our tax dollars.
Here’s a Republican candidate (albeit in a very tough race) who gets it:
This approach would almost certainly be an improvement for pro-life advocates than the current trajectory. More Americans view abortion as morally acceptable now than ever before. 2 than they have in decades.
The aggressor principle applies to a range of culture war issues, and it determines the outcome of just about all of them. Keep it in mind as we head closer to the midterms.
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Biden’s Speech in Philadelphia
We discuss Biden’s speech in Philadelphia on this week’s episode of Wear Are We, and so listen there for more complete analysis.
The upshot of my view is that the topic of the speech, if you take the topic to be our democracy and respect for democratic institutions and processes, is an essential one. I also think the electoral politics of the speech are probably good for Democrats. It’s smart politics to try to center this category of “MAGA Republicans” and try to force Republicans running in November to react to it and be defined in light of it. It also seems to me that on the grounds of democracy, and in light of how Republicans responded to Donald Trump from 2015-2020 (cowering, flattering, etc.) and how many of their candidates are running in 2022, it is justified to have concerns about how a Republican-led Congress would defend democracy (voting rights, peaceful transfer of power, honest debate, etc.).
I do think President Biden’s speech missed the mark in critical ways, however.
First, while I know it’s politically advantageous to keep the category of “MAGA Republicans” amorphous, Biden had a responsibility to be more clear and specific in the speech. At the very least, he should have limited the categorization to political officials. Instead, the speech actually ratified the the toxic polarization we have today.
As I noted in the podcast, though Biden made a couple small gestures to being above the fray, he did nothing to back up those statements which made a mockery of them. You can’t say you’re "not the President of red America or blue America, but of all America,” but then not make a specific concession to the other side, or admit any fault of your own.
As The Washington Post noted in an editorial, Biden had nothing to say about party campaign committees propping up MAGA candidates in Republican primaries. Biden could have rejected calls from the left to scrap the Electoral College, or he could have decried gerrymandering when either party does it.
As president for all Americans, one has to recognize the deep, and in many ways symmetrical, distrust between Republicans and Democrats. A recent survey from the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics highlights this, including in the finding that seventy-three precent of Republicans believe that “Democrats are generally bullies who want to impose their political beliefs on those who disagree.” Guess how many Democrats believe the same about Republicans? Seventy-four percent. Similarly, the vast majority of both Democrats and Republicans believe members of the other party are “generally untruthful and are pushing disinformation.”
One striking thing about the University of Chicago poll is how it portrays a partisan antipathy that is not just vertical, from voters up to elected or party officials, but horizontal, how Republicans and Democrats view each other. This is deeply troubling. It’s another reason why Biden should have been careful to stay focused on a more narrow set of actors, rather than leave his categories open to interpretation.
Second, an explanation for something that confounded me (and others!) hit me while recording the episode. Biden’s conflation of democracy with aspects of his agenda seemed to many to be partisan and manipulative (and, uh, that interpretation is plausible), but I think he subscribes to the view that practically, not technically or theoretically, his agenda is central to defending democracy. That is to say, though he wasn’t explicit about the logic, I think the subtext of Biden’s speech is that if government can’t function better and meet people’s needs, they will be more prone to embrace anti-democratic leaders and values. Now I think there’s good cause to be skeptical and hesitant of this line of argument (one must consider motivated reasoning when your theory of what is needed to save democracy rests on the success of your policy agenda), but it does make sense of the speech better than I could otherwise (Outside of it being purely a campaign speech).
Mike Gerson’s essay in The Washington Post, in its combination of both grace and searing critique, and its acknowledgment of multiple realities and perspectives while being clear about dividing lines, comes closer to the kind of speech Biden should and could have given in Philadelphia.
Third, some of the rhetoric in the speech was just flat-out ominous, in a way that, again, affirms partisan antipathy. This, in particular, should never have made its way into the speech:
And now America must choose: to move forward or to move backwards? To build the future or obsess about the past? To be a nation of hope and unity and optimism, or a nation of fear, division, and of darkness?
MAGA Republicans have made their choice. They embrace anger. They thrive on chaos. They live not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies.
Now this theme of light v. darkness was the central theme of Biden’s nomination address at the DNC just a little over two years earlier than his Philadelphia speech. In that speech though, he was careful to not ever really categorize his opponent as “darkness” themselves. Now, in Philadelphia, it’s all MAGA Republicans (again, who exactly are we talking about here?) who don’t just support dark things, but who “live…in the shadow of lies.”
The speech reminded me of two things that happen when you’re in The White House. First, over the course of a president’s time in office, they almost always become more insular and less open. When you’re in The White House, you’re on the receiving end of an endless stream of affirmations and critiques, and over time, White House’s can become calloused. They develop a firm sense of who their friends are and who they are not, and they can personalize, even more, political disagreements and gamesmanship.
Second, when you have a motif that the president has embraced already, like light v. darkness, it makes it that much easier to return to the theme throughout the presidency. Because it has been vetted, people become desensitized to it. Appealing to the theme is a way to ease the path toward getting a speech or announcement done. In the Obama Administration, “the arc of the moral universe,” was an example of this. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s how you build up a vernacular, and it’s a way for everyone in an Administration to be following the president’s lead (or using that as cover for their own agenda…but that’s another issue for another day). But I do wonder, though I know Biden was deeply involved in this speech and had final signoff, if the new expressions of the light v. darkness motif sailed through without reservations because the White House felt like they were on well-worn territory.
A couple final comments:
Reading the speech again, I was struck by how much President Biden said that was important and aspirational, but ignored in much of the coverage. Here are some excerpts:
We can’t allow violence to be normalized in this country. It’s wrong. We each have to reject political violence with — with all the moral clarity and conviction this nation can muster. Now.
We’re a big, complicated country. But democracy endures only if we, the people, respect the guardrails of the republic. Only if we, the people, accept the results of free and fair elections. Only if we, the people, see politics not as total war but mediation of our differences.
The soul of America is defined by the sacred proposition that all are created equal in the image of God. That all are entitled to be treated with decency, dignity, and respect. That all deserve justice and a shot at lives of prosperity and consequence. And that democracy — democracy must be defended, for democracy makes all these things possible. Folks, and it’s up to us.
Democracy begins and will be preserved in we, the people’s, habits of heart, in our character: optimism that is tested yet endures, courage that digs deep when we need it, empathy that fuels democracy, the willingness to see each other not as enemies but as fellow Americans.
Why were these sections underappreciated? In large part, I think, it’s because excerpts make claims that are actually quite out of vogue on both sides of the aisle. The activist energy in both parties is toward coming up with exceptions where these claims do not apply. They have become the kinds of things you say when you have the power, when you’re setting the terms of debate, when you want to appear magnanimous, but when the rubber hits the road they’re discarded. Regardless of how Biden intended his speech to be heard, partisans on both sides took parts of his speech to fuel sentiments that are contrary to the values and convictions expressed in the excerpts above. These values cannot be fully defended through binary elections, because there is a crisis of confidence in these values that spans the political spectrum. That crisis of confidence is made worse by polarization, which our campaign season drives and exacerbates. These values need champions who are willing to make the case for them when it’s politically inconvenient; when it involves telling hard truths that are hard for your audience to hear, as opposed to the “hard truths” that puff your audience up. Defending democracy is not just an act of mobilization, but persuasion; it requires not just rejection, but attraction.
Related, one final political note: the speech, to me, marked the posture of a White House that has some momentum at its back and believes it has the juice (corn song!) to shift the electoral landscape in favor of Democrats, BUT it also signals to me an admission that they do not expect they’ll be able to get the president’s approval rating in the 50% territory by November. No, the midterms will be a dogfight, a war of attrition. Once the dust clears, then, perhaps, the Biden White House will look to broaden its appeal as they head toward a reelection campaign.