Erich Mische, a Minnesota political activist and adviser with considerable experience, offers an opinion piece today that feels weighty, but badly misses the target. He argues “fighting ‘culture wars‘ … is the greatest threat to America’s future.” Well, no…at least not has Mische frames it.
First of all, Mische wants to blame this on politics and more problematically blame both America’s left and right. I’ll give him a brief pass on that ineffectual balancing act. When the pragmatics of the culture wars are understood, blame will be more thoughtfully addressed. In any case, Mische just says these “wars” which so threaten America’s future come from both the left and the right and he moves on. He doesn’t really explain why it is the case and it is likely meant to appear polite and high-minded anyway. That’s fine.
Micshe’s essay does a nice job pointing out several of the many significant problems facing our country: Unemployment, poverty, decaying infrastructure, (some problems with) healthcare, climate change, and staggering numbers of Americans locked up in prisons.
But he seems to be saying that as long as we choose to fight the so-called culture wars rather than make these more important issues a priority, we won’t solve these problems. “When the fighting is done,” he concludes, “and the real freedoms our children deserve are left smoldering in a heap of political rhetoric, it is their future that is the true casualty of the lie of America’s culture wars.”
The only problem with this conclusion is it is wrong. Sure, we should not be spending all of our political efforts and resources fighting over whether or not a gay couple can order a wedding cake — I agree with him entirely — but that isn’t really what is going on, at least not in a way that we can blame it directly for not solving our nation’s economic woes and other problems. We don’t have rising poverty rates because politicians — both left and right — are fighting over religious freedom.
In fact I am surprised that Mische, someone with much experience in politics, makes such a flawed association. The truth is there are many politicians doing their damnedest to address all the national issues Mische raises. Maybe solutions to real problems are not being debated because some politicians have made cultural issues like gay marriage a priority; but more generally, real problems are not being debated because there is at least one political party in this country that simply does not believe government should be making solutions to those problems a priority. This is no secret. Listen to what they say about their priorities.
Of course there is a subtle way that cultural issues are wielded as a political weapon. It isn’t so much the war itself that matters as much as what sustaining cultural conflict does politically that matters. It divides.
If politicians care about gay marriage, for example, it is more about defining the tribe and catering to the active base. Sure, there are genuine bigots out there, there are people who are afraid of what they don’t know, there are others who are poorly informed or conditioned to believe bad ideas. But for the most part, sophisticated politicians hang on to these bad ideas not because they give a damn about restoring religious freedom — that’s all political theater — but rather because they care about votes.
Mische comes close to getting it right when he points out that politicians throw in the air “bright, shiny objects” for voters. That’s true. However, who is really fighting these phony wars and throwing bright, shiny objects? Who is hellbent on passing acts of religion and patriotism? Who is making women’s rights and immigrant rights an issue? Who is decimating organized labor? These ARE cultural issues. And it is hardly a war waged by both the political left and right.
You might argue that the liberals fighting for immigrant rights or women’s rights is on par with conservatives fighting for religious rights. I can’t argue against that. However I would say that if we want to address the problems Mische raises, we should focus on politics that include, not exclude, people. We should focus on solutions to real problems. This is the meaty area for debate that I don’t think Erich Mische engages in his essay.
If we want to solve the problems that Mische catalogs so well, we need to elect people who believe in fixing those problems. It is that simple. Complaining about these so-called culture wars is hardly any better than engaging them directly. It is nothing but a distraction at best and an excuse at worse.