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Opinion Photo of young, cool Beto O’Rourke activates the never-ending culture wars

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) (Ronald W. Erdrich/The Abilene Reporter-News via AP)
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Politicians come and politicians go, but the culture war is forever. That’s the best way to understand a diverting little controversy happening now in Texas, the site of one of the most interesting Senate races this year.

Sen. Ted Cruz is facing an unusually strong challenge from Rep. Beto O’Rourke, which is surprising in a state in which every statewide elected official is a Republican. O’Rourke seems to be surging thanks to charisma, relentless shoe-leather politicking, good timing and perhaps some viral videos of him straightforwardly defending progressive ideals and policies, like this one in which he explains why he supports National Football League players protesting police brutality.

So now the Texas Republican Party is hitting back, including in a tweet featuring a shocking photo:

The state GOP identified a rock star in a faded monochrome from the 1990s. A floral-print getup (perhaps a dress or tunic), cut wide at the neck, hangs over his lean frame. His hair is parted down the middle, the rest disappearing behind his head in what looks like a loose ponytail. His square jaw accentuates his long, angular face.
The man gazing out from the black-and-white image is college-aged Beto O’Rourke. An electric bassist, he toured the United States and Canada in the early 1990s with his punk rock band, “Foss,” meaning “waterfall” in Icelandic and Norwegian.

Here’s the tweet in question:

Judging by social media, liberals find this utterly hilarious, given that the GOP’s argument seems to be that people shouldn’t vote for O’Rourke because as a young man he had steamy good looks and played in a band. Unlike Ted Cruz, who by all accounts was an even more annoying version of Ted Cruz as a young man, difficult though that might be to believe.

It’s true that O’Rourke looks to be wearing something dress-like in that photo, but if you’re a Republican and you think a man being photographed in a dress is scandalous, I’d refer you to this.

What the Republicans are doing here isn’t completely crazy, though. This is just one more iteration of the American culture war, which in one form or another has been with us since the country’s founding. The version we live through, however, has its most direct roots in the 1960s, when liberals grew their hair long, danced to rock music, took drugs and had all the fun, while conservatives looked on in horror, contempt and more than a little envy.

Ever since, barely a campaign goes by when we don’t replay the conflict between the hippies and the squares in one form or another. And it has often worked to the benefit of Republicans, who get strong support from older voters, including baby boomers of the Jeff Sessions variety, who ground their teeth in rage as they watched their free-spirited peers pile into vans and head off to Woodstock, vowing that one day they’d be in a position to lock those pot-smoking degenerates behind bars.

That kind of sentiment often manifests itself as an accusation that a Democrat is an empty, unserious person more concerned with palling around with musicians and Hollywood celebrities than with the somber business of politics. This was a charge Republicans frequently made against Barack Obama, like in this ad from John McCain’s 2008 campaign:

Semioticians can debate what the purpose was of the shots of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Were they merely symbols of vapid celebrity, or was something else being communicated by putting these two young blond women whose public images were based on their sexuality alongside the first African American presidential nominee?

Four years later, they were still at it; here’s a 2012 ad from American Crossroads, a super PAC run by the most elite Republican strategists:

Granted, these days it’s a little hard for Republicans to charge that a Democrat is acting like a celebrity. But they still believe that showing that a Democrat is cool, particularly in a way that would appeal to young people (another Texas GOP tweet hits O’Rourke for skateboarding) is a path to electoral success. If it is, it will only be because they can persuade large numbers of voters to get to the polls to tell Beto O’Rourke to get off their lawn.

Meanwhile, actual young people — the ones who decide what’s cool and what isn’t — can’t stand the GOP. According to a recent NBC/GenForward poll, only 26 percent of millennials have a favorable impression of the Republican Party, while 60 percent have an unfavorable impression. (The numbers for the Democratic Party were 44 percent favorable and 42 percent unfavorable.)

The saving grace for Republicans, however, is that young people vote at significantly lower rates than the older voters the GOP relies on. Or at least they usually do; we’ll see if Democrats can finally change that this year. Either way, chances are we’re going to keep having this fight for as long as we all live.