For both conservatives and liberals, the 2020 election feels like a pivotal moment in the United States’ long-running culture wars. That’s understandable but mistaken. On the fundamental question of the culture war — how much Americans respect and want to preserve our core institutions — conservatives underestimate their strength. The biggest risk for the right is not that it will lose this battle. It’s that in mistaking victory for defeat, it will overreach at risk of all it has accomplished.
Demographic change, religious disaffiliation and the increasing “wokeness” of corporate America all contribute to a perception that conservatives are losing — and that they need brawlers such as President Trump to fight back.
But this glum assessment makes sense only if conservatives ignore their most important strength. Despite the perception that institutions that conservatives hold in high regard — the military, police, the two-parent nuclear family and religion — have taken hits, the public has a high level of trust and attachment to them. And that faith gives conservatives a huge, long-term advantage.
Take the military and the police. Though the military is only now grappling with a prolonged sexual assault crisis and the police faced serious, justified scrutiny in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Eric Garner and other unarmed black men, Americans remain devoted to both institutions.
Since 2003, the percentage of Americans who have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military has mostly stayed in the low-to-mid 70 percent range. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that
64 percent of Americans still felt at least somewhat warmly toward the police and only 18 percent viewed them coolly. Gallup also found that trust in police barely budged after sustained protests: 57 percent said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police in 2013, before Brown died, sparking the Ferguson, Mo., protests. Fifty-three percent say the same now.
Conservatives lament declining marriage rates, lower birth rates, the increased permissibility of abortion and the breakdown of the family. But though the shape of marriage and the family are changing, the traditional ideals are still popular; they just feel further out of reach for many young Americans.
Contrary to stereotypes, almost half of millennials are married, and more would likely marry and have more children if they could afford to. And while conservatives may lament the rise in support for same-sex marriage and adoption, these shifts still reaffirm the value of the traditional family, arguing that more people should be able to participate in marriage and parenthood.
The biggest danger for cultural conservatives, then, might not be demographic change, religious disaffiliation or increasingly progressive opponents. It might be misunderstanding their own hand. Conservatives could make real gains on their priorities by focusing on pro-family economic policies, finding candidates who appeal to nonwhite Christians and casting themselves as allies of — but not knee-jerk partisans for — the armed forces and law enforcement. They could win cultural victories while remaining fundamentally conservative.
But conservatives misunderstand their situation. They not only believe they’re destined to lose but also paint their predicament in near-apocalyptic terms, as the conservative thinker Michael Anton did in his argument that 2016 was a “Flight 93 Election.” As a result, they overreach. They’re courting backlash by passing extremely restrictive abortion bans in states such as Alabama. They’ve defended the rights of Christians not to participate in gay couples’ weddings, and while doing so, they’ve allowed Democrats to become the trusted party on the increasingly popular issue of LGBTQ rights. They’re backing Trump — a man who is guaranteed to alienate some potentially sympathetic nonwhite voters with his often racist rhetoric. And rather than try to create a more family-centric economic platform, they passed a tax bill slanted toward the wealthiest Americans.
Conservatives have the winning hand. They just don’t know it — and that’s why they might lose.