August 16, 2022 - 9:01 pm
Republicans are chalking up successes all over the country daily, and Democrats are not doing anything substantive to stop them. They complain about Republicans, and when they are with their friends, they talk about how terrible things are, but it is clear that they don’t understand the true nature of the challenge they face.
And that is why Republicans have the electoral advantage going into the 2022 elections and will probably take back the White House in 2024, with or without Donald Trump.
Republicans have brought a Kulturkampf — a culture battle/struggle — to the country. Trump made this a central feature of his presidency, which has been embraced by the entire Republican Party. But the Democrats just don’t get it.
The Kulturkampf is presented by Republicans as a struggle between two images of America: one of pride and one of shame. When Trump talked about making America great again, he was telling his supporters that he wanted them to feel good about their country, to regain the sense of pride that he and others claim had been stolen from them. He sensed quite rightly that many Americans were tired of being told there was something wrong with their country and a lot wrong with them.
President Barack Obama was the last straw. What he presented in his speeches here and overseas as a “reckoning with history,” Republicans and a growing number of Americans saw as an “apology tour,” and they found it infuriating. They didn’t want to feel they should be ashamed of their country or themselves.
Republicans long for a past that never really existed, except perhaps on some 1950s television shows that did not reflect the realities of life then. They imagine that life was better then, less complicated. They think that men were men and women were women. People were honest and proud of their country and of themselves.
The television shows of the 1950s celebrated white, middle-class, Christian families where there were no problems that could not be solved by a pipe-smoking “Father Knows Best.” It was a false, artificial world even at the time. In the 1950s, we had the bloody Korean War, McCarthyism, rampant antisemitism, ubiquitous racism, pervasive sexis, and homosexuals and transgender people who were frightened to admit who they were.
Despite all this, Democrats have continued in the tradition of Obama. They believe they are confronting evils in the country to help make it better. But what Republicans hear is quite different. They hear that they are being told that they are all racists, sexists and homophobes. If they deny they are racists, they are told they are guilty of “white privilege.” If they deny they are sexists, they are told they are guilty of “male privilege.” If they feel uncomfortable about transgender bathrooms, they are told they are bigots.
And Democrats have compounded the problem by focusing on the trivial. They have spent too much time scolding people for using the wrong pronouns and inciting micro-aggressions. So from the perspective of Republicans, Democrats have everyone walking on eggshells, afraid to talk for fear of being scolded for their use of language.
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Psychology is once again the path to the fundamental problems.” He was wrong about many things, but he was right about this. Today’s America is dealing with a psychological dilemma, and people are divided into opposing camps along the lines of feelings more than ideology. We have two seriously divergent psychological states from which we are being asked to choose: pride or shame. Given this choice, most will choose pride.
And a growing number of Republicans are willing to embrace authoritarianism in the name of this elusive feeling. Democrats never intended to make people feel ashamed of their country or themselves, but this is what has happened.
The question for Democrats is this: Can they find a way to address the weaknesses of America, its history of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry, without simply making people feel bad about themselves? Can they find a way to present this critical perspective of America and Americans in a positive light?
Democrats need leaders like Ronald Reagan who can combine a commitment to dealing with serious issues with optimism about the future and not sound like they are constantly scolding people. If they are unable to do this, Democrats will fail on a grand scale and the country will continue on its current path.
Solomon D. Stevens is the author of “Religion, Politics, and the Law” (co-authored with Peter Schotten) and “Challenges to Peace in the Middle East.”