Only those of a seasoned age are likely to remember when Republican politicians had to be goaded into fighting the nation’s culture wars. By the early 1990s, it was the party’s outliers who were inclined to indict the degradation caused by America’s cultural products. For the GOP’s deal makers, scorched-earth cultural combat was an obstacle to, well, deal-making. But the fringe was where the energy was, and the conservatives relegated to it wouldn’t remain there for long.
Modern Republicans know the incentives available to those who enlist in the culture wars. But because the tempo of the battlespace is dictated by media platforms that cater to low attention spans, the GOP’s focus is manic and omnidirectional. And yet, that’s still where the energy is. The Republican Party’s challenge, therefore, is to channel the energy its base voters and their loudest tribunes devote to prosecuting the pop culture wars into a campaign that compliments a governing platform.
The nonexistence of a Republican governing platform notwithstanding, the mammoth omnibus spending bill Congress passed this week provides the GOP with just such an opportunity. What passes today for a budgetary process and its byproducts are cultural battlefields, too. The latest abomination gives savvy Republican outsiders (and who doesn’t want to campaign as an outsider?) a variety of avenues to attack not only Washington’s priorities but its values.
The kitchen-sink spending bill does much more than keep the government’s lights on. While the bill preserves religious and conscience protections such as the Hyde Amendment, which blocks executive agencies from subsidizing elective abortions, it also allocates $575 million to “family planning/reproductive health, including in areas where population growth threatens biodiversity or endangered species.”
That language sounds ominously like an appeal to the logically deficient and ethically bankrupt theories that contributed to the phenomenon of population control—an idea that is responsible for many of the worst eugenicist abuses of the human species since World War II. Its sharpest edges are always reserved for the developing world. That’s where the population is growing, after all. Not only is this a misuse of taxpayer funds, but attacking this sort of social engineering has the capacity to undermine the Democratic Party’s claim to being most attuned to the concerns of the world’s vulnerable populations.
It would be an effective argument if Republicans could make it. But it’s not the only one. The bill is replete with giveaways to the left’s most aggressive social engineers.
Embedded in it are earmarks for “coworking and community” spaces, but only for “women and gender-expansive people of color.” Hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars are dedicated to “Pride Centers” and “Non-Conforming housing.” There’s funding for “antiracist training” and “antiracism virtual labs,” “workforce development programs” for transgender, intersex, and non-conforming migrant women in Los Angeles, and whatever an “equity incubator” is.
The list of Democratic priorities that did not make it into the omnibus is long. The GOP’s Senate leadership deserves much of the credit for blocking some of the worst excesses and setting the table for next year. But Republicans have passed omnibus bills, too, and this appropriations bill has expensive sweeteners in it for the GOP as well.
No doubt, these and the many, many other esoteric priorities Congress sought to fund have some rationale to justify their existence. But Republicans should force their opponents to explain why that rationale failed to convince the private sector and charitable interests.
Maybe the most culturally salient attack on this facsimile of a budgetary process and Congress’s dedicated avoidance of its job is that this isn’t how any other enterprise operates, from the largest multinational business to the nuclear family.
Back in the early 1990s, Republicans made this same argument insofar as Congress had written rules for itself that created the conditions for bloat, mismanagement, and opacity. In the interests of accuracy, Republicans who oppose this process lard up their arguments with inscrutable parliamentary language. Americans don’t need to be assaulted with the distinctions between discretionary and nondiscretionary funding, regular order, “consolidated appropriations,” and the like. They might just ask the public what would happen if they put off all their business until the end of the year, spending lavishly on themselves in December’s waning hours only because it’s the holidays and scrutiny of their actions is likely to be at a minimum.
Finally, all this extravagance mortgages the country’s future. An entitlement crisis is not some far-off prospect. Medicare’s trustees anticipate that some of its funds will be depleted in this decade. Social Security is headed for insolvency early in the next. If nothing is done to ensure the soundness of these programs, mandatory cuts to their benefits will follow. Republicans have repeatedly learned that advocating the reformation of America’s entitlement programs is electoral poison, but voters remain deeply concerned about our ballooning national debt and the federal deficit.
And the math is the math. As Americans demonstrated this year in the wake of Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine, the public can balance tradeoffs and choose the lesser evil in the pursuit of long-term gain. They just need to apprehend why their sacrifice today will yield a better future for themselves and their children. They should be trusted with that choice, and trust starts with honesty.
And yet, it seems as if the war in Europe—specifically, the 5.6 percent of the U.S. defense budget the nation has contributed to the anti-imperialist cause—is all the culture-warring right wants to talk about. This is a popular expenditure. Unlike much of the above spending, funding for Ukraine can glide through Congress without the benefit of a budgetary shell game. It is dedicated to an achievable goal and has already generated a return on investment that aimless social spending in pursuit of nebulous objectives cannot match.
It would be foolish to substitute a potentially winning argument with one that resonates with a fraction of the Republican Party, which is itself a fraction of the general electorate. Of course, if Republicans thought strategically, they wouldn’t be in this position in the first place.