How Obama did nothing of the kind

E. J. Dionne has a wholly confounding column over at TNR. The subheader is what caught my eye:
How Barack Obama ended the culture wars--for now.

"OK," thought I, "I'll bite." I didn't really notice that the culture wars had entered detente, but sometimes I miss things.
It is 2009's quiet story--quiet because it's about what didn't happen, which can be as important as what did.

In this highly partisan year, we did not see a sharpening of the battles over religion and culture.

Yes, we continued to fight over gay marriage, and arguments about abortion were a feature of the health care debate. But what's more striking is that other issues--notably economics and the role of government--trumped culture and religion in the public square. The culture wars went into recession along with the economy.

Whether the culture wars have actually receded is a question in itself. (More on that in a second.) But whatever you think about the existence of culture wars, it's hard to see how President Obama had much to do with their quiescence.

In a nutshell, Dionne credits Obama for not flogging issues like gay marriage and abortion, and for using religious language comfortably. On the latter point, I say "fine, but so what?" Rhetoric is rhetoric, and Obama's facility with a particular kind doesn't impress me one way or the other. On the issues like gay marriage and abortion, I'd actually rather he did say more about the former. And he doesn't need to say much about the latter, since he essentially supports the status quo.

What has overshadowed cultural issues? The economy.
Of course, it was inevitable that cultural and religious issues would at least partially recede during a sharp economic downturn. Such matters also declined in importance during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and none more so than the previous decade's struggle over the prohibition of alcohol.

At the time, historian William E. Leuchtenburg reported, a Missouri Democrat told James Farley, one of Franklin Roosevelt's top lieutenants, that it was "ridiculous for a jobless wet Democrat to wrangle with a jobless dry Democrat over liquor when neither could afford the price of a drink."

Nifty quote, I suppose. But what does that have to do with President Obama? His handling of the economy aside, it's neither to his credit or through his fault that it's the issue on everyone's minds. Dionne somehow conflates our paying more attention to the economy with some virtue of the President's. I like the guy, but our preoccupation with our pocketbooks isn't something he's somehow earned. (In anticipation of comments, I will also concede how those who aren't fans would be inclined to actually blame him for not taking our minds off of the economy by magically fixing it.)

But, finally, are the culture wars over?
And while gay marriage continues to roil politics at the state and local level, this argument has now become part of the routine of American politics. Republican politicians have shown a limited appetite for nationalizing the issue, something they did eagerly before the 2004 election. Judging by the closeness of some of the referendum votes--notably this year in Maine, where it lost narrowly--support for gay marriage has grown, although its backers are still short of a majority in most places.

Um, if the issue is still roiling politics... it's still roiling politics. It may not be doing so at a national level, but if you happen to live in a place like Maine (*polite cough*), then you know the issue is still plenty divisive (even if the result was relatively close). I think people who live in New York and New Jersey could also bear witness to this. In much of the rest of the country, the issue has already been settled one way or the other, sadly more often against equality. But again, Obama hasn't covered himself in glory by going to bat for us, though I suppose we could give him the faint praise of noting that he hasn't tried to make things worse, unlike his predecessor.

And, while the tone of the demonstrations wasn't overtly religious, I would argue that those Tea Parties smacked strongly of the culture wars. I think the resentments (or ressentiments) of the protesters are entirely cultural, and have simply morphed from abortion protests to querulously asking to see Obama's birth certificate. One way or another, I think the culture wars rage on.

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