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Did Republicans lose the culture war?

Since losing in November to Barack Obama a second time, Republicans have been engaging in some navel-gazing and hand-wringing (practices usually associated with Democrats).

One of the more interesting and honest of these exercises was undertaken recently by Matt K. Lewis, who wrote:

Late last year, I criticized the notion that Barack Obama won re-election by buying off voters with “gifts.”

In case you’ve forgotten, many conservatives had sought to explain away Mitt Romney’s loss by reasoning that we had finally reached a tipping point where Americans were voting for candidates who supported the welfare state, based solely on their own pecuniary interests. And I argued that voters do want to be given something by Republican politicians: Hope, optimism, and vision.

But while I dismissed that premise, there may be an even larger fundamental problem that should alarm conservatives even more: Too many Americans simply no longer agree with them on the merits.
In recent months, it has been especially depressing to be a conservative. In the past, one could more easily endure the ranting of liberal commentators by taking solace that — outside of New York City and Washington, D.C. — most of the country was center-right. Thus, whenever an elite liberal commentator said something fringy, one could always console himself by saying (or at least thinking): “I hope you push that idea, because you’ll keep losing elections in real America.”

Today, conservatives have made a shocking discovery: They are the ones in danger of appearing out of touch with middle America.

That is to say: the frequently successful Republican strategy of portraying themselves as the champions of ordinary, patriotic Americans as opposed to the out-of-touch elitist liberals of the Democratic party– a strategy masterminded over the years by Pat Buchanan in the Nixon administration and continuing with Lee Atwater and Karl Rove– has largely played itself out.

In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, Republicans did quite well electorally. Simultaneously, however, our society became coarser, more permissive, less traditional, and more socially liberal. And while politicians won elections, our young people turned to Hollywood for guidance. For every Republican elected, there were 10 films or songs (many of them quite good, actually) selling sex, drugs, and violence. Of course, this all comes down to that clichéd line about the breakdown of the family unit. It’s clichéd because it’s true.

I am actually among those on the Left who believe that prolonged exposure to crude, violent and hyper-sexualized media, especially among children, is not a good thing– even if hard data on the harmful effects is scarce. But instead of blaming some nefarious liberal agenda, conservatives ought to look to their cherished free-market system. “Hollywood” is more capitalist than liberal. It produces the stuff that conservatives such as Lewis despise because there’s an audience for it and it makes money.

As for coarseness: there’s plenty of that to go around across the political spectrum. It was Republican House Speaker John Boehner who told Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (a Mormon, by the way) to “go f–k yourself”– twice.

Strong families are the cure for much of what ails us. You pick the problem, and stronger families would probably render the solution moot. Consider a recent debate: We can put warning labels on violent games and movies, but that won’t replace mom and dad being involved in their children’s lives and being aware of what they are watching.

I agree with this, although I am among those who believe that the best thing a society can do to promote strong families is to provide economic security (including decent wages for all who work) and time for parents to spend with their children.

None other than President Barack Obama (who seems to be setting a pretty good example as a husband and father) has frequently stressed the importance of parents meeting their responsibilities. It’s hardly a concern exclusive to conservatives.

And really: do self-styled conservatives do any better than liberals when it comes to their own “family values”? Judging from scandals and divorces involving politicians, it doesn’t appear so.

Conservatives have largely lost the culture, and it can’t be won back by passing some landmark piece of legislation. Instead, it’s going to be a long, hard slog. The good news is that, though conservatives typically hate the term “reactionary,” most conservative victory is first predicated on liberal overreach.

This misses the point in a big way. It’s not just “social issues” on which Republicans are behind the curve of public opinion. It’s matters of economic fairness too.

And it will take more than a few PR tweaks to turn things around, as Alex Altman of Time magazine observed following a GOP strategy meeting last week in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In 2012, the Republican Party was hurt by its positions on immigration, abortion, gay rights, contraception, climate change and social-spending programs. Fidelity to these positions will only cripple it further over time, as the U.S. becomes more socially liberal and less white. Moneyed conservative outside groups and a GOP base that has lurched to the right lately are prepared to punish dissidents. Which is why it is no surprise that even now, in this period of reflection on the party’s failures, the GOP is letting its policies go largely unexamined. (Immigration policy is a notable exception.)

Instead, Republicans want to modernize their infrastructure, re-write the electoral college rule book in their favor, modulate their tone. “We need to be a happy party,” Newt Gingrich said. The GOP should be ”an exciting party that smiles,” [party chairman Rance] Priebus said.

Which brings to mind images like this:

Altman continued:

The Republican Party did not lose in November because of its tone, and it did not lose because of tactics, although it got beat on both counts. It lost because a majority of Americans rejected their views on key topics. Until Republicans come to grips with that, renewal will remain a long way off.