The right seems to have decided that the culture war, like just about everything else, sells better if promoted by attractive youthful spokesmoms. Goodbye Pat Buchanan, hello Sarah Palin–and an especially big shout-out to that bright-eyed smiling newcomer to the national hate sweeps, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann. Bachmann, as you may know, has become a YouTube star, thanks to her interview on Hardball, in which, talking to an incredulous Chris Matthews, she called for the news media to ferret out "anti-American" members of Congress.
The stronger Obama gets, the more unhinged the Republicans become–at least, those Republicans who haven’t already detached (Chris Buckley! Colin Powell! Charles Krauthammer! Peggy Noonan! Kenneth Adelman!)–although to be fair, Bachmann has been sending bulletins from Outer Wingnuttia for quite a while. In August she mocked Nancy Pelosi for "global warming fanaticism…. She has said that she’s just trying to save the planet. We all know that someone did that over 2,000 years ago." Bachmann also claimed that Democrats want high gas prices in order to force Americans to move to "the inner city." Watch out, Real America, Democrats want to turn you into black people!
Many are worried about the way the McCain campaign has revved up the culture war–Bill Ayers is more famous right now than Obama’s earlier BFF Paris Hilton, to say nothing of Reverend Wright, ACORN aka perpetrator of "one of the greatest frauds in voter history," secret Muslims, socialism, exotic Hawaii, Joe the Plumber, small towns, the real Virginia and the pro-America parts of the country. (According to McCain, if Obama had only agreed to do ten town hall debates with him, none of this mud would be slung now. It’s as if he’s blaming Obama for his own decision to take the low road. You leave me no choice, sir, but to lie and slander in a most ridiculous fashion! So much for Republicans standing for self-reliance and responsibility.) Sometimes it does feel like McCain, by choosing Sarah Palin, has lifted up a rock and revealed the national id in all its unregenerate glory, seething with racism, paranoia, McCarthyism, xenophobia and bigotry.
And yet this is the country where every poll suggests that these appeals to the devils of our nature aren’t working their mojo. It may have taken the collapse of the global financial system to get Americans to elect a black man president, but give the voters a little credit: it could just happen.
Not too much credit, though. The culture war may fail at the top of the ticket, but it still has enough juice to do damage further down. This year’s state ballot initiatives offer numerous opportunities for social conservatives to damage women’s health and human rights: Californians can vote to require parental notification on abortion, a measure they’ve rejected twice but which looks likely to pass this time around. South Dakotans can vote to ban abortion entirely, with narrowly tailored exceptions for rape, incest and serious injury to the woman’s health–just make sure you report being raped by your brother immediately and that your doctor is prepared to risk ten years in prison if his colleagues think he’s erred on the side of keeping you alive. For the true fetal fan, though, Colorado is the place to be: there voters can choose to declare that human personhood, with all its legal protections, begins with the fertilized egg, putting at risk not only legal abortion but also emergency contraception, the pill, chemotherapy and other medically necessary procedures, to say nothing of in vitro fertilization (protecting fertilized eggs, it turns out, is more important even than creating a born child).
The old standby, banning gay marriage, is on the ballot in California, Arizona and Florida, even as in October Connecticut became the third state whose Supreme Court ruled that same-sexers had a right to wed. With twenty-seven states already having added marriage bans to their constitutions, the day will soon be upon us when every state with enough homophobes to pass a ban will have done so. What will social conservatives do then? Some 35 percent of Americans support gay marriage, and that number is on the rise. After all, young people are much more tolerant of homosexuality than their elders. And if you leave aside biblical fulminations and lies (like, legalizing same-sex marriage will force schools to teach kindergartners about anal sex), the arguments against gay marriage are pretty feeble. I almost felt sorry for family values think-tanker David Blankenhorn, who argued in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed that gay marriage is wrong because the universal purpose of marriage throughout history has been to give children two parents, one of each sex. Where to begin? Single parenting, donor sperm and eggs, blended families, the millions of marriages among people who can’t, won’t or don’t procreate but who imagine their marriages are as valid as that of, say, the superfertile Sarah and Todd Palin. Oh, and the mounting evidence that children raised by same-sex couples turn out just fine. There are days Blankenhorn, who describes himself as a "liberal Democrat," must feel he earns every dime of the many millions his Institute for American Values gets from Bradley, Scaife and other right-wing foundations.
On the plus side, Californians can also vote for Proposition 2, which improves conditions for factory-farm animals, and Proposition 5, which would provide almost a half-billion dollars for drug treatment programs. In general, though, progressives and feminists have been slow to use ballot initiatives to forward our causes. One big opportunity is coming up in Milwaukee, where a coalition of activists have placed an initiative on the ballot that would give workers nine paid sick days a year. Number legally mandated now? Zero. Workers risk losing their jobs if they stay out because of illness or to care for a sick child or parent. This callous policy hits women hardest, but it’s bad for everyone–co-workers, restaurant diners, families. Could the Milwaukee measure spark a national grassroots movement? Show them some love by donating at www.9to5.org.