The Raging Culture War: Chick-fil-A, Contraception, and Tax Policy
The first day of August was a banner day for the culture war in America. As everybody is painfully aware by now, it was “Chick-fil-A Day,” the day on which Mike Huckabee encouraged people to eat at Chick-fil-A as a show of support after company president Dan Cathy’s opposition to gay marriage sparked a boycott of the franchise. August 1st was also the day that the provision of health care reform requiring nearly all insurance plans—including those offered by religious-affiliated institutions like schools and hospitals, but not by churches themselves—to cover contraception without co-pays went into effect. Republican Congressman Mike Kelly—the representative from my hometown—greeted the enactment of the provision thusly:
I know in your mind you can think of the times that America was attacked. One is December 7th, that’s Pearl Harbor Day; the other is September 11th and that’s the day of a terrorist attack. I want you to remember August the first, 2012, the attack on our religious freedom. That is the date that will live in infamy along with those other dates.
In the case of Chick-fil-A, the company’s supporters have tried to frame the dispute as being less about gay rights and more about free expression and free enterprise. Even leaving aside the question of whether the First Amendment is implicated as a legal matter,[i] the claim that this is just about free expression as a general principle does not stand up to scrutiny. I doubt anyone is opposed to boycotts across the board or categorically supports the statement “business owners should be allowed to express their personal opinions without suffering any harm to their business.” If a businessman came out in favor of legalizing pedophilia or expressed support for Al Qaeda, I think most of us would be in agreement that his bottom line should suffer (as result of private boycott, not government sanctions). Is opposition to gay marriage an opinion that’s so objectionable that it should not be tolerated in polite society? Obviously, there’s intense disagreement over the answer to that question. But, how you feel about the Chick-fil-A boycott depends mostly on how you answer that question, and how you answer that question in turn reflects how you feel about gay marriage.
I do believe, however, that the dispute over Chick-fil-A did come to be about more than gay marriage. Once it became a front in the culture war, people felt the need to rally behind their side of the political spectrum. On Facebook, I saw conservatives who I know to strongly support gay marriage posting in support of Chick-fil-A and in opposition to the boycott. Liberals were against Chick-fil-A, so conservatives felt the need to be for it. And the more intensely conservatives were for it, the more intensely liberals were against it. And so on, and so forth.
This almost tribal approach to political and cultural controversies helps explain Kelly’s comments about the healthcare provision. There are two possible explanations for Kelly’s “we’re under attack!” hyperbole. One is that he doesn’t actually believe that the contraception mandate is worthy of comparison to Pearl Harbor and September 11 and recognizes that his rhetoric is over the top. But he also recognizes that it doesn’t really matter: he’s attacking President Obama with an intensity that matches the dislike that his supporters in the Tea Party and patrons in the conservative media have for the president, and so Kelly knows he’ll have people in his corner. For Kelly’s supporters, the substance of the attacks might not matter either: all that matters is that their guy is sticking it to the other guy. (I can’t entirely blame them: I’ve been enjoying the hell out of Harry Reid’s anti-Romney rumormongering, even while recognizing how irresponsible and unbecoming of the leader of the senate Reid’s conduct is).
The other, more troubling, explanation is that Kelly and his supporters genuinely do believe Kelly’s comments were appropriate. If this is true, then they view the culture war as an actual war. That is, the divide between the two sides is so wide and the distrust so intense that cultural conservatives honestly believe that President Obama and his liberal supporters intend to destroy religious life in America, and the contraception mandate is just the tip of the spear. If that’s the case, it’s hard to see America’s political culture improving any time in the near future. It’s difficult enough to seek compromise or achieve common purpose when one or both sides of the debate are willing to portray the other as evil for purposes of a fundraising email. It’s something else entirely if they actually believe it.
This “us vs. them” mindset permeates the political debate, also affecting issues that we don’t typically associate with the culture war. On August 1 (it was a busy day!), the Tax Policy Center—once described by Mitt Romney as providing “objective, third-party analysis”—released a report showing that, even using assumptions most favorable to Romney, Romney’s tax plan as currently articulated would lead to lower taxes for the rich and higher taxes for the middle class. The most favorable explanation for Romney is that he just got caught being a politician: he never intended to enact anything that would raise taxes on the middle class, he just thought he could get away with a tax plan vague enough to appease conservatives by promising to lower taxes on everyone and appease moderates by promising to be revenue neutral. Who knew someone would actually check to see if that was possible? Mathematically, however, there’s simply no way to make Romney’s plan work if it’s taken seriously as a policy proposal.
The problem, however, is that the Tax Policy Center on its own doesn’t have much of a voice. Who’s pushing the “mathematically impossible”/“raise taxes on the middle class” story? MSNBC. Salon. Mother Jones. Outlets easily dismissed as being on “Team Obama.” The mainstream press is generally treating the story in typical “Obama says/Romney says” fashion. For Team Romney, it’s enough to repeat the Romney campaign’s dismissal of the study as “a joke” and just move along. Being a good team player is how one goes from calling the same institution “non-partisan” and “independent” to “very partisan” and “left-leaning”in the span of 10 months.
So is there hope for us as a nation, or are we bound to continue screaming at and talking past one another? There may be hope, but don’t look for any signs of it in the next three months. August has been eventful so far, and between now and Election Day we still have two partisan conventions, three debates, lots of stump speeches, lots of spin, and, in our post-Citizens United universe, more ads than we’ve ever seen or heard before. Enjoy!
[i] An important note: statements by the Democratic mayors of Boston and Chicago threatening to ban Chick-fil-A in those cities because of Cathy’s comments do raise legitimate First Amendment concerns. However, I don’t believe the intensity of the pro-Chick-fil-A backlash can be explained solely as a reaction to the statements of the mayors, as opposed to a reaction to the boycott effort in general.