Last month, Bill Maher, a pot-smoking bachelor and no one’s idea of a traditionalist, used his HBO talk show to attack America’s political left. His complaints ranged from gender-neutral toys to slack enforcement of the laws against shoplifting in San Francisco. He drew a distinction between a fringe of cultural radicals and a liberal mass who “refuse to call them out for it”.
Parts of his screed were sensationalist. In a federal system of 350mn people, there will always be local oddities in policy. But it is foolish to ignore the fact that lots of even non-conservative Americans (his cheering audience included) agree with him. Or that his delineation of the left into two groups is astute.
The number of Democrats who really want a cultural revolution is small. Those who lack the stomach to confront the zealots are legion. They have spent much of the past two years, for instance, pretending that Defund the Police means something else.
This ducking of the issue has a price. There are lots of reasons why President Joe Biden has low approval ratings. He has been a disappointment in the fight against the pandemic. In his social spending bill, he has assumed that policies that poll well individually remain popular when combined in great number. Part of the mix of problems, though, is cultural. Some voters worry that the 79-year-old is uncomprehending and therefore indulgent of a generation of progressive activists.
Republicans attribute their victory of the Virginia governorship in November at least in part to a backlash from cultural moderates. Among the first executive acts of Glenn Youngkin, who took possession of the office last month, has been to purge school curricula of “divisive concepts, including critical race theory”. Vague, yes. Cynical, even. But if his message resonates in solidly blue Virginia, Biden must consider the mood in Arizona and Georgia, among other states he took from the Republicans in 2020.
A president cannot and should not micromanage local policing and schooling, much less the private decisions of so-called “woke” business. What he can do is state his own liberal-but-not-radical position in the cultural struggles of the day, as did former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama at various times.
Maher is not the only American who subscribes to liberalism in its old sense while balking at group rights, equivocation over crime (many of whose victims are poor minorities) and the minefield of modern speech. It’s not as though Biden need turn into J Edgar Hoover to win these voters over. And if and when they are reassured, the Republicans’ own capacity for cultural over-reach, perhaps in the form of judicial rulings on abortion and other issues this year, will stand out.
At the moment, Biden is relying on his bona fides to get him through. He has spent much of his career at the conservative end of his party. He is a Catholic who came of age before the Permissive Society of the 1960s. If anything, the worry upon his third bid for the White House was that the author of hardline criminal justice laws was too draconian and old-fashioned for modern America.
Perhaps to compensate for that past, however, he has been nervous to shout down the strident voices to his left. He is caught between strict liberals and the kind of progressives for whom liberalism is a polite cover for all kinds of structural inequities. Refusing to pick a side is a good way to maintain the uneasy peace within the Democratic party. Unfortunately, it is also a good way of arousing the mistrust of large parts of the country.