OP-ED | Squeezing the Most Out of the Culture War: National Politics in State and Local Races

Susan Bigelow

What drives voters to the polls? There are a thousand answers, but very few of them are satisfying. One constant seems to be that for most of us voting is an emotional act, not a rational one. So while we’d love to believe that we’re weighing policy in a logical manner to choose our best representatives, the reality is that, just like everything else, our human feelings are behind our decision to go fill in that oval. 

Some of these emotions are positive, like civic duty, a sense of belonging, even gratitude. But a lot of them are negative: fear, social pressure, and guilt, for instance.

But the biggest motivator of all these days is anger, and what gets us angry? The most potent force of anger in politics, I think, is the sense that we’ve been wronged by the opposition: They don’t respect us. They laugh at us. They hate our values. They’re stealing from us. They’re holding us back. They’re keeping us down. They’re denying us our rights. They’re destroying our lives.

They must be stopped.

I don’t have to describe what this is like to you, though, do I? You’ve been part of this. You’ve felt that anger. So have I. We’ve both felt that anger coming from us and directed right back at us, no matter which side of the outrage we’re on. Pundits on cable news have dismissively labeled this the culture war, and this is how it plays out.

I feel like I instinctively know and understand the culture war, but at the same time it eludes definition. What is it, really? Is it a series of ginned-up faux-outrage issues sold to us by cynical provocateurs? Is it a deadly serious clash of values and cultures with roots going back to the early days of English settlement on this continent? Maybe it’s a mix of both, or maybe it’s some other thing that will only become clear in retrospect.

But what I do know is that the anger it generates is like catnip to politicians.

Hey, quick question, why should we re-elect Ned Lamont governor? What’s the best reason he’s given for wanting a second term? One caveat: you can’t mention Bob Stefanowski or any other conservative candidates or policies.

Uhhhh… Hm.

This is something Lamont clearly could do a way better job of explaining. The positive parts of his campaign so far have focused on the gratitude argument, in which he points to all the ways Connecticut is doing mostly okay these days, and the stability argument, in which he makes the case that four more years of Ned is four more years of Connecticut continuing to be mostly okay. He’s being a lot more dramatic about it, but that’s the upshot. The stability argument is working better these days, as inflation hopefully begins to ease and gas prices drop.

The real crux of the governor’s campaign, though, is in contrasting himself with Bob Stefanowski and doing his best to yoke him to the other side of the culture war. If he does win, and if nothing drastic happens I think he will, the day he vowed that the right to an abortion would never be taken away while he was governor will be what decided it. 

Bob’s helping Ned out by making a desperate play to drive his own outraged voters to the polls, which unfortunately for him means jumping into the deep end of the conspiracy pool. Some parts of the culture war really are about people getting mad at things they made up themselves, and Bob is paddling around in the gross, murky waters with those people. Not a good look, not here. Not in 2022. 

Here’s the thing about anger, voting, and the culture war: something real always outweighs something fake. Abortion rights being taken away is a real, tangible thing. It matters. Despite the hype, schools indoctrinating kids to be socialist drag queens who hate America is not real. 

Which is too bad, I’ve known some socialist drag queens and they’re pretty cool.

Trying to harness outrage can have pitfalls, too, because sometimes people just plain get sick of it. Remember Andreas Bisbikos, the GOP first selectman of Colchester, who had a book about RuPaul pulled from the public library shelves, among other things? His own RTC just passed a vote of no confidence in him.

But as long as culture war-fueled outrage keeps driving voters to the polls, politicians at all levels will try to use it for themselves. Our job is to figure out when the outrage is real, when it’s justified, and when it’s nothing but smoke and mirrors.

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