Dear Glenn Beck: The 80s Called, and They Want Their Culture Wars Back

The 1980s were a long time ago. MTV has now been primarily about reality shows for twice as long as it was primarily about music videos. People born after the decade ended are now old enough to drink. Traveling back to the 80s would now be as much of a jump in time as it was for Marty McFly to go from the 80s to the 50s in Back to the Future.

And yet, the Republican Party continues to cling desperately to the decade. It’s understandable, of course: the 80s were a great decade for Republicans. Under the charismatic if daft leadership of Reagan, they locked up the coalition of voters that would hold Democrats at bay for the next three decades: wealthy tax-haters, conservative Christians, and rural and suburban voters who didn’t care to be told what to do by Starbucks-sipping city folk.

Sometimes Republicans have had the benefit of gifted politicians to speak to this motley constituency and sometimes not, but since the 80s, Republicans have been able to lean on reliable wedge issues that convince single-issue voters—and voters who might be convinced to be single-issue voters–that the G.O.P. is the only worthy box for their ballots.

I’m talking about abortion, of course—and gay rights, and affirmative action, and tax cuts, and welfare programs, and gun rights. In addition, there’s the question of government support for art, which brings us to the very strange present moment when we have Glenn Beck trying to sell a urine-soaked Obama bobblehead on eBay.

Beck’s direct reference is to a painting, by artist Michael D’Antuono, on display in an exhibit at a community college in Boston. The painting, called The Truth, depicts President Obama in a Christ-like pose, wearing a crown of thorns. Beck’s stated point is that if you accept one potentially offensive artwork, you ought to accept another. The conservative pundit’s deeper reference, though, is to Piss Christ, a 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano that depicted a crucifix floating in urine. Serrano’s photograph became a lightning rod for criticism of government sponsorship of the arts, since Piss Christ won an art competition that was partially sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Those were the days! The Piss Christ controversy was one of the defining points of what became known as the “Culture Wars,” in which conservatives attacked liberals for embracing cultural norms that supposedly undermined the foundation of Western civilization. This included avant-garde art, of course, but it also included “values” like women’s rights and gay rights.

Conservatives continued to find the Culture Wars very much worth fighting through Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in the 90s; by the 21st century, the Culture Wars were losing some steam, but George W. Bush’s plain-folks demeanor reflected the G.O.P.’s reliance on those old tropes, especially as contrasted to the highfalutin John Kerry. Never mind the fact that Kerry was a war hero…look at him on that silly surfboard! Look at him reading the New York Times! He probably thinks Piss Christ is an important work of art, and that kind of thinking is dangerous for America. Right?

Bush eked that one out, but in 2012, when Romney needed some help from the Culture Warriors, he found it hard to come by. This was clearest in the second debate, when, pressed for his views on gun control, Romney whipped around and started talking about single mothers. It was a bizarre play—and an offensive one, given that Obama was raised by a single mother—but it makes sense in a Culture Wars context where the wedge issues are all lined up and everyone believes that they constitute a coherent political ideology.

People just don’t believe that any more. The 2012 election might prove to have been the last presidential election where nationally competitive Republicans took for granted that they could be against Roe vs. Wade, against gay marriage, and against immigration reform and be automatically embraced by both their base and by many swing voters. The social and political landscape is changing, and the era when “family values” meant Ozzie and Harriet—and when that seemed like a good thing to many voters—is long gone. (Jon Stewart likes to make hay about the fact that Republicans in 2012 actually still use that fictional 1950s sitcom family as a point of reference.)

American values are changing. Americans voting in favor of gay marriage this fall included not just the Culture Wars babies of the 80s, but many of their parents as well. The woman-blaming discourse about abortion is not going to work any more. Denying that minorities are becoming the majority is not going to work. Denying that the federal government ever puts money to good use except when fighting wars is not going to work. Suing a university for supposedly rejecting you because you’re white, or arguing that mass shootings illustrate the need for more guns, are…well, I’d better not speak too soon there, but the point is that the 80s are long gone and the Culture Wars are over. That’s not going to change, no matter how much piss gets auctioned off about it.

Jay Gabler