I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: You’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re not a regular reader of Jamelle Bouie’s columns. He reliably offers up finely researched and reasoned essays that often emphasize the role of historical context for understanding our current political conflicts. I really can’t count the number of moments of clarity and revelation I’ve experienced reading him.

I had one and very possibly two of those “Aha!” experiences recently, as Bouie addressed the Republican Party’s relentless and escalating war on transgender and gay people. Citing in particular the writings of Frederick Douglass, he suggests that it’s productive to view the GOP’s attacks as an attack on the dignity of these citizens. Bouie describes how the concept of dignity can be seen as central to the meaning and purpose of a democracy, illuminating as it does both one’s self-perception of worth and the interrelatedness of how others view a person. From this perspective, attacks on the transgender and gay communities not only deny these groups’ dignity, they baselessly deny them full participation in democracy. Beyond this, such degradations open the door for more to come; as Bouie writes, “To deny equal respect and dignity to any part of the citizenry is to place the entire country on the road to tiered citizenship and limited rights, to liberty for some and hierarchy for the rest [. . .] There is no world in which their freedom is suppressed and yours is sustained.”

His discussion of dignity and the necessity of defending it for all is compelling; but it was Bouie’s comments of the idea of “culture war” in the context of the dignity discussion that particularly grabbed my attention. First, though, a little background: probably more than I’ve written about, the whole “culture war” terminology has increasingly vexed me (even more so because I’ve had trouble drilling down precisely to my problems with this term). Generally, it has seemed somewhat arbitrary to label issues that encompass political rights as profound as bodily autonomy, religious freedom, and gay marriage as somehow not as real as economic or voting rights issues (this seems to be the hierarchy that many in the Democratic Party have tended to follow). It’s also seemed inaccurate to say that the GOP simply deploys such cultural fights as a distraction from more “important” matters (even if it is true that distracting voters from less popular parts of the Republican agenda, such as its economic policies, is a major reason for the party’s foregrounding of such cultural issues). Opposition to abortion and gay rights are extremely compelling concerns, in and of themselves, to millions of Republican rank and file; equally to the point, it is difficult to see how a woman’s right to control her own body, or a gay person’s right to have sex or marry whom they please, are somehow less consequential to women and gays than whether they are able to afford college or find remunerative employment. Such are the connotations of “culture war” that have seemed misleading and unhelpful to me.

So it got my notice when, talking about the attacks on transgendered people, Bouie writes that, “Politicians and those of us in the media tend to frame these conflicts as part of a “culture war,” which downplays their significance to our lives — not just as people living in the world, but as presumably equal citizens in a democracy.”  Exactly!  And this is where the discussion of dignity sheds some light on the stakes — if dignity is a centrally important element of democracy and of what makes our lives meaningful and whole, then labeling them as some sort of “culture war” sideshow is profoundly misleading.

Bouie makes another observation in this piece that raises a second critique of the “culture war” label. Writing of GOP attacks on transgendered people’s right, he observes that, “the important thing to note, for now, is that it is a direct threat to the lives and livelihoods of transgender people.” This raises what we might call the material consequences of robbing people of their dignity and political standing — without equal rights under the law, they stand to lose not just rights, but physical security and the ability to physically sustain themselves. And so culture war effects bleed into “real world” consequences. If the GOP convinces enough people that gays are perverts, their economic interests will be harmed, as fewer employers will hire them for the jobs they want. If a woman if forced to carry a baby to term against her wishes, she may well suffer economic harms due to inability to work. There is no clear, easy distinction between material and cultural issues; one flows into the other, and vice versa.

Just after I finished writing the observations above, Jamelle Bouie came out with a new column that seems, at least at first glance, to sort of dynamite some of the conclusions I’d drawn from his recent pieces, and, via the power of the transitive property, some of my own rambling observations. Taking stock of the widespread GOP and right-wing media effort to label the recent collapse of Silicon Valley Bank as the result of the bank’s supposedly “woke” policies (e.g., the bank was allegedly more concerned about hiring diversity than keeping track of its loans), Bouie contends that there’s a direct link between such frenetic cultural warring and GOP culpability for the actual regulatory issues revealed by the bank’s blow-up. Noting the Trump era rollback of regulations that could have prevented or mitigated SVB’s problems, Bouie writes:

All of this is to say that if you want to understand the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, you have to understand the political environment that led Congress to loosen regulations on regional banking institutions [. . .]

The people who blame wokeness for the collapse of a bank do not want you to understand or even think about the political economy of banking in the United States. They want to deflect your attention from the real questions toward a manufactured cultural conflict. And the reason they want to do this is to obscure the extent to which they and their allies are complicit in — or responsible for — creating an environment in which banks collapse for lack of appropriate regulation [. . .]

Put simply, you show me a scene from the so-called culture wars, and I’ll show you what’s behind it: a real issue with real stakes for real people.

So does this contradict what Bouie was talking about in the column I discussed above? Does he actually believe that culture war attacks by the right are about fake issues, as opposed to the real ones they serve to obscure? I don’t think so; rather, his more recent points in his column about wokeness bring into focus the fuller dynamics of GOP culture war talk and aims.

First, Bouie’s observation about the distracting intentions of rhetoric like the GOP’s obsessive talk of “wokeness” echoes a broad critique of Republican strategies made over the past few decades by people like Thomas Frank, and that you can find elaborated in books like Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality. For me, this is a basic, solid perspective on how the GOP conducts politics.

But one reason Democrats and progressive forces in the U.S. haven’t been able to just make this “culture wars as distraction” case and drop the mic as millions of formerly unpersuaded Americans rushed to repudiate cynical GOP politics is because these more cultural issues have tremendous appeal to many, and because, as I discussed above, they actually matter to the quality of people’s lives. Many Americans do seem to care more about issues like cultural standing and their place at the top of the racial hierarchy than they do about whether the GOP has a plan to return manufacturing to the United States.

So I think the really diabolical and effective aspect of the GOP’s prioritization of cultural wars, at least rhetorically, is that it ends up serving not just one purpose, but two: it distracts us from what Bouie refers to as the political economy of the United States, while also serving the very real cultural interests of millions of GOP-aligned voters. In other words, it is the perfect two-fer, as it allows the GOP to act as the party of the rich while also plausibly acting as the party of the people, by delivering two different sets of goods to two different constituencies. Culture wars are a distraction, but they are also a thing in themselves that require a response from Democrats — not simply to lift the veil and get people to see what issues are being obscured, but because oftentimes they do reveal vital conflicts whose outcomes can have deep and meaningful impacts on people’s lives.

On the one hand, the GOP’s line about Silicon Valley Bank’s corrupting “wokeness” falls far closer to the smokescreen than substance end of the spectrum, and talking about it as a distraction without engaging in a prolonged substantive exchange on the deliberately protean term “wokeness” feels more or less like the right response. But something like the GOP’s demonization of trans and gay people can’t simply be treated as a distraction from other issues — it’s a real challenge in its own right, threatening as it does not only to strip civil rights, but physical safety, from millions of Americans. Even if it serves as a distraction from other GOP ends, “cultural” issues like gay rights must be engaged much more directly and thoroughly. Democrats need to learn to thread the needle, both engaging in cultural fights that are worth having while also ducking and deflating the truly misleading ones like the “woke” fight and pointing the citizenry to see what catastrophes the GOP seeks to hide.