As the 1970s drew to a close, the Republican Party confronted an existential crisis. Stagnating wages, declining jobs and increasing inequality meant that Americans would soon flee the GOP – seen by many as the party of big business and corporations – for the Democrats, long viewed as champions of the working class.
If not for the politicization of religion (in 1979) and guns (in 1977), the Republican Party might have faded into irrelevance by the mid-1980s.
But in 1980, the newly ascendant “religious right” mobilized millions of previously apolitical evangelicals, who propelled Ronald Reagan to the White House. Like its newest supporters, the Republican Party was reborn.
The politicization of guns in the late 1970s only swelled the GOP’s ranks further.
The subsequent rise of single-issue politics ushered in a perplexing phenomenon: Millions of Americans began voting against their economic interests. Over the next four decades, a focus on the newly controversial issues of guns and abortion obscured the transfer of $50 trillion from hard-working Americans to the top 1 percent.
With inequality surging and the evisceration of the American middle class accelerating, some right-wing activists began turning to xenophobic rhetoric. Today, this trifecta of wedge issues – guns, abortion and racial identity – continues to distract millions of Americans amid catastrophic failures in public health, a litany of scandals and, most importantly, surging inequality.
Should Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Trump in survey of Texas voters from left-leaning pollster On The Trail: Making sense of Super Poll Sunday Trump rebukes FBI for investigating supporters accused of harassing Biden bus MORE win the 2020 election, he must direct a laser-like focus to take on America’s wedge issues. If he fails to do so, the extreme political polarization afflicting the United States will only deepen and remain a potent political undercurrent.
Worst of all, should the rhetoric around racial identity become increasingly bitter, ideological violence may surge to ever-higher levels.
Biden’s task would not be easy. Deeply entrenched beliefs make any dispassionate conversation on abortion and guns nearly impossible. But a President Biden could start by highlighting just how far the debate around these issues has shifted.
Before the “religious right” turned abortion into a political rallying cry for millions of single-issue voters, many American evangelicals were pro-choice or ambivalent about abortion. A 1968 issue of the evangelical movement’s flagship journal even cited two Bible passages to state that “God does not regard the fetus as a soul.”
Given the rift between the traditional evangelical take on abortion and the views of millions of contemporary evangelicals, a President Biden would have a golden opportunity to begin diffusing one of America’s most divisive wedge issues. He can start by asking evangelicals a simple question: “Has the Bible changed over the past four decades, or have your beliefs shifted?”
To be sure, many pro-life evangelicals have embraced medical and scientific advances related to fetal development. But if evangelicals can set aside the Bible in favor of science, Biden must ask why 70 percent of evangelicals reject the scientific consensus on climate change, an issue which has enormous implications for human life.
If he is successful, a Biden-led discourse on abortion will spur genuine, good-faith discussion and debate — the only path to moderating the extreme political polarization afflicting America.
Moreover, Biden could temper deeply-held beliefs by making clear that it is perfectly acceptable for Christians to disagree on abortion. Indeed, while millions of evangelicals believe that human life begins at conception, Biden should gently remind Americans that numerous biblical passages state that life begins at first breath.
Like abortion, guns did not evoke particularly deep passions initially; for over a century, the National Rifle Association was strictly nonpartisan, focusing on gun safety, hunting and sport shooting. But the 1977 revolt, which overthrew the NRA’s leadership, ushered in the partisan, politicized organization Americans are familiar with today.
The NRA’s extreme shift fundamentally altered the debate around guns. For 200 years, firearm ownership in America was almost universally interpreted as a collective right (in the context of “militias”). That all changed in the 1970s, as law journals increasingly referred to a new, individual right to bear arms.
Moreover, the NRA largely ignored the Second Amendment for most of its history — utterly unthinkable today. It may also come as a shock that the NRA supported and helped craft gun control legislation before its radical transformation in the late 1970s.
If Biden wins the election, he must engage in an honest discussion with gun owners about the dramatic shift in rhetoric around firearms — especially compared to the first two centuries of American history.
Of the deeply divisive wedge issues afflicting American politics, xenophobia and the weaponization of racial identity may be the most difficult to untangle.
What is clear is that, while countless Trump supporters do not have a racist bone in their bodies, economic desperation increases susceptibility to nativist rhetoric and xenophobic scapegoating.
As racially-motivated violence surges across America, Biden and the Democrats’ best course of action is to right a 45-year economic wrong with a hefty wealth tax. Indeed, as $50 trillion shifted from American workers to the top 1 percent over the last four decades, white, blue-collar Americans were among those hardest hit.
Only when a significant portion of this wealth is returned to Trump’s economically devastated base – through reduced college tuition and job-creating renewable energy programs – will nativist and racial dog whistles fall on increasingly deaf ears.
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.