From election to election, politics is mostly about jobs and the economy and the state of the public purse — which is as it should be. But the arguments that we remember longest, that define what it means to be democratic and American, are often the debates over human life and human rights, public morals and religious freedom – culture war debates, that is, in all their many forms.
Thus Plessy v. Ferguson, decided in 1896, is more famous today than, say, the Panic of 1893. The slogan “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” is better remembered than any of Grover Cleveland’s economic policies. The debates over Prohibition and women’s suffrage loom larger than Warren Harding’s early-1920s tax cuts.
It may well be the same for our own epoch. Come what may in our culture wars, the economy and the unemployment rate will largely determine whether Barack Obama or his Republican opponent wins the next election. But in the long run, and no matter which side ultimately prevails, the debates that just re-erupted may do more to define how our era is remembered.