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Republicans lost the culture war

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
November 14, 2012 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Republicans who suffered defeat in the election have to regain influence on cultural issues, says William Bennett.
Republicans who suffered defeat in the election have to regain influence on cultural issues, says William Bennett.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Bennett: Democrats played identity politics in the presidential race
  • Bennett: Voters believed it because they have been preached at for the past 50 years
  • He says liberals succeeded in focusing national discourse on gender, race, etc.
  • Bennett: It's time for Republicans to begin framing political and cultural discussions

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- President Obama won the 2012 presidential election by accumulating some of the most one-sided electoral constituencies in modern political history.

Looking at a breakdown of the 2012 election exit polling, Obama won the 18- to 29-year-old vote 60% to 37%, in spite of the fact that half of all recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.

He won women by 11 points and unmarried women by an incredible 36 points. The marriage gap was far greater than the gender gap.

William Bennett
William Bennett

Obama won African-Americans with 93% of the vote, virtually unchanged from the 95% he won in 2008.

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Latinos, one of the fastest growing demographics, went 71% to 27% in favor of Obama. And he won with Asians by a similarly enormous margin.

Among those who make less than $50,000 a year, Obama won 60% to 38%.

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Mitt Romney, on the other hand, won white voters 59% to 39% and those making over $50,000 a year by 53% to 45%.

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This was the drumbeat of the Obama campaign. To women they said: Republicans are waging a "war on women," trying to outlaw abortion and contraception and would take them back to their rights in the 1950s. To minorities they said: Republicans are anti-government services, cold-blooded individualists, and cannot represent minority communities. To middle and low income Americans they said: Republicans are the party of the rich, who will slash taxes for only the richest Americans and cut social safety nets for the poor.

Rather than offer a broad sweeping vision for the country, Democrats played identity politics. Republicans were the culprits, and women, young adults, black, Latinos, etc... were the victims. And voters believed it. Why? For the same reason this litany -- gender, race, ethnicity, class -- sound so familiar.

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Voters believed it, not because it was something new or groundbreaking, but because this has been the template of many of our character-building institutions -- our public schools, our colleges, and public universities -- for the past 50 years. Go to any major university in America and this is the mindset that is taught, preached, and ingested. It also gets an assist from television drama, from the movies, and from much of the mainstream media.

For decades liberals have succeeded in defining the national discourse, the terms of discussion, and, therefore, the election, in these terms. They have successfully set the parameters and focus of the national and political dialogue as predominantly about gender, race, ethnicity, and class. This is the paradigm, the template through which many Americans, probably a majority, more or less view the world, our country, and the election. It is a divisive strategy and Democrats have targeted and exploited those divides.

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How else can we explain that more young people now favor socialism to capitalism?

According to a Pew Research poll taken last year, 49% of Americans age 18-29 have a positive view of socialism while just 46% have a positive view of capitalism. Such a view has roots.

So while we Republicans opine about election strategies and changing demographics, and appropriately so as that is our immediate order of business, in the long run we must address the problem at its source: the culture.

Politics are downstream from the culture. Plato summarized the two most important questions in a society: Who teaches the young and what do we teach them?

For the past 50 years liberals have had majority control of the character-forming institutions. If the national dialogue stays on their terms -- gender, race, ethnicity, class -- Republicans will continue to lose.

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We must counter the discourse and speak and educate in terms of family, faith, freedom, principle, values, work, country, community, improvement, growth, and equality of opportunity. No longer can the Republican Party be solely the party of business. Who controls the terms of discussion, dialogue, and education controls the country and, therefore, the election.

It's time for Republicans to take it back. This will require much work and time, but there is no more important business.

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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

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