US2024: The Culture War - Digital Threat Digest
PGI’s Digital Investigations Team brings you the Digital Threat Digest, SOCMINT and OSINT insights into disinformation, influence operations, and online harms.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve become more and more convinced that the US presidential election next year is going to come down to a battle of cultures, rather than politics. I first saw an indication of this during last year’s midterms – the three main culture war issues being: abortion, critical race theory, and LGBTQ+ rights. But these topics were outshone by the lingering stench of US2020 Stop the Steal and the post-pandemic economic blues. Generally speaking, people were more concerned about the change in their pockets than the books on the school library’s shelves. I’m not sure the same will apply next year, or that politicians will campaign on the traditional stuff that much at all.
Take Turning Point USA (TPUSA), for example. TPUSA was founded by Charlie Kirk in 2012, and its original mission was to educate young Americans on fiscal responsibility, the power of capitalism, and the free market. During the midterm elections, TPUSA focused on the cost-of-living crisis and how only the Republican Party could get America through an impending global recession. But then the midterm results came through, the Republicans didn’t do as well as anticipated, and TPUSA hard pivoted to, you guessed it, culture war debates. Kirk recently launched TPUSAFaith with a new mission to “restore America’s biblical values”. Ahead of US2024, the organisation will be going on a tour to bring “The Kingdom” to every US state as a “bold call for the Church to rise up”.
Then you have Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who has adopted similar tactics as he prepares his bid for the presidency in 2024. During the midterms, DeSantis touched on a few culture war wedge issues—particularly abortion—but more or less stuck to safe Republican topics like the economy. It didn’t really get him any attention, and so now he’s focusing in against Florida’s minority communities - feuding with Disney to the detriment of a few billion dollars worth of state investment from the Magic Kingdom.
There are a couple of reasons behind this shift. The Republicans anticipated a red wave during the midterms, and while culture war issues were present, the campaign was largely dominated by post-pandemic economic recovery and election integrity debates. When the red wave failed to materialise, politicians and organisations took to social media to figure out where they went wrong – if the internet isn’t talking about these things, what are they talking about? And that’s when they started to realise that posts attacking minority communities, “woke” debates, and capitalising on the emotive topic of children’s safety were far more likely to go viral than posts about economic growth, or recession. And the Democrats scraped talking about inflation when they realised calling out the second amendment and engaging in the gender debate brought them more attention online. You just need to look at the @POTUS Twitter account to see what I mean – whenever Biden tweets about the economy it’s met with a yawn, but he puts out something about transgender rights? Well, now we’re talking tens of thousands of engagements and millions of views.
Because, at the end of it all, politics is all about who is in the limelight; who can shout the loudest and capture the attention of the voters. In the age of social media, that means it’s about who can capitalise the most off virality. Virality comes from engagement, engagement is best found in debates, debates are hottest when they’re about something emotive, culture wars are emotive. So, yes, culture wars have always been a part of an election cycle, but usually, politicians (especially conservatives) know the way to the voter’s hearts is to increase the figure in their bank account. Don’t get me wrong, traditional politics will play a role in US2024 – people still care about the economy and the Democrat Party will undoubtedly try and move the discussion back to these points as much as possible. But ultimately, I expect the culture debates to capture the attention of the digital sphere, to attain those high levels of virality, and for certain topics to pull at the heart strings, or ideological values of the electorate enough to overshadow their interest in the traditional.
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