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The Times They Are A-Changin'

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"Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'..."

-Bob Dylan

The battles of the sixties may finally be over. How do we know? Because 2012 looks like the first election in nearly 50 years in which social issues are working to the advantage of Democrats.

Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the United States in 2011 provoked a thought. In the 1960s, China experienced the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. They got over it. In the 1960s, the United States experienced the Great American Cultural Revolution. We never got over it.

Until now.

Eight years ago, Bill Clinton offered this defining explanation of American politics:

If you look back on the sixties and, on balance, you think there was more good than harm in it, you're probably a Democrat. And if you think there's more harm than good, you're probably a Republican.

The sixties opened up the great divide between left and right in American politics. It was a divide over values. Educated upper-middle class liberals embraced the great social causes of the sixties -- civil rights, anti-war, women's rights, gay rights. Republicans profited from the backlash against those causes. Richard Nixon used his "southern strategy" to fold racial backlash voters, North and South, into the GOP. Ronald Reagan added the religious right -- Americans who see abortion rights and gay rights as an assault on their religious freedom.

Since 1968, social issues have paid off for Republicans. In 1968, Democrats lost votes on the Vietnam war and the law-and-order issue. In 1972, it was "acid, amnesty and abortion." In 1980 and 1984, the religious right rallied voters for Reagan. In 1988, it was criminal furloughs, the death penalty and the pledge of allegiance. In 1994, it was the gun issue. In 2004, it was same-sex marriage.

The Republican Party acquired a new populist base. They call themselves "values voters." That populist base is now in revolt. Their message? We won't have Mitt Romney shoved down our throats. Their champion? The improbable Rick Santorum.

Santorum said JFK's speech calling for the strict separation of church and state made him want to "throw up." He called President Obama "a snob" for wanting every American to go to college. Santorum is no Ronald Reagan. He has very little plausibility as a serious contender for President, even among Republicans. In the Ohio exit poll, only 24 percent Republican voters thought Santorum was the most likely to defeat President Obama. Santorum's statements about religion and sex have made him a figure of mockery outside the hard-core right.

This year, every time a social issue comes up, it explodes in the Republican Party's face. When conservatives tried to define access to contraception as an affront to religious liberty, it made them look out of touch with reality. Rush Limbaugh's outrageous personal attack on a female law student was deeply offensive to women. Even same-sex marriage may not be the wedge issue it was in 2004, as public attitudes toward gay Americans have been shifting rapidly.

Democrats learned through bitter experience that Americans do not want to glorify single mothers, homosexuals, illegal immigrants and other unconventional groups. But they don't want to stigmatize them either. Conservative rhetoric on social issues has become harshly stigmatizing. It has acquired a tone of meanness -- too much harsh denunciation, too much smug self-righteousness, too many issues posed as "us" versus "them."

Ronald Reagan was not a hater. He shared none of the malice that we see in this year's campaign. Reagan never veered from his conservative faith, but he never stigmatized those who disagreed with him. He made it clear that they were welcome in the party.

The last four Presidents have gotten elected on a pledge to end the bitter divisions in American politics. The first President Bush offered "a kinder, gentler" politics. He lasted one term. Bill Clinton called himself "a New Democrat" and an advocate of the Third Way. He got impeached. The second President Bush said he would be "a uniter, not a divider." He took a divided country and divided it even more. Barack Obama created a sensation when he said in 2004, "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there's the United States of America." He got a Tea Party revolt.

What will it take to end the division? A great national trauma? We had one, on September 11, 2001. For one year after that terrible event, the country came together. Until September 2002, when the Bush administration began "the Iraq war roll-out" and all the old divisions resurfaced.

President Obama was not a child of the sixties like Bill Clinton. He was too young. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote that as he reflected on the 2000 and 2004 elections, "I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation -- a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago."

In 2008, Republicans tried to make an issue out of Obama's association with former sixties radical Bill Ayers and with inflammatory preacher Jeremiah Wright. It didn't work. Still, President Obama remains the symbol of the transformation wrought by the sixties. He is the nation's first African-American President. He came into prominence as an antiwar Democrat. His enemies brand him a socialist and an illegitimate president because he embodies cultural changes they have never accepted. The culture war is over. This may be the year conservatives finally realize it.