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The Evolving Substance of the Culture Wars

A review of Culture Wars: The Struggle To Control The Family, Art, Education, Law, And Politics In America
(Author: James Davison Hunter)

Almost all public political dialogue is rooted in culture war issues because that’s what sells. It’s the only thing that people will pay attention to, it’s the main thing that will get them out to vote. One suspects it could not be otherwise.

I’ve tended to avoid culture war as it is such a morass of demonization and other bullshit. Abortion, American history, secularism, racism – where can you have balanced discussions about any of these? And it can also seem like such a sideshow, like arguing about uniform colors instead of the game plan.

It always seems to lack perspective, too. Man, why are we so upset? Ours is the most fantastically-rich country in the history of civilization. It’s protected by two oceans. It’s well-ordered, yet provides unprecedented rights and freedoms to citizens. And, though it’s a work-in-progress, it strives to counter our all-too-human intolerances. Why aren’t we happy about our society?

It’s also risky to write about—what twit in the future may publish something I say out of context? On the flip side, though, writing about it in cautious, academic language makes it so abstract as to be useless.

But culture war plays such a destructive role in politics. And so I was inspired to read James Davidson Hunter’s 1991 classic on the topic.

A sociologist and a Christian, Hunter provided insights that sometimes seem obvious today, or even quaint; but others are still quite profound and trenchant. In serious discussions today, it seems that more bloodless, technical analyses tend to dominate—based, for example, on political science or cognitive science. It doesn’t seem like progress, really.

The two general topics I found most interesting in the book were: (1) the history of culture war in the US through the twentieth century; and (2) the way that activists set the terms of public discussion and their still-evolving methods.

1. The War Isn’t Over Yet. For much of US history, the warring camps were sectarian: Protestants against Catholics against Jews. A central thesis is that, during the twentieth century, each of these three camps developed what Hunter referred to as “orthodox” and “progressive” wings; and that, in recent decades, alliances among the respective orthodox wings eclipsed the conflicts between the three sects. As for the progressive wings, they melted into a broader, more liberal perspective that does not have much use for religious dogmas. It all evolved into—and, I’d say, still is—“Judeo-Christianity” versus secular humanism.

By popular accounts, the culture war today was defined by the 1960s, and by the various tensions that exploded at that time between (a) mainstream tradition (e.g. morality, America’s global role, racial and gender power structures) on the one hand, and (b) liberation on the other. Race, however, did not play a large role in Hunter’s discussion. There are really two ongoing culture wars: one against amoral secularism, and one against white/male oppression. Undoubtedly Hunter’s focus on the former was influenced by his own personal interest in religion.

Much has transpired since 1991 which I won’t recount: 9/11, the Tea Party, widening inequality. In recent years it has been argued that the culture war has largely been won by the left, signaled (for example) by the Supreme Court’s blessing of same-sex marriage. Trump’s presidency, on the other hand, seemingly reinvigorated many culture-war issues: against immigrants, Muslims, transgenderism, leftist indoctrination, abortion.

The character of the war has, though, certainly changed. Hunter asserted repeatedly that the heart of the culture war was about “competing moral visions.” I’ll have more to say about this, but today the war feels more hackneyed and theatrical. And the waning appeal of orthodox views is accompanied by an underlying fear and desperation on the right.

2. The Mechanics. Hunter makes the basic point that the terms of the culture war are not defined by voters, academics, or even politicians:

…the development and articulation of the more elaborate systems of meaning, including the realm of public culture, falls almost always to the realm of elites. They are the ones who create the concepts, supply the language, and explicate the logic of public discussion.

… Much more influential than university-based scholars, then, are the more practically oriented “knowledge workers”: public policy specialists located in think tanks, special interest lobbyists, public interest lawyers, independent writers and ideologues, journalists and editors, community organizers, and movement activists—the national and regional leadership of grass-roots social and political organizations. Other knowledge workers include the clergy, theologians, and religious administrators of all denominations and faiths.

The principal communication technologies of used for culture war in 1991 were not, of course, long-form articles or books, but rather, television commercials, print ads, and—of particular interest to Hunter—direct mail.

Something about the very nature of direct mail exerts a strong influence on the substance of public debate. The feigned familiarity (such as personalized address, personalized stationery, “handwritten” enclosures, “penciled” underlining and marginal notes, “personal” memoranda from political, media, and intellectual celebrities, stamps affixed slightly askew), the sense of urgency, the appeal to officialdom (through references to high public office, or a government agency) and the gimmicks (such as petitions, questionnaires, maps, clippings, fake honors, membership cards, bumper stickers) are the classic, if farcical, earmarks of direct mail. These features are designed to bestow upon the individual who receives the message a sense of personal obligation to become involved. They provide potential donors with the sense of a direct link between their contribution and real action taken to further a specific social or political cause. An individual contribution of just ten dollars, the reader is encouraged to believe, can influence the very future of the nation, one’s community, one’s own well-being, and that of one’s children. By themselves, however, such features are not what make the medium so consequential for public discussion.

What is most consequential about direct mail is that it uses baldfaced, and rather cynical, manipulation of emotions. “Direct mail,” as one consultant put it, “is a medium of passion.” The object is to make the reader either indignant or scared. “The message has to be extreme, has to be overblown; it really has to be kind of rough.”

Later in the book, Hunter poignantly asks (and implicitly answers) the following question about politicians and the culture war: “Who is using whom?” He comments that the more obvious answer would be that it is the candidates who cynically use the symbols of the culture war in service of their own political ambitions, but then he goes on:

A much more intriguing and perhaps plausible reply to this question, however, puts it the other way around: electoral politics play a decisive role in furthering the interests of antagonists in the culture war. In this view, the ambitions of particular politicians are virtually irrelevant. Almost anyone could fill the spot. Why? Because it is the contemporary cultural contest that provides much of the language-the slogans, the aphorisms-through which all candidates and parties, whoever they are, must, at least in part, define themselves. It is the contemporary culture war that establishes many of the parameters of campaign debate within which opposing candidates and parties must maneuver.

The culture war has its own uncontrollable momentum. As Politico recently asserted, “America’s petty tribal arguments are now driving the bus on serious policy.” Governance, for the most part, is impossible, and problems fester. Which is why the culture war is so destructive.  

Culture War Institutionalized

Since 1991, the fragmentation of media has played a role in escalating culture war rhetoric. In search of elusive profits, news organizations cater unabashedly to partisan audiences. Social media algorithms have reduced discussion to sound bites and outrage, at the speed of light. Talking points are more exclusively about hating, ridiculing, and demonizing the other side.

But more significant, perhaps, is how political messaging has been nationalized, professionalized, and centralized. Today, the talking points are determined by national political parties plus pollsters plus media-savvy propaganda machines. The role of the “elite” groups enumerated by Hunter has been significantly diminished. Activist organizations provide food to the machine, but the machine is in charge.

The podcast FiveThirtyEight provides a fascinating window into today’s political media complex. Statistical analysis of voter attitudes isn’t new, but listen (for example) to this recent podcast about the 2021 culture war, and marvel at how sophisticated it has become. Not just poll questions and numbers, but analysis of what different key words mean to different segments, of intensity of beliefs, of societal shifts, and (fueling the entire thing, of course), electoral chess.

What is most striking about 2021 is how identity politics dominates mainstream dialogue. The aforementioned podcast highlights how the Republican platform currently puts anti-wokeness and cancel culture front and center. That’s what they’re making the public dialogue about. It’s not, of course, that other culture issues do not find expression within partisan echo chambers: gun rights, abortion, and so on. Strangely, though, there is little partisan dialogue these days about religion, or “traditional values.” Why not?  

Shrinking Religiosity

The rapidly increasing national percentage of “nones”, and the decline of church membership and attendance, are major topics of academic discussion these days. Most on the right blame the media, entertainment, and education establishments. Laments are also heard about a general societal decadence; Ross Douhat of the NY Times, a conservative who writes often about religion and politics, clearly would like to find a way to turn the tide.

Among mainstream journalists, the explanation for the decline usually centers around increasingly widespread higher education. Certainly, church corruption and sex scandals at times are also cited, as are more mundane hypocrisies. Generally, however, writers (aside from atheist polemicists) are careful to avoid broadsides against superstition, faith, and ignorance.

Signs of change in popular culture do abound. Thirty years ago, for example, could Fox have aired insolent depictions of God like those on The Simpsons and on Family Guy in the past decade?

Even in the face of this steep decline in religious affiliation, it still is impossible to be elected to Congress as an admitted atheist. (There have only been two or three in history). Culturally, it is still a bridge too far: voters say “no, we are not ready for that.” It is too unnerving.

A new thesis in vogue is that politics itself has become a substitute for religion. The idea is captured nicely in this short Economist piece. One theory is psychological: that there is a “God-shaped hole” in the human psyche that always needs to be filled with something or other. Of the right’s “moral vision,” it is suggested that

This pseudo-religious makeover on the right was instigated by lapsed white evangelicals, who backed Mr Trump in the 2016 Republican primary when observant ones held back. Their continued self-identification as Christians, though they do not attend church, is often a proxy for ethno-nationalism… The party has never been more avowedly Christian or more clearly out of line with gospel doctrines.

And of the left’s:

The most avowedly secular Democrats—well-educated “woke” liberals—are also the likeliest to moralise. Their Puritanical racial and gender politics sit in a long tradition of progressive Utopianism, rooted in mainstream Protestantism.

Finkel et al. similarly concluded that “out-party hate” shapes voting decisions more than race or religion do: “The foundational metaphor for political sectarianism is religion,” based on “the moral correctness and superiority of one’s sect.”

Whether or not political beliefs technically can be regarded as a religion, it’s clear that traditional religion is being cheapened. In view of both the intellectual-level and political-level changes, could we be near a turning point in human history, where Judeo-Christian religion fades away?  

Religious Psychology

Theological questions are never a part of public dialogue. Yet, at some deep level, they remain near the center. If God exists, surely we should obey Him(/Her/It). If it turns out that there is no God, how can Christianity go on? I’ll offer a handful of my own thoughts, attempting to stay objective, impossible though that may be.

It must first be admitted that myths order society, and their truth or historicity might not matter for most purposes. People crave meaning and certainty, and religion helps them to accept rules and to face their mortality. In Judeo-Christian traditions, further, the Bible provides for Americans a deep psychological link to the middle eastern “cradle of civilization.”

But the growth of science-based knowledge as well as reliable, easily-available audiovisual information about everywhere in the world has permanently changed the equation. Our international rivals and their children are known to us. So are the emerging risks to humanity. Archaeologists and historians can show to anyone willing to look how flimsy the foundations of divine revelation are.

But religious adherents are dogged. It’s hard to generalize about the kinds of reasoning that are employed. But religion fundamentally has an insider-outsider worldview that sees unbelievers as unclean or even as evil antagonists. Many believers fear or do not understand macro issues and gravitate to what is familiar. Some are driven by an End Times logic. Some of the recalcitrance is a normal human reaction to societal change.

Republican propaganda plays upon these kinds of emotions, while deemphasizing Christian principles of peace and instead blending faith with nationalism, capitalism, moral hubris, and freedom. A persecution complex is encouraged, under the euphemism of religious liberty. Yet, how could power in the US government conceivably be translated into restoration of Christian dominance?

For the foreseeable future, it probably cannot. But while there is scant hope for legislative victories, control of the public narrative seems at least possible to many conservatives.

I suggested earlier that there are really two culture wars: one against amoral secularism, and the other against white/male oppression (meaning, oppression of any/all minority groups…but let’s run with WAAS and WAWMO.)

In general, of course, the right likes to talk about WAAS, and the left about WAWMO. Conversely, the left is often bumbling about the first, and the right is defensive about the second. It is almost like two independent contests. I will next devote some brief exploration of both of these in terms of a few key issues, looking for difficult, even ugly, issues that no one wants to touch. I can’t discuss every culture issue, nor go into great depth on any, but I just hope to provide a sketch of what is really going on. Let us begin with an issue that directly involves both wars.  

Abortion

In the War Against Amoral Secularism, abortion has undoubtedly become the signal issue of the religious right. It wasn’t always so: for example, Ronald Reagan himself in the 1960s was tepidly pro-choice, on the basis of personal privacy and liberty. The issue only became a political flagship after Roe v. Wade, which was cheered by women seeking equal rights of self-determination.

The grounds for religious opposition to abortion are generally sketchy. Abortion is not prohibited in the Bible (and, in fact, verses in Exodus suggest personhood is not recognized until birth.) Discussion about where aborted souls go is shunned. And, while is it easy to explain why murdering people is wrong, applying the concept of murder to the case of an unaware fetus is far from straightforward.

It is normal, certainly, to be upset or disgusted by abortions. Non-religious arguments, however, are suspect: “ensuring population replacement” is racist; “devaluation of life” is abstract and often hypocritical; “promotion of abstinence” is unrealistic and (outside of a Biblical context) misogynistic.

In the long run, the issue seems destined to go the way of anti-Darwinism. However, the dream of overturning Roe v. Wade has motivated millions of religious citizens to vote Republican. Painting abortion rights activism as mass murder has been very effective.  

Trans Panic

In a debate, the conservative will say “Of course transgender people should be treated with respect.” And the liberal will say, “Of course we shouldn’t mislead young people into inappropriate sex change,” and “Of course gender isn’t meaningless.” That, of course, is not what the public dialogue is like.

The conservative talking points, rather, suggest in various ways that liberals either lack sanity or are committing some kind of abomination. It is easy to view this as a last swipe at homosexuality-style perversion, after that public battle has largely been lost. The main case study they promote is participation in certain women’s sports. This problem is routinely exaggerated, though admittedly it is a difficult issue – aren’t there cases, such as mixed martial arts, where it’s a little unfair? Shouldn’t trans women voluntarily stay out? Or is the principle too important, and cisgender women should just be magnanimous and welcome them in?

But in our sound-bite world, liberals are simply unreasonable, or worse. Men should be men, and women should be women, and how can they not fucking understand that?  

Socialism

Fiscal matters are not typically thought of as a culture-war topic. Are positions on tax rates, business regulation, and transfer payments best viewed as policy problems, or as moral issues? Republican propagandists prefer the latter: increases in government spending are leading to collectivism and, eventually, Stalinism. And to atheism, and to betrayal of our Founding Principles, and to societal collapse. I think the basic, unstated argument is that, since we “know” that Socialism leads to terrible things, it is immoral to support any small step in that general direction.

There are of course legitimate questions about what will best lead the US towards prosperity and freedom, but Republican propagandists include the threat of Socialism in a simplistic, grand, good-versus-evil narrative that keeps the base interested.

Its power rests upon the decades-long Cold War, which created a deep national mindset that continues to affect the thinking both of “the masses” and of many scholars. Opposition to communism long held together the sturdy “three-legged stool” of conservatism, consisting of religious traditionalists, limited-government free marketers, and neoconservative hawks. This ideological fusion calcified over time, but appears, in the Trump era, to be coming apart. Moreover, generations born after the Cold War ended are, perhaps unsurprisingly, less interested in the anti-communist platform.

Nevertheless, opposition to Socialism remains a “big tent” moral issue exploited by the right, a forceful offensive weapon in the War Against Amoral Secularism.  

Patriotism and Education

Relatedly, the right often lays claim to the issue of patriotism: from respect for the flag and national anthem and Constitution, to preservation of our true national history. Perhaps it is not exactly a moral issue; it might be better understood through the lens of Jonathan Haidt’s foundational values: loyalty in particular, and sanctity and even deference to authority.

A recent focus of controversy has been the 1619 Project, which, like Howard Zinn before, is an attempt to set the record straight on America’s racist history. Aside from a few nits quickly pointed out by historians, the account is generally accurate. The real issue is what is emphasized.

Many conservatives aim to present a sunny, triumphalist view of America, particularly in schools. They see academicians, Socialist sympathizers, and anti-racism activists as their opponents in this aim. To give conservatives their due, children certainly should not be thrust into the middle of advanced, scholarly controversy that is beyond their level of development. And it would be stingy at best to say that children should not be made to appreciate the many wonderful things about this country.

A part of the sunny conservative view, often appearing in venues like PragerU, is that we’ve done a pretty good job at solving the problem of racism in this country: we abolished slavery, and we enacted the Civil Rights Act. Oh, no, we’re still not perfect and must strive to continue improving… but if one puts it into proper perspective, race is one of the least pressing issues now facing our country.

Which brings us, finally, to the War Against White/Male Oppression.  

Racism

On the left, the central tactic in the culture war is shaming.

Let’s start simple here. Blacks (especially) frequently are stigmatized, profiled, and discriminated against. Legislative and judicial acts have not been sufficient. And the conservative argument that we should all just be colorblind, while a useful ideal in the abstract, is a cop-out at best, and cynical at worst: it willfully ignores historical and sociological factors that make the playing field unlevel.

Shaming, though, is a blunt instrument that often has unintended effects: principally, that individuals who don’t believe they deserve the deep personal criticism become resentful and even angry.

There is also annoyance on the right towards rhetorical extravagance of sanctimonious liberals and the “racialization” of everything. Let’s face it: being anti-racist is an unassailable moral position. Consequently, anti-racism activists can issue sweeping, inflammatory rhetoric, with no negative personal repercussions. It’s too hard for anyone to criticize that rhetoric without being accused as a defender of racism; thus, conservatives can only mutter privately about “whining,” or “extremism.”

It’s not easy to figure out what to do about racism, substantively. Legislative goals are often improbable or vague. Defund the police? Cash reparations for descendants of slaves? A “seat at the table”? Regulatory policy tweaks? Unhelpfully, most of the public discussion is emotional or is about anecdotal instances of injustice, and thus only rarely leads to decisive government action.

I think one of the more successful efforts of recent decades is good ol’ political correctness. Egregiously racist comments have been eliminated from the public sphere (evidenced, for example, for how eagerly left-leaning journalists seize upon “dog whistle” remarks by public figures). A part of political correctness, unfortunately, makes it verboten to acknowledge the immense amount of progress that has in fact been made.

Admittedly, there still are a fair number today who espouse odious white-supremacist views. One version is replacement theory, the idea that the US is being overrun by black and brown immigrants, and that our special European-based culture will be lost if the tide is not stopped. (Admittedly, the long-term demographic trend does exist—but try having a civil debate about that one.) White supremacist ideas are eschewed in polite conservative circles, but get plenty of discussion on social media and offline.

The successor to political correctness is embodied in critical race theory (CRT), which has popularized the not-so-clearly-defined concept of structural racism. Oddly, CRT has also been elevated by the right as its favorite bogeyman. The rhetoric created about it is absurd; for example, I recently sat through podcasts by an evangelical academic who explains that CRT is just an attack on Rationality, Truth, and Objectivity itself. (Objectivity, it was also explained, is what God has told us though scripture—but I’ll leave that aside here.) More broadly, CRT is spoken of as an insidious, conniving monster that is coming for your children.

The basic problem with CRT is that it is too hard for regular people to evaluate, and too easy for cynical pundits to distort and mischaracterize. A common distortion is that historical facts determine individual guilt. No serious CRT scholars argue that, but this distortion is wielded by polemicists on both the left (a.k.a. white fragility: “you’re white, therefore you’re irredeemably racist”) and the right (“I owe you because your ancestors were slaves?!”)

But here we are. As a right-wing talking point, the specter of CRT clearly is a winner. It flips the script by showing how the crazy liberals want to divide all of us through their obsession with racial identity.  

Summary

E.J. Dionne in 2006 wrote a prominent critique of culture war in which he argued:

This strange approach to politics, involving nudges, nods, and winks on cultural issues, reflects the real division in the nation: between those who want to have a culture war and those who don’t. …Hot-button questions that rally particular sectors of the electorate—and draw listeners and viewers to confrontational radio and television programs—pre-empt serious discussion of what ails American culture and society.

It’s a great line, and I would agree that majority of Americans are disgusted with culture war propaganda. Though, what is there to stop it? It has become the main way for parties to win elections and for media to make profits. The players are captive to it.

It’s not symmetrical warfare. Certainly not in substance: I think my distinction between the War Against Amoral Secularism and the War Against White/Male Oppression is a useful one. But not in degree, either. Republicanism is widely regarded as a cult of ideology (e.g., e.g., and e.g.) dominated by hardball, sometimes coarse rhetoric. I think the cautious bothsideism by Dionne and others is noble but unhelpful.

The left’s problem is that their more radical propagandists often get out ahead of the general public, thereby handing persuasive talking points to the right. The right’s problem, meanwhile, is that they continue to have electoral successes with intellectually-shabby arguments and beliefs.

Generational change could be a source of hope. Molly Worthen recounts how longstanding sectarian animosity between Catholics and Protestants was greeted with a collective shrug when Kennedy was elected president. Like Dionne, she thinks most Americans are tired of the culture wars.

Perhaps the left can just play the long game and wait the conservatives out. Surely, the thinking goes, the contradictions in Christian ideology will doom it in the long run, and so all the left needs to do is bide its time. The idea that there is a coordinated strategy on the left, though, is illusory. And even if there were such a thing, it’s a societal issue that is extremely difficult to forecast. Nietzsche announced the death of God more than a century ago, and the message still doesn’t seem to have gotten out to most conservatives.

The best high-level framing, I believe, is this: the War Against White/Male Oppression is simply a negotiation. Groups of people who have gotten a raw deal are seeking better terms. In the War Against Amoral Secularism, on the other hand, no negotiation is possible. It is a fight to the death.

 

 

* * * POSTSCRIPT * * *

Since 1991, James Davidson Hunter has remained academically active. Just days after I finished a draft of my review, Politico interviewed him about his updated take on the culture war. Two things he said were noteworthy. The first is his view that race has become more central in the culture war today than at the time he wrote Culture Wars. The second is about the way that social media in particular has contributed to polarization. He commented, “I think that there are ways in which serious and substantive democratic discourse is made difficult, if not impossible, by the democratization and proliferation of free speech.”

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