It’s hard to believe now, but, right after President Obama was first elected, a lot of pundits and political types were declaring that the culture wars of the last 20 years were finally dying out. The term “culture war” was coined in 1991 and usually has referred to opposition (mainly by very religious Americans) to enshrining into our laws and political consensus some of the cultural changes that came out of the 1960s. The war’s battles mostly involved whether legal recognition and public acceptance should be granted to lifestyles and practices that defied an earlier definition of traditional personal and family morality. Think abortion and contraception access, gay rights, sex education and school prayer, etc.. Other battles weren’t about sex, but rather about issues that touched nerves in culturally conservative Americans. Many of them felt that moral views they opposed were becoming the law of the land and being shoved down their throats into their private lives. Think gun control, illegal drug use, and sex and violence in entertainment.
Anyway, some people were saying these battles were about over in 2008. Conservatives had lost or were destined to lose many of them, like gay rights, contraception access, and school prayer. But, they had won a few, too, notably gun control. Other battles seemed to have ended in a near draw, like abortion, which is legal but restricted.
Oopsie. Since Obama’s election the culture wars have come roaring back. States have passed a record number of anti-abortion laws and defunded Planned Parenthood. Democrats are pushing harder and harder for same-sex marriage. Gun control died in the Senate while stand your ground laws spread state-by-state. Affirmative action is back at the Supreme Court. And, on and on.
But, what does this mean? Are the culture wars reigniting, or is this just their last gasp? After all, every year, cultural conservatives become a smaller and smaller slice of the electorate, and post-Boomer generations care far less about these social issues. And, every year our society gets more diverse. Is the war over?
I don’t think so. I think the culture war was always less about the war and more about the warriors. That is, it was about the divide between traditionally-minded and progressively-minded Americans on what kind of country we should be – and for whom. Even If we are finally reaching consensus on the 1960s social issues, I think that our extreme political polarization will just turn whatever we’re arguing about into a war of us versus them. Listen to the Tea Party and Fox News go on about the “makers” and the “takers” and the growth of government “dependency.” Or, read Daily Kos or watch people celebrate same-sex marriage. It’s personal. And, it’s cultural. The social safety net and budget deficit are now cultural symbols and are on the cusp of being as bitterly argued as the morning after pill. At least, that’s what I’m going to argue on Monday night.
Here are some links that explain this point of view better than I can. Also, note that one of the articles points out that liberals are culture warriors, too.
- A good example (from a conservative) of the “culture war is over and conservatives lost” it meme.
- Liberals are culture warriors, too. even though they don’t like to think of themselves this way.
- OTOH, a conservative pundit explains why the culture wars persist (Douhat).
- My thinking:
- All of American politics is now part of the culture war. Recommended.
- The much longer but awesome version: The culture war is shifting from social issues to issues of economic fairness, and the party that defines what fairness means will win.
- Today’s culture war is about the size and shape of the social contract. Tea Partiers, in particular, view government benefits as part of the culture war. Both recommended.
- Also, conservatives are redefining the culture war to be about the definition of what an American should be. A must-read.
Next Week: The promise and perils of using covert action in our foreign policy (John will explain it all!)