Since the 1990s, the culture wars have repeatedly been left for dead. Just months after political commentator Pat Buchanan declared a “cultural war” at the 1992 Republican National Convention, neoconservative Irving Kristol remarked, “I regret to inform Pat Buchanan that those wars are over and the left has won.” In 1997, New York Times reporter Janny Scott observed that the term “culture wars” had become as anachronistic as a “leisure suit.” “Not long ago, one could hardly get through a week without stumbling across somebody or other’s culture war—outraged fundamentalists or neoconservatives or righteous multiculturalists raving about Hollywood or political correctness or Robert Mapplethorpe or Allan Bloom,” she wrote. But now the culture warriors had arrived “at Appomattox.” In 2001, in an essay called “Life After Wartime,” Andrew Sullivan also smelled surrender:
It wasn’t that long ago that we were all being rushed to the barricades to defend or attack any number of . . . hot-button social topics—abortion rights, gay visibility, pop-culture trash, affirmative action, the war on drugs—and not only as separate political issues but as a contest for the very soul of the country. Almost overnight, though, the energy seems to have seeped out of these conflicts. . . . [T]he crackle of cultural gunfire is now increasingly distant.
More recently, intellectual historian Andrew Hartman argued in 2015 that the culture wars “are history. The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course.”
Some evangelicals, frustrated over how little the Republicans they helped to elect have been able (or willing) to deliver, have retreated from cultural politics. Others, convinced that the late, great fusion of evangelical piety and conservative politics is hurting the cause of Christ, have done the same. But evangelicals who have promised to do cultural war no more remain a minority. Every day new conservative Christians take to the Capitol or to the Web to fight the good fight for God and the Good. There they meet up with Tea Party members whose cultural concerns run deep and whose zeal matches that of the most ardent fundamentalists. As a result, there has been no truce in the contemporary culture wars, and no surrender.
In fact, recent years have witnessed an expansion of the culture wars, beyond moral and religious questions into bread-and-butter political matters such as taxing and spending. The modus operandi of the culture wars—the accusations of treason, the rhetoric of good and evil, the character assassinations, and the equation of compromise with surrender—have bled over into politics writ large, infusing government shutdowns and debt-ceiling battles not only with poisonous partisanship but also with the metaphors and mind-set of war. The result is a Culture War of Everything that is rapidly transforming previously bipartisan matters (foreign policy toward Israel, for example) into life-or-death struggles between Democrats and the GOP. Increasingly, we do politics like we have done cultural warfare. We are all culture warriors now.
This persistence and expansion of the culture wars is in some respects evidence of a thriving democracy and a vibrant public square. In a diverse country that welcomes debate, disagreements are inevitable. And in a place where so many different gods mean so much to so many, those differences are going to heat up.
But culture wars are also perennial because of compromises made at the outset of the American experiment, not least the founders’ decision to bequeath to their descendants a republic that was “half slave and half free.” Say what you want about the Obama presidency and the pitched battles it saw over such matters as whether the highest marginal tax rate should be 35 or 39.6 percent (or whether the debt ceiling should be raised by 2 percent), it simply isn’t credible to claim that the polarization that gripped the country in the Obama years had nothing to do with race. Trump rallies are whiter than Utah in winter, and Obama won 95 percent of the African American vote in 2008 and 93 percent in 2012. Despite efforts of many contemporary culture warriors to pivot from race to family matters, culture wars rhetoric continues to be racially coded and the borders of our culture zones still roughly track those of the Union and the Confederacy. “Make no mistake,” The Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his widely read essay “Fear of a Black President,” “today’s Republican radicalism, with all of its attendant terrifying brinksmanship, is the grandchild of the white South’s devastating defeats in the struggle over racial exclusion.”
Regarding the vexed relationship between church and state, the founders rejected the European model of church-state marriage but never finalized a divorce, so this separation remains ambiguous. Is the United States a Christian country? A secular one? It has always been both. The founders signed on to a godless Constitution and did not require presidents to pass any religious test. But the country has never warmed to the French model of a naked public square stripped of religious influence. In fact, whatever wall of separation Americans built in the early republic was short and weak. Many presidents declared national days of fasting and prayer. Congress funded military chaplains and opened its sessions with supplications to the Almighty. This awkward compromise made prior culture wars over Catholics and Mormons all but inevitable. It also gave Supreme Court justices a lot to try to sort out. Nowadays the nation’s highest court seems to be called upon every year to alchemize the murky into the clear—to determine just how many reindeers are required in a municipal Nativity display or what sorts of town-meeting prayers are sufficiently generic to pass constitutional muster.
Culture wars also persist because of the long-standing affinity between white evangelicalism and free-market capitalism. The Election Day victories that culture wars help to produce for Republicans lead to laws that benefit businesses by cutting regulations and securing corporate subsidies. But free-market capitalism does nothing to conserve traditional culture. In fact, it disrupts it. Capitalism’s bottom line is the bottom line, so retailers feel no compunction about competing with churches for customers on Sunday mornings or about opening big-box stores that will turn beloved Main Streets into ghost towns. As the economy grows, these losses build, and with them come new anxieties and new culture clashes.
Finally and most basically, culture wars persist because conservatism persists, and because American conservatives from the French Revolution forward have seen cultural warfare as a way to win political power by promising to restore forms of life threatened with extinction. Political scientist Corey Robin is right to see modern conservatism as an effort to maintain hierarchies. Conservatives fight to protect the privileges of superiors—what the Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke called the “chain of subordination” of soldiers to their officers, workers to their employers, tenants to their landlords, and children to their parents. But these political hierarchies are not the only concerns of conservatives, who will also go to the mat to defend cultural, moral, and theological hierarchies. And conservatives fight most fiercely to defend hierarchies that are falling away.
In America’s many culture wars, traditionalists have decried the loss of Protestant consensus, the loss of American power overseas, the loss of theological and moral certainty, the loss of a unified nation, the loss of the hometown, the loss of the traditional family, the loss of a homogeneous society, and the loss of a simpler way of life threatened by the complexities of immigration, urbanization, and globalization. So cultural politics are always a politics of nostalgia, driven by those who are determined to return to what they remember (rightly or wrongly) as a better place, where straight, white, Protestant men ruled the roost and no one dared cluck at their authority.
This is why culture wars are often over before they have begun—because the fights culture warriors pick are almost always “lost causes” that are already moving into the liberal column. In fact, to borrow a term from the financial markets, you can use the culture wars as “leading indicators.” Just as the Dow Jones Transportation Average is said to forecast the upcoming state of the broader economy, increasing anger and anxiety about a cultural issue almost always foretell an impending liberal victory. In this respect, culture wars are, to borrow a term from former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, a “revolt from reality”—a cry against what is coming around the next corner. And reality rarely bends to accommodate.
Today, the fact that the Left is winning the contemporary culture wars is widely acknowledged by the Right, whose conservative laments over losing the culture wars are commonplace. In an era when even the pope is saying that too much has been made in recent years of abortion, contraception, and homosexuality, much of the current conversation seems to turn on what conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat called “the terms of our surrender.” “We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore,” he wrote in 2014. “Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory—and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.”
Such concessions do nothing to extinguish the culture wars, however. In fact, they rekindle them, since conjuring up losses in cultural politics is a time-honored strategy for securing Election Day victories. The strategy is to speak of losing just enough to keep the base perpetually girded for battle, but not so much to demoralize them. In this way, the culture wars are perpetually rising from the grave. Rather than being killed by any given defeat, conservative culture warriors seem to be revitalized by it. A loss on same-sex marriage only underscores the conviction that the nation is on a slippery slope to hell, and stiffens the resolve to engage a new enemy in a new battle. The “religion of the lost cause” is the faith of Southerners who lost the so-called War of Northern Aggression, but Federalists who lost our first culture war in and around the election of 1800 waxed nostalgic about their own “lost causes.” So did anti-Catholics, anti-Mormons, and drys, who lost their crusades for a more homogeneous nation, and members of the Moral Majority who are a majority no more (and, in fact, never were).
THINGS OUT OF PLACE
In “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” published in Harper’s in 1964 as the Cold War was crackling hot and Barry Goldwater was realigning the spine of modern conservatism, historian Richard Hofstadter detected in U.S. history a recurring “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Those who are caught up in this “paranoid style,” as he put it, see conspiracies at every turn and the apocalypse at the end of every road:
[The paranoid] does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.
Hofstadter, “the iconic public intellectual of liberal condescension” according to conservative columnist George Will, has been criticized for finding this irrationality largely on the right—in groups such as the McCarthyites and the John Birch Society—and for reducing American cultural politics to a psychological disorder. (As church historian Philip Jenkins drolly put it: “we are liberal; you are mentally ill.”) But Hofstadter was right to home in on psychology as a culture wars catalyst and on the conservative propensity for setting unattainable goals. The psychological style of culture warriors is not paranoia, however. It is anxiety—anxiety about loss, about the passing away of a beloved “way of life.” But it is also anxiety about things out of place: Catholics in public schools, women in the workplace, foreigners in communities, gays and lesbians on the street, and a black man in the White House.
In her classic study Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas presented an intriguing reading of kosher food prohibitions in the biblical book of Leviticus. Rejecting the popular view that kosher eating began as a form of primitive hygiene—no pork, no trichinosis—Douglas offered a symbolic interpretation. What drove these food restrictions were notions of purity and pollution, and what made things impure and polluted in the symbolic world of the ancient Israelites was their ambiguity—their stubborn refusal to fit existing systems of classification. Animals of the sea are supposed to have fins and scales and swim from place to place. But what about a lobster? What sort of thing is that? It doesn’t really swim. It walks on the ocean floor as if it were on land. Obviously, it is confused. Or we are confused about what it is. Either way, it is a disconcerting mongrel, so if we want to stay pure we must avoid it.
This anxiety over ambiguous things—with things out of place—is hyperabundant in American society, which has always been informed by Hebraic as well as Christian values and continues to produce communities eager to return to the purity of original things—to the arrival of the pilgrims, to the spilling of tea in Boston Harbor, to the writing of the Constitution, or even to Eden itself, when things were (supposedly) cleaner and less complex, to a time before The Fall.
It makes some sense to classify Senator Jesse Helms, North Carolina’s preeminent culture warrior, as a denizen of Hofstadter’s “paranoid style.” It makes more sense to understand Helms’s florid denunciation in 1989 of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs in moral and theological terms: Helms was outraged because male homosexuality is condemned in the Bible as an abomination against God and nature. But it is also possible to understand Helms as a man anxious about ambiguity. From this perspective, a male who has sex with another male is akin to a lobster, a disconcerting hybrid at odds with a classificatory scheme in which real men sleep only with their wives and no one even ponders the possibility (until rudely confronted by a disturbing Mapplethorpe photograph) of gay sex.
To attend to the pro-life rhetoric of Jerry Falwell is to tune in to the thinking of a man deeply troubled by abortion, yes, but also by the ambiguities the “Bad Sixties” hath wrought. How else to explain his repeated denunciations of long hair on men (banned at Falwell’s Liberty University)? Didn’t Jesus have long hair? And Samson? By what logic, then, is long hair to be construed as an offense against holiness? Yet it is clearly an offense against clarity, at least in a system of classification in which short hair is for men and long hair is for women. In such a system, a man with long hair is also a lobster (or, in Falwell’s terms, a disturbing portent of a “unisexual society”).
This symbolic perspective highlights the ways in which America’s culture wars are truly cultural wars—struggles over systems of classification that pit people who value purity against those who glory in impurity; struggles between people who revel in ambiguity, hybridity, and subjectivity and those who insist (like Helms) that any book and any photograph must have one plain and simple meaning. It is possible to read the story of prohibition and repeal through moral lenses—as a struggle between the virtue of sobriety and the vice of drunkenness. But the culture wars of the 1920s and 1930s were not just about beer and cocktails, or even temperance and prohibition. They were about speakeasies, where blacks and whites drank, danced, and sweated together and activated, in the process, anxieties about impurity. They were about the “new woman” who cut her hair, smoked cigarettes, and otherwise confused the prevailing category of “woman,” much as males who grew their hair long confused for Falwell the category of “man.” By practicing polygamy, Mormons confused the categories of “family” just as surely as Catholics confused the category of “Christian.” What sort of odd believer was a Catholic or a Mormon anyway? What to make of a “Christian” who reads the wrong Bible (or “another testament” altogether)? Or of an American who pledges her allegiance to a monarch in Utah or Vatican City? Or, for that matter, of a presidential candidate whose religion cannot be clearly understood? What manner of man was Jefferson anyway? A Deist? An infidel? A Muslim?
Interpreters of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) clashed over what this provocative photograph meant and whether Serrano designed it to offend Christians. But consider the photograph itself. It literally mixes two categories—the profane (“Piss”) and the sacred (“Christ”)—which are supposed to remain separate. The conservative response is to see this mixing, like the unkosher comingling of meat and milk at a meal, as “unclean.” But a pluralistic response glories in mixing these categories. It loves the lobster for its transgressions, for defying what a fish should do, for reminding us that there are always things out of place and that sometimes those things are ourselves.
This angle of approach illustrates how culture wars do cultural work—by surfacing cultural disagreements. But culture wars do more than that. Oddly, ironically, our cultural disagreements typically produce cultural agreements. Even as the culture wars cycle continues, particular conflicts typically produce consensus. Yes, these conflicts polarize us. But they eventually lead us, kicking and screaming in many cases, to welcome Catholics and Mormons into the American family, and to see families with gays and lesbians as American, too. In other words, culture wars do typically end with victories for liberals, but over time conservatives also accept the more inclusive vision of America those victories have secured. In this way, liberal convictions become national norms.
Consider today’s Trumped-up battle over Mexican immigration. Throughout U.S. history, the federal government has included some newcomers and excluded others. Criminals, stowaways, prostitutes, polygamists, and alcoholics have all been prohibited entry at one time or another. Asian immigration was curbed in the nineteenth century and opened wide in 1965. Today’s immigration debate focuses on Hispanics. Obviously, it is in the long-term interests of the Republican Party to welcome this cohort. With a minority-majority nation looming, the GOP must broaden its base beyond aging white males. Hispanics, who typically affirm both “family values” and conservative Christianity, would seem to be their natural allies. But almost all Republican politicians continue to denounce as “amnesty” any path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. GOP leaders were embarrassed when Trump said of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” But part of that embarrassment sprang from the fact that his policies did not differ much all that from those of other Republican candidates (or, for that matter, from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who earned only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012 after suggesting that illegal immigrants should follow a policy of “self-deportation.”)
Here we see yet another lost cause, which is being fought even as Hispanic clout is growing. If past is prologue, the United States is likely to open up to Hispanics just as it opened up its borders to Chinese and Japanese immigrants. Americans overwhelmingly favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and business leaders nationwide rely on inexpensive labor from south of the border. So bashing Hispanics is a losing battle. Once undocumented immigrants are mainstreamed and this culture war fades away, pundits will likely record yet another victory for liberal inclusion. But soon enough this inclusivism, too, will come to be seen as simply American, freeing up culturally conservative Hispanics to enlist on the “right” side of culture wars to come.
Excerpted from his new book, "Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): The Battles That Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage" (HarperOne).