America is not mired in a culture war. In reality, today's Republican Party and larger "conservative" movement are waging a fascist war against multiracial pluralist democracy and human freedom. Ultimately, to not understand how the so-called culture war is actually a fascist war against American democracy is to almost ensure being rolled over by those evil forces.
Many political observers point to Pat Buchanan's infamous 1992 speech at the GOP national convention as the beginning of the so-called culture war in America. However, the roots of this fascist and authoritarian campaign are much older: Jim and Jane Crow and white-on-black chattel slavery, genocide against First Nations peoples and white settler colonialism are America's native forms of fascism. When located in the proper historical context, neofascism and the Age of Trump are properly understood as being but the most current manifestation of much older birth defects in American democracy and society.
The fascist project is fundamentally a cultural project.
In a very important recent essay in the Guardian, Yale University philosophy professor Jason Stanley highlights how the Republican fascist thought crime laws in Florida and other parts of the country targeting the teaching of African-American history (and the country's real history more generally) are examples of a much larger Orwellian project:
These laws have been represented by many as a "culture war". This framing is a dangerous falsification of reality. A culture war is a conflict of values between different groups. In a diverse, pluralistic democracy, one should expect frequent conflicts. Yet laws criminalizing educators' speech are no such thing – unlike a culture war, the GOP's recent turn has no place in a democracy. To understand why, consider their consequences.
Florida's Gov. Ron DeSantis and the other Republican-fascists are using the myth of American Exceptionalism and what sociologists describe as "the white racial frame" to erase the country's real history and its challenges and complexities to advance an anti-democracy project that eliminates critical thinking and free speech.
It is frequently claimed by proponents of such laws that banning discussion of structural racism and intersectionality is freeing schools of indoctrination. And yet indoctrination rarely takes place by allowing the free flow of ideas. Indoctrination instead rather takes places by banning ideas. Celebrating the banning of authors and concepts as "freedom from indoctrination" is as Orwellian as politics gets.….
Most frighteningly, these laws are meant to intimidate educators, to punish them for speaking freely by threatening their jobs, their teaching licenses, and more. The passing of these laws signals the dawn of a new authoritarian age in the United States, where the state uses laws restricting speech to intimidate, bully and punish educators, forcing them to submit to the ideology of the dominant majority or lose their livelihoods, and even their freedom.
So why have the mainstream news media and political class been so wrong in their understanding of this true nature of the "culture war"?
The American political class and mainstream news media — even seven years into the Age of Trump and a coup attempt on Jan. 6 — still have a normalcy bias. As institutions and individuals, they have convinced themselves that American neofascism is a blip on the radar, an aberration, that will inevitably be replaced by a return to "normal" and "the good old days." The American news media and political class are psychologically, emotionally, and financially committed to that narrative even if the facts do not support it.
Moreover, the idea that America is experiencing a culture war instead of a fascist war on democracy and freedom fits neatly into a narrative framework of momentary troubles that will soon pass and not an existential crisis that will fundamentally change the order of things in the country.
The American political class and mainstream news media are self-limiting: they enforce their own formal and informal rules and norms about how they conceptualize and work through political questions and what are considered "realistic" and "reasonable" answers. Admitting that the Republican Party and "conservative" movement are neofascists who reject multiracial democracy would involve a type of paradigm shift that the news media and political class would a priori reject. Careerists and others who are successful in those spheres of influence know what the rules are and adhere to them closely lest they be punished or perhaps even exiled.
The American news media and political class are emotionally and financially committed to that narrative even if the facts do not support it.
In total, the American mainstream news media and political class are possessed by a type of inertia, intellectual laziness and incurious behavior where it is easier to go along with the herd and hive mind about America's democratic institutions and culture as being enduring and permanent than to confront the epistemic crisis that ascendant neofascism represents.
The American mainstream news media and political class are also limited in their ability to properly respond to the country's democracy crisis because of a failure of imagination. It is a type of common sense among the Democrats and mainstream centrist liberals and progressives that "real politics" (economic and other material concerns about the country's "institutions" and society more broadly) are somehow separate and distinct from "culture war" issues.
By comparison, and like other more sophisticated thinkers on the left, the Republican fascists and other members of the global right correctly understand that culture, emotions, material concerns and "serious politics" are all part of a larger struggle to win and keep political power across society. In this framework, culture, emotions and material realities are all interconnected. While too many Democrats and mainstream liberals and progressives (and others committed to the liberal democratic project in America) tend to silo off questions of politics and culture, the neofascists are engaged in a revolutionary project that does not make that error in thinking.
The fascist project is fundamentally a cultural project. As a first step in adapting to the reality that the culture war is actually a fascist war on democracy and freedom, the news media and political class need to change their language and political grammar. As commonly used, "culture war" is empty language. It is vague and imprecise.
A war is waged by one group of people against another. In the context of "the culture wars," this means war by the Republican fascists and their forces against Black and brown people, women, the LGBTQ community, and other disadvantaged and marginalized groups. What are the lived consequences of this fascist "culture war"? People's lives are literally being imperiled, be it from direct violence such as hate crimes or taking away civil and human rights and bodily autonomy. In the example of how gun rights are now treated as a culture war issue, this translates into how gun violence is a public health crisis that needlessly kills tens of thousands of people each year in the United States.
Channeling the literary theorist and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the American mainstream news media and political class cannot understand the true nature and scope of the country's democracy crisis because "culture war" is language that limits their capacity to fully understand political reality.
On this, Stanley concludes and warns in his Guardian essay that:
It is clear that the chief agenda of the GOP is to advance a set of speech laws that criminalize discussion in schools of anything but the white heterosexual majority's perspective. The media's portrayal of these laws as moves in the "culture wars" is an unconscionable misrepresentation of fascism.
The American mainstream news media and political class must recalibrate and rethink their approach to conceptualizing, theorizing, communicating, and responding to the country's democracy crisis and its deep origins. The crisis is widespread and cultural, as opposed to something temporary and caused by one person or a party that has temporarily lost its way.
But that will take hard work and require jettisoning obsolete norms and beliefs about American politics and society. There are few material incentives in terms of one's career or prestige for doing that type of difficult and risky work. Confronting a democracy crisis (or other such serious troubles) demands boldness but the institutions, almost by definition, are created and maintained by professional centrists and wish-casters who cling to "the normal" and a lost past when the latter are mostly poisonous lies — and even more so — in the Age of Trump and ascendant neofascism.