State of the Union January/February 2006

Why the Culture War Is the Wrong War

It's time to challenge the metaphor—and the easy caricatures of left and right that sustain it
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Is there a culture war in the United States? Of course. There always has been and always will be.

Those who battle today over gay marriage or abortion might usefully remember our unusual national experiment with banning the sale of alcohol, one of America's defining cultural moments. It pitted self-control (or puritanism) against pleasure (or self-indulgence), immigrants against the native-born, Protestants against Catholics—and, yes, Protestants against Protestants, the drinking Lutherans and Episcopalians against the abstemious Baptists and Methodists. This being America, even the moralists had a sense of humor about themselves. "They pray for Prohibition," went the ditty, "and then they vote for gin."

Of course we have culture wars, because there are so many different kinds of us. The Scots-Irish and the Yankees created very different cultures and different forms of politics: witness the long-standing historical differences between New Hampshire and Vermont. When Irish and Italian immigrants weren't battling each other, they were fighting the old-family English, a.k.a. the WASP establishment. When the establishment ran short on votes, it enlisted one immigrant group or another—the Italians in New York, the French-Canadians in New England—to battle the Irish or some other rising culture.

Of course we have culture wars, because the great nation to our south is Spanish-speaking. Mexican-Americans have been part of us from the beginning—from before the beginning, actually, since some of our country is conquered Mexican territory. They are thoroughly American, no less assimilated than Italians were a century ago. But they also have a culture and language of their own, and that makes some Anglos uneasy.

Of course we have culture wars, because we have always been a nation in which big-city values fight the values of the countryside. "Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic," declared William Jennings Bryan, the Great Commoner who spoke for country folk. "But destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country." Now, that's cultural warfare. Americans thinking of themselves as "modern" and "advanced" have always battled other Americans whom they wrote off as backward and parochial. The people dismissed as backward have always looked down on highfalutin big-city folks as hopelessly immoral. Today these battling types are all intermixed in suburbs and exurbs, though they try hard to congregate with their own kind.

And yes, we are black and white, and much that passes for cultural warfare is also racial warfare. We are a country that waged a civil war over slavery and states' rights. Whether you explain that war in terms of the former or of the latter is still a sign, more than 140 years after it ended, of where your sympathies lie.

This history is important, because we talk about the culture war as if it were a novel creation of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. There is a hidden assumption that we were once a happy, homogenous nation that came apart only when hippies preached free love, the religious right rose, secularists became more assertive, the Supreme Court began issuing liberal decisions, talk-show hosts began yelling, and intelligent designers began lobbying school boards. Our perception of today's cultural battlefield is shaped by a view of the 1950s as conflict-free. So we forget that the seeds of modern feminism were planted in Ozzie and Harriet's day, with the rise of a large generation of well-educated women. We forget that the hippies of the 1960s were preceded by the Beats of the 1950s. On the Road was published in 1957, not 1967. Norman Podhoretz, who was to become a central figure in the rise of neo-conservatism, gave hints of the battles to come when, as a liberal, he wrote a devastating attack in 1958 on the Beat sensibility of Jack Kerouac. Before the battles in the 1960s and 1970s to legalize abortion there were fights in the late 1940s to legalize birth control. We think of today's conflicts over the display of monuments in honor of the Ten Commandments as the product of a uniquely fractious time. But Americans have always argued over the public role of the Ten Commandments. Many citizens were left dead in Philadelphia after riots in 1844 over which version of the Bible (including which version of the commandments) should be used in the public schools.

So we should not be surprised today by battles over abortion and gay marriage, divisions between the more and the less religious, and fierce struggles over who should sit on the Supreme Court, how to settle the fate of those near the end of their lives, whether or not the government should finance stem-cell research. The culture war is nothing new. It is also not exactly what we think it is.

The great virtue of the culture-war argument is also its great flaw: we can all use the debate to present our ideal visions or fierce criticisms of the United States, our pet views on human nature, our dreams about how politics (or the entertainment industry, the schools, family life) should be organized. The empirical argument over whether there is a culture war is often lost in polemics about which side one should take—assuming, of course, that there is a war.

My view (and it can be subjected to all these criticisms) is unapologetically Clintonian: Yes, there is a culture war, and no, there isn't. It depends on what the meaning of "culture war" is.

If one looks primarily at the extremes of opinion (and I use "extremes" descriptively, not pejoratively), of course there is a deep cultural conflict in the United States. It is waged between the 15 to 20 percent of the country that is both profoundly religious and staunchly conservative and the 15 to 20 percent that is both profoundly secular and staunchly liberal. One can quibble about the exact numbers at each end; religious conservatives probably outnumber secular liberals, though the secular group is growing. But there is no doubt that these two groups exist, have very strong feelings, and on the whole can't stand each other. They regularly toss epithets across their divide. The godly attack the ungodly. The tolerant attack the intolerant. The cosmopolitan attack the parochial. The rooted attack the rootless. Moralists attack the permissive.

But whatever the numbers, those most ardently engaged on both sides of this fight, taken together, do not constitute a majority of Americans. I would reckon (and much social-science evidence supports this) that 60 to 70 percent of us fall at some middle point. Those in the middle may tilt a bit left or a bit right, but they often have mixed or ambivalent views. Many defy stereotypes: right-to-lifers for gay marriage; pro-choicers against assisted suicide; devoutly religious liberals; decidedly agnostic conservatives. And many simply run away at the first sign that a cultural battle is about to break out.

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E.J. Dionne Jr. is the chair of Democracy's editorial committee, a Washington Post columnist, a Georgetown University professor, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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