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

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.

Network exit polls in the 2004 election suggested how broad the non-warring middle is. Asked about abortion, 21 percent of voters said that it should always be legal, 34 percent that it should mostly be legal, 26 percent that it should mostly be illegal, and 16 percent that it should always be illegal. Viewed one way, respondents were "pro-choice" by a margin of 55 to 42 percent. Viewed another way, 60 percent of them gravitated to a "middle" position on abortion. There most certainly is a conflict akin to a culture war among the 37 percent of Americans—21 percent consistently pro-choice, 16 percent consistently pro-life—who were absolutely certain about where they stood on abortion. The rest of the population watches the battle from the sidelines, sometimes with sympathy for one camp or the other, but without anything like the engagement or commitment of the true warriors.

Meanwhile, the exit polls found that 25 percent of voters thought gays and lesbians should be able to marry legally, 35 percent favored civil unions, and 37 percent opposed any legal recognition for gay relationships. These findings could be used mischievously by either side in the argument. It can truthfully be said that 72 percent of voters opposed gay marriage. With equal truthfulness it can be said that 60 percent favored either gay marriage or civil unions.

A case can be made that journalists, and political activists trying to mobilize constituencies, are largely responsible for the idea that we are polarized. The political scientist Morris Fiorina is not being excessively cynical when he says that the notion of a culture war gives life to "useful fund-raising strategies" on the part of culture warriors.

"Certainly, one can find a few warriors who engage in noisy skirmishes," Fiorina wrote in Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized Society (2004).

Many of the activists in the political parties and the various cause groups do, in fact, hate each other and regard themselves as combatants in a war. But their hatreds and battles are not shared by the great mass of the American people—certainly nowhere near to '80-90 percent of the country'—who are for the most part moderate in their views and tolerant in their manner.

Rather provocatively, Fiorina added, "The bulk of the American citizenry is somewhat in the position of the unfortunate citizens of some third-world countries who try to stay out of the crossfire while Maoist guerrillas and right-wing death squads shoot at each other."

Here again the yes-and-no answer to the culture-war question provides a useful correction. Fiorina is quite right that many Americans want to stay out of culture wars, and that we are on the whole both moderate and tolerant. Yet as the numbers on abortion and gay marriage suggest, the proportion of us who care a great deal about these matters is rather larger than his metaphor of guerrillas versus death squads would imply. And arguments about these questions are passionately carried on well beyond the elite level of American life.

Americans who attend religious services more than once a week voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush in 2004. Those who never attend voted heavily for John Kerry. As William Galston and Elaine Kamarck showed in their important recent essay "The Politics of Polarization," written for the organization Third Way, this particular religious divide is something new. The old divisions have not gone away: one of the largest voting gaps is between blacks and whites, and there is also a divide between Jews, who are strongly Democratic, and white gentiles, who tilt Republican. But an additional divide pits traditionalist or orthodox believers of almost all stripes (including Orthodox Jews but not African-American Christians) against doubters, unbelievers, and more-liberal or "modernist" believers.

James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who introduced the culture-war concept to a wide audience, defines the orthodox or traditionalist view as "the commitment on the part of adherents to an external, definable, and transcendent authority." In progressivism, on the other hand, "moral authority tends to be defined by the spirit of the modern age, a spirit of rationalism and subjectivism."

These conflicting world views play out across many issues related to religion and science, family life and sexuality. Pundits did not invent the battle over Terri Schiavo's fate or the arguments over whether intelligent design should be taught as part of science curricula in the public schools. Karl Rove was not a fool for deciding to mobilize Christian churches on Bush's behalf in 2004.

But neither was Rove a fool for encouraging Bush to speak cautiously on these matters, lest he turn off too many of that mass of moderate and tolerant voters to whom Fiorina rightly calls our attention. During his debates with John Kerry in 2004 Bush emphasized his respect for "the culture of life," but he would never say flatly that he favored overturning Roe v. Wade. Because those pro-lifers who were genuinely engaged in the warfare over abortion allowed Bush to speak in code, he did not have to drag more-moderate voters into a war they wanted no part of. Kerry tried to choreograph a similarly intricate cultural dance on gay marriage. He sent strong signals of sympathy to the gay community, and criticized Bush for dragging the "divisive" issue into national politics. But Kerry also said explicitly that he was opposed to gay marriage.

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. At election time political candidates need simultaneously to "rally the base," which includes a heavy quotient of culture warriors, and to "appeal to the center," meaning the majority (often left of center on economic issues), which sees health care, education, jobs, taxes, and national security as central concerns trumping gay marriage or abortion. The result is a strained, dysfunctional, and often dishonest political dialogue based on symbolic utterances. 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.

Why Can't They Be Like Us?, the title of Father Andrew Greeley's 1971 book, is also a very old American question. Yet we often answer the question by ignoring it. Sometimes we even acknowledge that "they" are more like "us" than we want to admit. Occasionally we'll notice that the culture war rages inside individuals at least as much as between groups. Spotting this fact is one of the sociologist Alan Wolfe's great contributions to the culture-war debate, enabling him to conclude, as the title of his 1998 book has it, that we are "one nation, after all."

Prohibitionists sometimes pray for gin. Cultural liberals are as appalled as anyone else that their children might watch X-rated movies or cruise dangerous Web sites. Cultural conservatives who have gay friends cannot abide prejudice against homosexuals. Opponents of abortion often cannot find it in themselves to condemn a woman they know who has had an abortion for a reason they understand. Some supporters of abortion rights find the issue morally troubling nonetheless, and might never choose to have an abortion themselves.

Many, in short, long for freedom but understand freedom's limits. Many long for orthodoxy yet want it to be flexible on something that matters to their own sense of freedom. Thus does a rabbi from Montana teach David Brooks the wonderfully useful term "flexidoxy." The bourgeois bohemians Brooks has introduced us to in his writing are resolutely flexidox.

The past decade or so may have seen the U.S. economy send many well-paying blue-collar jobs abroad, but it has been very good for those in the business of producing cultural jeremiads. A partial list includes The Closing of the American Mind, The De-moralization of Society, The Corrosion of Character, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Bowling Alone, The Death of Outrage, The Great Disruption, and Egotopia: Narcissism and the New American Landscape.

All these books speak, albeit in very different ways, to a sense of cultural and moral unease. It is an unease not bounded by ideological categories. On the contrary, people on the left and on the right are equally forceful in decrying self-centered individualism, consumerism, new pressures on the family, and the decline of community. Analysts left, right, and center are sensitive to how technological and economic changes have altered the rhythms of family life and lifted up certain virtues and values at the expense of others. In The Great Disruption, Francis Fukuyama, a freethinking neo-conservative, argues that the new knowledge-based economy will transform the social world of the twenty-first century—how we raise our children, where we live, what we value—as much as the Industrial Revolution altered the organization of life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fukuyama sees the knowledge economy as placing a high premium on radical individualism and a lower value on solidarity.

From the left Richard Sennett argues that the new, highly flexible capitalism has ended the concept of loyalty at work and therefore undermined it in society. "Character is expressed by loyalty and mutual commitment, or through the pursuit of long-term goals, or by the practice of delayed gratification for the sake of a future end," he writes in The Corrosion of Character. But in the new economy, he insists, there is no long term. He asks, "How do we decide what is of lasting value in ourselves in a society which is impatient, which focuses on the immediate moment? How can long-term goals be pursued in an economy devoted to the short term? How can mutual loyalties and commitments be sustained in institutions which are constantly breaking apart or continually being redesigned?" How, indeed?

Not all intellectuals attribute cultural and moral unease to social and economic changes. The writings of Gertrude Himmelfarb and William Bennett place a strong emphasis on individual virtue and its alleged decline. But Himmelfarb, a sophisticated conservative historian, is alive to how "manners and morals" are embedded in a society (she is partial to the way the Victorians managed to do this), not created out of thin air by individuals. She shrewdly notes the shift away from talk of "virtues" to an analysis of "values." The word "virtue," she writes, "carried with it a sense of gravity and authority, as 'values' does not." Values, Himmelfarb says, "can be beliefs, opinions, attitudes, feelings, habits, conventions, preferences, prejudices, even idiosyncrasies—whatever any individual, group, or society happens to value, at any time, for any reason." She adds, "One cannot say of virtues, as one can of values, that anyone's virtues are as good as anyone else's, or that everyone has a right to his own virtues."

Sennett and Himmelfarb disagree profoundly about politics, yet they share an unease about the decline of old virtues in a highly individualistic society. Himmelfarb worries about what happens to morality in a world in which values can be picked and chosen as one might buy a peach or a cantaloupe at the supermarket. Sennett wonders how individuals can live meaningful moral lives in an economy that wages constant war against loyalty, commitment, and solidarity.

Beneath the clamor of the politicized and televised culture war, in other words, is a more measured debate between libertarians and communitarians, between individualists (moral or economic or both) and those who would emphasize some version of a common good. This, too, is an old American argument. As Robert Bellah and his colleagues wrote in Habits of the Heart, the history of our country might be seen as one long debate over how to balance the joys of individual freedom against the necessity for community and commitment. But this is a hard argument. It's much easier to scream across barricades about abortion, gay marriage, or Terri Schiavo's fate.

It has long been fashionable in American political discussion to separate "social issues" from "economic issues." But the two, as Sennett and Fukuyama would insist, are intertwined. Most Americans, no matter which cultural battle they choose to fight (or avoid), understand this. Family life is powerfully affected by work arrangements—and by the ability to find decently paying jobs. Community life is shaped by how we build our homes and neighborhoods, by how long people's commutes are, and by how much time is left over from the struggle to make a living. Our culture is shaped in large part by commercial forces that, paradoxically, promote a permissiveness in entertainment and advertising that conservatives who in theory revere the market in fact deplore.

The counterculture has become the over-the-counter culture. Liberals and conservatives alike are vexed by this. Liberals desperately do not want to be bluenosed or judgmental, yet they are uneasy with a consumerist, individualistic culture that often violates their sense of community, decency, and mutual obligation. Conservatives who dread economic regulation and defend capitalism at every turn often find the cultural fruits of capitalism bitter and distasteful. Liberals and conservatives may battle over gay marriage or abortion and yet agree wholeheartedly on what television programs their children shouldn't watch, what Web sites they shouldn't visit, and what video games they shouldn't play. Both are likely to be critical of mall culture, and for some of the same reasons.

Yet everyone tries to cope, and our coping has been remarkably successful. The exurbs, so disliked by opponents of sprawl, produce their own kinds of community through religious congregations, kids' sports leagues, mothers' groups, school organizations, business clubs—and political activities on both sides of the cultural divides.

Fears of moral decay may be pervasive, but crime, teen pregnancy, abortion, and divorce have declined since the early 1990s. Feminism, which conservatives once feared as an assault on family life, has proved its compatibility with updated versions of old-fashioned family arrangements. Every father of a daughter, no matter his politics, is a feminist when it comes to her education and her ambitions. Most conservative parents of gay or lesbian children, however uneasy they may be with homosexuality, will stand up for their kids against bigotry. Most liberal parents, however open in theory they may be to cultural experimentation and rebellion against accepted norms, lay down the law to their children on homework, dating practices, and the dangers of drunk driving and drugs.

We would be better off if we challenged the culture-war metaphor and, in the process, the self-understandings of liberals and conservatives. One need not be a cultural pessimist to share the concerns of Sennett, Himmelfarb, and Bellah over the state of our common life. One need not be a wild-eyed optimist to see signs that—for all the disruptions wrought by the new economy, for all the moral disturbances created by wardrobe and other cultural malfunctions—Americans, as individuals and in their families, are trying to create new forms of community and new ways of transmitting old values (and, yes, virtues).

The culture war exploits our discontents. The task of politics is to heal them.

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University. He is also co-editor of a Pew Forum/Brookings book series, the next volume of which is a dialogue between James Davison Hunter and Alan Wolfe.
Presented by

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.

The Man Who Owns 40,000 Video Games

A short documentary about an Austrian gamer with an uncommon obsession

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In