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

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.
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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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