Dionne makes a heroic effort to argue that 2008 will be another 1932 in terms of the character of the election, but the reasons he gives are less than persuasive. Issues related to religion and culture, he says, are fading into the background, and he argues that they always do when “great” crises occur. There are two major problems with Dionne’s analysis. One has to do with his assessment of the “long secular era from 1932 to 1980” and the other has to do with his description of the character of the current election cycle.
Of course, the most notable crisis moment of the last eight years in America was 9/11, and this yielded not a weakening or minimising of religious and cultural divides, but rather an amplification of them because of the role of religion in the conflict and through the association of different sets of cultural values with attitudes towards the administration’s response. An eruption of “new atheist” manifestoes and books warning about incipient theocracy have all been published in the last three or four years, and these tracts are feeding a growing demand for anti-religious nonsense. On their own, they may not be terribly significant, but they are symptoms of a widening chasm between secular and religious in America. The culture wars are not only continuing, but they are arguably intensifying and the belligerents are become more hardened in their opposition. At this point Dionne will reply that this only represents the “extremes” and not the majority, but the “extremes” are where the energy and activism are. Milquetoast moderation does not mobilise very many.
Even Obama’s campaign and the movement building around the campaign are described all the time with religious language, whether half-jokingly, accusingly or out of admiration, and if his agenda is secular his progressivism nonetheless participates in the tradition of the Social Gospel of liberal Protestantism to which he personally belongs. Likewise, the harshest and most unfair attacks on Obama have been aimed exactly at two things, patriotism and religious faith, that ought not to be gaining any traction in an electorate that is less receptive to culture war politics. Clearly, it has gained some purchase, or else the campaign would have felt no compulsion to combat the falsehoods being spread about the candidate. This election cycle is simply overflowing with issues of cultural symbolism, and Obama’s supporters have made no secret that they find his candidacy attractive because of its symbolism. We are using a very denuded definition of culture and religion if we think that these are not prominent in the current campaign, and it would be a major mistake to assume that these issues are not important in this contest simply because traditional “hot-button” questions have momentarily receded from the center of the debate.
Just a few months ago, it seemed that quite a few people were fretting that this election cycle had become all together too infused with religious rhetoric, imagery and quarrels. Obviously religion played some significant role in the Republican nominating contest, and it is wrong to conclude that McCain’s victory represents even a temporary decline of culture war politics. Let us recall that prior to Romney’s withdrawal McCain was routinely getting perhaps 33-36% of the vote, while the two rivals who were explicitly identifying themselves with more or less credibility as social and cultural conservatives received together almost twice as much support. The very existence of Mike Huckabee’s insurgent campaign is a testament to the enduring power of this kind of politics. A candidate so closely identified with evangelical Christianity has never come as far in a nominating contest in my lifetime, and I suspect that this is a sign of more things to come rather than a last hurrah. Obama and Clinton have started to make more use of religious rhetoric, but this does not herald an end to the culture wars, but instead represents a modest transformation of how people are expressing clashing cultural values.
The exact cultural issues that will be salient may not remain the same from cycle to cycle. Gay “marriage” was one of the flashpoints in 2004, but so were rehashed arguments over Vietnam and all the original late-’60s and ’70s culture war baggage these entailed. After all, contemporary and post facto arguments about Vietnam were never entirely about military involvement in Southeast Asia, but also concerned the definition of America and American-ness. Even to the extent that Obama frames his entire candidacy around abandoning these arguments, the proposal to stop the argument is itself still part of the same clash, and while Obama may offer the opportunity to move “beyond” the Boomers the election will nonetheless be decided largely by the Boomers and will be fought over the cultural baggage of the late ’70s and ’80s. To the extent that he is compared to or models himself on liberal heroes of ’60s myth, he represents the wish-fulfillment of liberal Boomers, and it is almost inevitable that the nomination of the first minority major party candidate for President will open or re-open divisions over race and affirmative action that existed in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
As Ross has suggested more than once, the “long secular era” was the exception. It was related to the conditions of the country for the war generation, and to post-war economic expansion and a fairly high degree of cultural homogeneity during these decades. He was referring more specifically to post-war politics, but I think it applies to this entire period. Post-1965 immigration and cultural fragmentation that came out of the “age of abundance” are part of what created the conditions for the disputes of the last thirty years. We are still living in the world shaped by cultural radicalism and the reaction against beginning in the ’70s, and the legacies of both seem to be set on trajectories that take them ever farther away from each other. The “polarisation” so many people complain about is part of our social life and is based on, among other things, the significantly divergent interests of married and religious voters on one side and unmarried and secular voters on the other. Also, you cannot have ever-greater cultural fragmentation aided by consumer capitalism and increasingly specialised social networks geared towards connecting you to people who are mostly like you and have a new era of amity and collaboration at the same time.
An excess of cultural diversity in a republican or representative system ultimately means the crisis and breakdown of that system into either an authoritarian or monarchical regime of some sort or a crack-up of the polity into numerous, relatively more homogenous states. We are probably still quite a long way away from such a crisis, but until it comes political polarisation will keep increasing as citizens come to have less and less in common with one another.