Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

So You Say You Want a Culture War

Culture is something to be cherished and exchanged, not attacked and bludgeoned. Yet in America today, we have no choice.

The term “culture war” is most often associated with Pat Buchanan, the founder of this magazine who invoked it during his speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. But it was actually coined a year earlier by a sociologist named James Davison Hunter, who published a book called Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. Hunter’s neologism was meant to capture arguments over social issues like abortion and sex education, which he saw as part of a greater clash of visions between religious traditionalism and secular progressivism.

“Culture war” was appropriated by Hunter from the Bismarckian Kulturkampf, which translates to “cultural struggle,” and then sharpened into a “war,” in recognition of how visceral the fight felt to the activists involved. It’s a term that’s at once both redundant and striking. It’s redundant because just about every war is a culture war; mass violence, whether literal or figurative, is rarely waged between people who share the same vision of the world. And it’s striking because culture properly practiced isn’t something that should bring anyone to blows. In a healthy society, culture is cherished, preserved, exchanged, studied. To wage an internecine war over culture seems disfigured, even deranged.

Alas, that’s where we find ourselves today. America is currently in the midst of her most frenzied culture war since at least the 1960s. And over the past month, it’s seemed like barely a day has gone by without some depressing bare-knuckled skirmish breaking out: Ron DeSantis being smeared by 60 Minutes ostensibly over his vaccine rollout but really over his success in beating back COVID without draconian lockdowns; James O’Keefe pushing a video allegedly exposing CNN’s bias only to be banned from Twitter; the Derek Chauvin trial and Maxine Waters’s call for confrontation. This war has become close to total, having sucked in everything from pandemic health measures to children’s toys. Even America’s pastime, Major League Baseball, has enlisted in the fight, pulling its All-Star Game out of Atlanta over Georgia’s supposedly punitive voter law.

The battlefields in this culture war seem endless, a result of both our consumer capitalism and pervasive media exposure. America’s numerous brands have provided a long list of targets for the warring sides, everything from Dr. Seuss to Disney Plus. Grizzled Twitter veterans raise quivering cigarettes to their lips as they tell tales of the Great Potato Head Battle of 2021. Even Star Wars has been caught in the crossfire. Whereas in Buchanan’s day, the culture war was waged largely over issues—gay marriage, school prayer—today it’s being fought over products and personalities. The former has been subjected to a relentless reform campaign by the left, which seeks to overhaul our culture and erase everything deemed to be unfit. The latter are being canceled in accordance with this revolution, which brooks no dissent to its greater project.

Hunter saw America’s culture war as fought between traditionalists who view truth as “rooted in an authority outside of the self” and progressives for whom “freedom is predominant,” especially freedom from tradition. The biggest difference now is that the latter side has abandoned much of that same liberty it once claimed to cherish. The traditionalists tend to be religious or at least respectful of religion, yet the real theocrats these days are to be found on the left. Their objective isn’t so much to liberate marginalized groups as to leverage those groups into a hierarchy. Think of it as a kind of unofficial social credit system: the more favored identity subsets you belong to, the better your evaluative score and the more qualified you are to comment on and participate in society.

That’s what makes this particular fight unique. America has seen plenty of culture wars throughout her history, among them Prohibition, which encompassed clashes between Protestants and Catholics, rural America and urban. Yet that was still ultimately a debate over what the country should look like, dry or wet, Carrie Nation or Lois Long, all firmly rooted in the American experience. Whereas in the current culture war, one side is no longer trying to shape America so much as transcend it. The melting pot, freedom of speech, content of character—all of this is being sacrificed on the altar of a totalizing identity politics. And since that same side is also doggedly imperialistic, seeking to stretch its agenda over even the Monopoly board in your closet, good old-fashioned pluralism has been effectively ruled out. The two cultures can’t coexist because one insists on fully remaking the other.

It’s a bizarre state of affairs, and often an absurd one. Personally I’d much rather be talking about the stimulus bill or the Chevron doctrine than the sex of the mustachioed, googly-eyed, potato-shaped hunk of plastic in the toy chest. It’s a lament you hear often: Politics should be about economic issues; leave the cultural stuff out of it. And it’s an understandable sentiment, perhaps even an aspirational one. Yet it also isn’t the reality of the moment. As 60 Minutes and the MLB have demonstrated, politics can’t so neatly be cordoned off from culture. And those sports games and TV shows exert far greater influence over our imaginations than any election or law. The stickiest bonds in our society are not political but cultural.

Culture matters; it matters immensely. And while you may not be interested in culture war, culture war is…all right, I’d sooner run into traffic than finish that sentence. But this is where we are. Will this arbitrary and bullying and authoritarian march continue? Or will non-woke institutions leverage enough power to fend it off? These questions will, regrettably, define our politics in the years ahead.



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