In January of 2009, shortly after Obama’s inauguration, I gave my first public talk on the culture wars, research that was relatively new to me at that stage. In the talk, I discussed the politics of higher education in the 1990s through the lens of conservatives like Allan Bloom, Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimball, and Lynne Cheney. In the Q&A that followed, an audience member whom I will call Liberal Academic Superstar asked me some version of the following question: “In light of Obama’s historic victory, which ushers in a new era of liberalism, and in light of the financial meltdown, which ushers in new intellectual priorities, isn’t all this talk about conservatives and culture wars quaint, even outdated?” Flabbergasted, my response was something to the following effect: “Just wait.”
At the time, I believed Liberal Academic Superstar’s question was incredibly stupid. I still do, and my guess is that if Liberal Academic Superstar could actually be persuaded that he or she in fact asked that incredibly stupid question, say, if he or she was caught on video and made to watch his or her performance, then Liberal Academic Superstar would be quite embarrassed, given all that has since transpired. And yet, despite its stupidity, I have given a great deal of thought to that question. So, if nothing else, it was a productive question and I am glad to have been asked it. (Granting him or her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this was Liberal Academic Superstar’s purpose? Na…) It has forced me to think about what has changed since the heyday of the culture wars (the early 1990s), and what remains of the culture wars. It has given me time to reflect on the “Passover Question”: Why are the culture wars important as a topic of historical research? I had assumed their importance went without saying. But nothing that serves as the subject of a book, especially a history book, should go without saying.
Conservative reactions to the Obama presidency and the economic crisis brought discussion of the culture wars back into fashion. The Birthers and the Tea Party screamed, “don’t forget about us culture warriors,” even if the coordinates of the Obama-era culture wars did not map neatly onto the Reagan- or Clinton-era culture wars. But I want to argue that another phenomenon, even more recent, and from the opposite end of the political spectrum, can also be understood through the lens of the culture wars. Or, at least, the culture wars help us understand the varied responses to the phenomenon. I’m talking, of course, about the riveting and important Occupy Wall Street Movement (OWS).
A few weeks ago, ubiquitous blogger Matthew Yglesias wrote a short post, titled, “The Economy as Culture War,” where, in tantalizingly brief fashion, he made the case that “economic policy debate in the United States is in part just another culture war issue.” On the one hand, Yglesias contends that a genuine clash of economic interests drives the divide between the private-sector business class and the public-sector knowledge class. He describes this as “a kind of bitter feud between businessmen and the kids they went to college with who didn’t go on to become businessmen. What did they do instead? They became teachers or doctors or nurses or professors or lawyers or scientists or nonprofit workers. And they fight with each other in part because of genuine economic clashes of interest. The businessmen tend to be targeted for tax hikes, while the people they went to college with tend to actually capture some of the public sector expenditure streams.”
But on the other hand, Yglesias qualifies his analysis of the economics behind the clash that is driving OWS with the type of insight that is often used to explain the culture wars. He argues that if either side were objective in their pursuit of rational economic interests, they would realize that a healthy economy needs both profit and non-profit enterprises. But people tend to be irrational: “Layered on top [of rational economic interest politics], I think, is a raw gut-level dislike — both kinds of people think the other kind of people are clueless about what really matters in life.” “The business coalition sees the service coalition as composed of useless moochers, and the service coalition sees the business coalition as greedy bastards.” So Yglesias is extrapolating from the Thomas Frank “what’s the matter with Kansas” model of understanding the culture wars. Frank’s well known thesis, oft critiqued, goes as follows: cultural or religious conservatives often voted against their own economic interests due to their irrational obsession with the culture wars, to which Republican politicians cynically lent rhetorical support as they attended to more important matters, such as rewriting the tax codes in favor of the economic royalists. To his credit, Yglesias does not merely think conservatives are irrational. He seems to be painting everyone involved in the great economic debates as somewhat irrational. But more to my point, the reason Yglesias seems to think economic debates play out in culture war terms is because they emit elements of the irrational. Culture wars equals irrational.
Beyond trading on recent punditry tropes, Yglesias’s understanding of the culture wars, whether he knows it or not, also echoes the “new class” analysis innovated for a post-1960s American context by early neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Norman Podhoretz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Midge Decter, among many others. Moynihan first used the term “new class” in writing about the “education lobby” in a 1972 Public Interest article (prefiguring Yglesias): “The social legislation of the middle third of the century created ‘social space’ for a new class whose privilege (or obligation) it is to disperse services to populations that are in various ways wards of the state.” Similarly, take notice of the following long quotes from an Irving Kristol article, titled, “Business and ‘the New Class’,” published in the Wall Street Journal in 1975:
What is commonly called a “bias” or an “animus” against business is really a byproduct of larger purposiveness. There are people “out there” who find it convenient to believe the worst about business because they have certain adverse intentions toward the business community to begin with… These people constitute what one may simply call, for lack of a better name “the new class.”
This “new class” is not easily defined but may be vaguely described. It consists of a goodly portion of those college educated people whose skills and vocations proliferate in a “post-industrial society (to use Daniel Bell’s convenient term)… It is, by now, a quite numerous class; it is an indispensable class for our kind of society; it is a disproportionately powerful class; it is also an ambitious and frustrated class.
The “new class”—intelligent, educated, energetic—has little respect for such a commonplace (business) civilization. It wishes to see its “ideals” more effectual than the market is likely to permit them to be. And so it tries always to supersede economics by politics—an activity in which it is most competent, since it has the talents and the implicit authority to shape public opinion on all larger issues.
Based on a reading of Kristol, it’s clear that some early neoconservative “new class” thought was strictly a way to express anti-anti-capitalism. It was obliquely in this context that Lewis Powell wrote his infamous 1971 memo where he argued that the business class must meet the threat posed by anti-capitalist academics on their terms, by creating a sort of counter-academy under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce, which “should consider establishing a staff of highly qualified scholars in the social sciences who do believe in the system.” I trace Yglesias’s characterization of the contemporary clash between the businessman and his critic—both of which display a “gut-level dislike” for the other—to this mode of “new class” analysis.
But most “new class” thought extended far beyond an analysis of any particular clash of economic interests. Much of it was rooted in Lionel Trilling’s famous examination of an “adversary culture,” mostly about avant-garde modernists—the lens through which the neocons read the 1960s. A private memorandum written by Moynihan for his boss President Nixon in 1970 exemplified how “new class” thought was shaping the coming culture wars, as refracted through the 1960s: “No doubt there is a struggle going on in this country of the kind the Germans used to call a Kulturkampf. The adversary culture which dominates almost all channels of information transfer and opinion formation has never been stronger, and as best I can tell it has come near silencing the representatives of traditional America.” Nixon lapped up this type of rhetoric because he saw himself as the leader of the silent majority that stood toe-to-toe with 1960s adversarial types. The neocons saw Nixon in this light as well, which explained why a Democrat like Moynihan saw fit to work for him. As Podhoretz wrote (not long after Watergate, no less): “The 1960s ended… not with a revolution but with the election of Richard Nixon: Richard Nixon, who better than any single figure in American public life seemed to epitomize everything in opposition to which the adversary culture had always defined itself.”
Midge Decter nicely captured the 1960s “adversary culture” of the neoconservative imagination in her harsh 1972 rebuke of feminism, The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation. Decter argued that women had it better than ever, for example, in their newfound abilities to secure gainful employment and control pregnancy through birth control. And yet, even with such advances, or perhaps because of them, the “women’s liberation” movement objected that women were subjected to patriarchal strictures. Decter contended that women feared their newfound freedoms, because with such new freedoms came new responsibilities. For instance, if women were going to enter the workplace like men, then they had to be prepared to compete alongside men in a dog-eat-dog world that men had long grown accustomed to. In short, Decter believed that feminists wanted to shirk the responsibilities of living in capitalist America. They were adversarial to the discipline enshrined in American traditions, such as the Protestant work ethic that the mostly Jewish neoconservatives came to adore.
The importance of work ethic, Protestant or otherwise, informed neoconservative new class thinking. In this, neoconservatives led the conservative movement more generally to the type of colorblind rhetoric of individual merit that now shapes its discourse. For example, Podhoretz claimed that the new class was anti-liberal because it supported quotas to its favored groups as opposed to equality of opportunity. This “could be understood, then, as an extension into concrete social policy of the adversary culture’s assault on the ‘Protestant ethic.’” Similarly, Gertrude Himmelfarb, historian and big fan of Victorian-era values, wrote: “In its denigration of ‘bourgeois values’ and the ‘Puritan ethic,’ the new class has legitimized, as it were, the values of the underclass and illegitimized those of the working class, who are still committed to bourgeois values, the Puritan ethic, and other such benighted ideas.” Alarm over the death of the Protestant work ethic is not merely leveled against the baby boomers who violently rejected society in the 1960s. Now, the so-called millennial generation seems not to have the proper attitude towards work. Hillary Clinton’s words on the matter, as Bhaskar Sunkara writes in his generational analysis of OWS, “could have been ripped out of National Review”: “A lot of kids don’t know what work is. They think work is a four-letter word. … We’ve got to send a different message to our young people. America didn’t happen by accident. A lot of people worked really hard. They’ve got to do their part too.”
The most common conservative argument made against OWS is that the protestors are lazy, elitist ingrates who want to blame their own deficiencies on Wall Street and are looking for a government handout because they fear the responsibilities that accompany freedom. This is the argument that informs the message-based images against the movement that have gone viral (in an appropriation of a popular movement tactic). Take for instance the 53% guy (pictured just below) who advises OWS protestors to “suck it up you whiners.” His incredible sacrifices show that with grit and determination anyone in America can, well, stay afloat, without so much as health insurance, and without whining. In this he continues the fight taken up by the neocons, who vehemently defended American intellectual and political traditions, such as the colorblind rhetoric of equal opportunity, which they believed had served them well. Most neoconservatives were from Jewish immigrant families and felt the sting of discrimination growing up. Yet, such biographical barriers did not inhibit them from “making it,” as Podhoretz titled his 1967 memoir. In this context, the wide-ranging demands made by rowdy campus protestors on campuses across the country in the 1960s, such as for affirmative action, struck the neoconservatives as brazenly anti-American. Many view the OWS protestors through the same lens. This is a culture wars lens, even if not precisely in the way Yglesias maintains.
Although Yglesias probably thinks conflating economic debate with the culture wars is a way of not being an economic determinist, he is repeating the vulgar determinism of Thomas Frank by maintaining that people who don’t act in their obvious economic interests, people who act on “gut” instincts, or worse, in identity-based ways, are irrational. To argue, as I do, that the culture wars were not epiphenomenal, is not to deny the importance of economics, but rather, to point to what Marx called a “social formation” (analyzed with much skill recently by David Harvey), where culture, ideas, and economics interact in complex and unpredictable ways. As large historical forces, such as the deindustrialization of the economy that disempowered labor unions while empowering those who worked in the information economy, shaped the culture wars, the culture wars in turn reshaped the social formation in dialectical fashion. The tribal clashes that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, as brilliantly told by Village Voice journalist Paul Cowan—whose excellent 1979 collection of essays, The Tribes of America, was recently re-released with an introduction by Rick Perlstein—polarized into two great camps by the 1980s and 1990s: James Davison Hunter’s “secular-progressives” and “orthodox-traditionalists.” Even those who sought to transcend the culture wars, for example Christopher Lasch, whose work often defended traditionalism as a means to ward of the evils of capitalism, were sucked into the culture wars vortex, as feminists like Susan Faludi lumped Lasch with anti-feminists like George Gilder. As part of this polarization process, cultural conservatives or traditionalists often came around to conservative economic or anti-statist positions that would have shocked their forebears. As Leo Ribuffo shows, pro-family activists in the early twentieth century most often blamed the market for disrupting traditional life. But by the 1970s, the state was to blame, situating the Christian Right smack dab in a Republican coalition that sought to dismantle the New Deal Order.
As Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue by way of sociological analysis of poll data, in their new book American Grace, religious and political positioning are more inextricable than ever. Whereas the degree to which a person was religious in the 1950s had little bearing on whether they identified as Democrat or Republican, today it matters greatly, as the more religious someone is the more likely they are to vote Republican. Conversely, people who are conservative but not religious gravitate towards religion because they find likeminded people in churches. And the same goes for liberals who are quitting church, or atheists who are quitting the Republican Party. This polarization is a microcosm of the culture wars.
The polarization of the culture wars, I suggest, helps us to understand the response to OWS, or perhaps more compellingly, the differences between the Tea Party and OWS, both of which were nominally anti-Wall Street. The popularity of the Tea Party could initially be partly explained by the antipathy to the Wall Street bailouts. But the Tea Party became a political force more as a conglomerate of conservative positions that tended towards austerity—towards the notion that the state could not help us out of this mess, that if anything it would make matters worse. Furthermore, the Tea Party’s anti-tax messages evinced opposition to laziness and government handouts, the sort of anti-“loser” rhetoric that fired up the traders who surrounded Rick Santelli when he lashed out at a plan to relieve foreclosed upon homeowners. Polarization also shapes the style or aesthetics of the two movements, as James Livingston has been arguing about OWS in several compelling blog posts. Tea Party activists dressed up as 18th century patriots and often talked as much about God and Country as about Taxes. OWS activists look like hippies, smoke weed, and often talk as much about the spiritual evils of consumerism as they do about anti-austerity. Style, identity, and culture: these things seem to matter to both sides as much as politics (which is not to argue that these things can replace politics, if reform or revolution be the goals). Style, identity, and culture: these things are as polarized as politics. This is the legacy of the culture wars that helps shape our understanding of the great debate taking place right now.