U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Return of the Culture Wars! (Part LIII, LIV, LV…)

In a bit of good news for a guy writing a book on the history of the subject, the culture wars have returned with a vengeance. Or so say the pundits. As a historian of the culture wars, of course, I never thought they went away. Perennial efforts to pronounce the culture wars dead have always been pathetically ignorant of the historical earthquake otherwise known as modernity, and of its accompanying epistemic and identity-based crises. Put simply: What does it mean to be a modern American? When this question is answered—or, when people quit projecting their notion of normative Americanism onto the public sphere—the culture wars will finally, at long last, wither and die. In other words, not in our lifetimes.

That the culture wars are a seemingly permanent feature of American political culture is not to say that they haven’t morphed over time, become more intense here, less there, about this issue here, that there, depending on a host of contextual factors. Change is as much a feature of the long history of the culture wars as is continuity. The book I am writing is about the culture wars from the 1960s to the present, with a focus on the 1980s and 1990s, or the culture wars proper. In my view, this is the era when the acids of modernity burned gaping, irreparable holes in the fabric of normative America. The heated shouting matches over these new apertures, about how or whether to repair the breaches, have been the stuff of the culture wars.

By this framework, understanding the brouhaha over Obama’s contraception plan is not that difficult. But most pundits are mystified, or rather, they should admit to being mystified rather than confidently assert their typically bad analysis. Take for example Paul Krugman, who, as my favorite Neo-Keynesian popularizer should really stick to his mostly excellent economic commentary rather than opine on American conservatism, about which he knows just barely enough to be dangerously wrong. In his piece from a few days ago—tellingly titled, “Severe Conservative Syndrome”—Krugman returns to the deep well of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas bait-and-switch method of analysis, whereby it is thought cultural conservatives often vote against their own economic interests due to their irrational obsession with the culture wars, to which Republican politicians, on the payroll of the rich, cynically lend rhetorical support as they attend to more important matters, such as rewriting the tax codes in favor of their economic royalist bosses. Krugman relates Frank’s conventional wisdom to the present G.O.P. campaign, which he considers evidence that bait-and-switch has gone horrifically wrong:

the long-running con game of economic conservatives and the wealthy supporters they serve finally went bad. For decades the G.O.P. has won elections by appealing to social and racial divisions, only to turn after each victory to deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy—a process that reached its epitome when George W. Bush won re-election by posing as America’s defender against gay married terrorists, then announced that he had a mandate to privatize Social Security. Over time, however, this strategy created a base that really believed in all the hokum—and now the party elite has lost control. The point is that today’s dismal G.O.P. field—is there anyone who doesn’t consider it dismal?—is no accident. Economic conservatives played a cynical game, and now they’re facing the blowback, a party that suffers from “severe” conservatism in the worst way. And the malady may take many years to cure.

The notion that the G.O.P. deployment of culture wars strategy has created a grassroots culture war army is, to put it mildly, inaccurate. A vast historical literature testifies to the fact that rank-and-file conservatives have had more than a little say in the cultural turn taken by the G.O.P. These books are all too familiar to specialists. If you’re not a specialist, check out Kim Phillips-Fein’s historiographic essay and the ensuing roundtable in the Journal of American History. (Or for a primer, read Tim Lacy’s excellent overview of the JAH roundtable here at USIH.) One of the best books on the interplay between cultural conservatives, especially the Christian Right, and the G.O.P., is Dan Williams, God’s Own Party. Williams nicely illustrates the complexities of how the elite and the grassroots play off one another in the dialectical remaking of the Republican Party.

Another meme arising from the most recent commentary on the culture wars is that their return is premised on improvements to the economy. In other words, Republicans are cynically intensifying their focus on culture wars issues—like Obama’s contraception access plan, also read as a frontal assault on religious freedom—precisely because the economy is apparently improving, thus rendering it a less effective cudgel. The New Yorker’s resident Obama-file David Remnick puts it like this in a column titled, “Here Comes the Culture War!”:

Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum are intent on fanning any ember of cultural anxiety, fear, or resentment that can be found. The more the economy shows signs of life—however slight, however deceptive in many ways—the more the Republicans, and their media champions, are likely to resort to the kind of battles outlined in Bill O’Reilly’s 2006 book, “Culture Warrior,” which posited a country divided between decent, hard-working people of faith and pernicious secular liberals—a small but powerful Soros-funded minority that knows only contempt for “traditional American values” and wants to mold the country into “the image of Western Europe.”

It might be the case that Republicans strategize as such. Who can blame them, given the hyper-attention the media pays to any hint of cultural controversy. But, like Krugman, Remnick breezily erects an analytical bracket between cultural and economic spheres. This is a problem with the entire trajectory of most liberal commentary on the culture wars, now as ever. In order to explain how the cultural and economic have converged, let me quote extensively from a piece I wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education a few months ago, where I put the reception of Occupy Wall Street in the context of the culture wars paradigm:

Consider how traditionalists often take conservative, antistatist economic positions that would have shocked forebears such as William Jennings Bryan. Pro-family activists in the early 20th century blamed market forces for disrupting traditional life. But by the 1970s, cultural conservatives increasingly blamed the state, supposedly beholden to feminists who sought subsidized child-care centers and welfare policies that encouraged out-of-wedlock childbearing. Similarly, activists on the religious right, frustrated with the secularization of public schools that was codified by U.S. Supreme Court decisions outlawing class prayers in school and preventing the teaching of creationism, saw the state as the enemy of religion and family. Their newfound antistatism situated them smack-dab in a Republican coalition that sought to dismantle the New Deal order.

Increasingly after the 1960s, conservatives interpreted liberal movements such as “women’s liberation” as both hostile to traditional family values and dangerously anticapitalist. The author Midge Decter captured this conflation in her 1972 rebuke of feminism, The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation. Decter contended that modern American women had it better than ever in their newfound abilities to secure gainful employment and control pregnancy through birth control. And yet they feared their new freedoms, she wrote, because with them came new responsibilities in the competitive world of capitalism. In faulting feminists for shirking the responsibilities of living in capitalist America, Decter’s cultural critique of feminism doubled as a defense of capitalism.

Responsibility became sacrosanct for conservative culture warriors. Today’s anti-abortionists are not merely pro-life but also pro-responsibility. As Robert Bork wrote, abortion is “a way for women to escape the idea that biology is destiny, and from the tyranny of the family role.” Similarly, conservative racial discourse has morphed from the overt racism of white Southerners who sought to uphold Jim Crow into a colorblind rhetoric of individual merit and hard work, which shapes attacks on affirmative action.
Americans have long subscribed to political language—some call it populist—that separates those who earn their way from those who do not. At various historical moments, especially the Great Depression, a rapacious corporate elite has been assigned the role of leeches, thus enabling redistributive economic policies. At other moments, like the current culture wars, poor people, blacks, feminists, immigrants, and assorted “others” are described as parasites, hindering reform. Cultural description tends to match economic prescription, such as with the appropriately titled federal welfare-reform legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.


Mike Konczal, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, has been producing much more inspired culture wars posts at his great blog, Rortybomb. In this piece, Konczal relates the uptick in the culture wars—as measured by the huge increase in enacted abortion restrictions in the past year—to the conservative victories in the 2010 midterm elections. “Which is to say,” Konczal concludes,” that the new Tea Party and far-right state legislators–the ones who were supposed to be all libertarian and focused on the budget while dismantling unions under a culture war truce– also initiated a wave of abortion restrictions beyond anything in recent records.” Cultural and economic conservatives are increasingly one and the same.

Konczal explores this historical connection in another recent post, by (on the advice of Corey Robin), reading some early Ludwig von Mises, where the important libertarian thinker argues against sexual autonomy and, implicitly, birth control. That a classic libertarian like von Mises can be shown to be culturally conservative, even by the standards of his time, disrupts our cognitive political maps. (For evidence of such cognitive dissonance, check out the libertarian commenters at Rortybomb seeking to defend the legacy of their hero von Mises.)

Perhaps Konczal is a better breed of pundit because he reads this blog! Seriously, though, he is engaged with intellectual history in ways few pundits are. We had a Twitter exchange a few days ago—yes, people, I now tweet—where he asked me some questions about Age of Fracture, which he had read alongside our roundtable on it. I’ll conclude today’s post with our Twitter exchange—intellectual history in 140 characters or less:

From Mike Konczal @rortybomb:

@HartmanAndrew Age of Fracture: culture war “above all… was a battle over women’s acts and women’s and men’s natures…gender roles”

@HartmanAndrew Have you written on that (reading yr AoF posts now)? What’s your take, as my go-to culture war historian – mostly feminism?

From Andrew Hartman @HartmanAndrew

@rortybomb Good questions. Gender has become most important of many issues driving culture wars. Race was just as important early on. But…

@rortybomb Problems arose for race as a driving force of culture wars. Whereas all blacks stood on same side of dividing line, many women

@rortybomb have stood with the right on cultural conservative issues. In fact conservatives like Schlafly, Bev LaHaye and Decter led charge

@rortybomb Plus gender shifts were more upsetting, more felt, by more people–and were more closely associated with deindustrialization

@rortybomb Read Bethany Moreton God and Wal Mart to get sense of how cultural right adjusted to feminized labor market of service industry