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, my favorite Neo-Keynesian popularizer who 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 wars army is, to put it mildly, off. 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-phile 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 the Rortybomb post 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 recently read, in addition to 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

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Oh mercy! Thank you for that, Andrew. I can hardly type now for laughing. Oh me! Really — that just made my day.

    No, I’m afraid you have not silenced LD. That “hmmm” was the sound of my mental gearbox downshifting to try to haul a load of ideas up a pretty steep grade.

    So far, here’s the cargo:

    1) What does the current (mistaken) explanatory model for the Culture Wars offer in terms of benefit, and to whom?

    2) I have spent the better part of a week putting together an abstract for a conference paper dealing with a particular episode of the Culture Wars. So I’m very intrigued by the idea that gender became the major battleground of the Culture Wars, and I want to hear some other commenters expand on this.

    That’s all for now. When my Big Idea makes it up the grade I’ll let you know.

  2. Andrew,

    There’s lots of good stuff here. But let me focus on a few things:

    1. You wrote: “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.”

    This is pitch perfect. I mean, it allows those with a longer definition of “modern America” (and the culture wars) to respond to your point according to their preferred time frame—their personal sense of the hot chronological culture spots in the 20th century that correlate.

    2. You wrote: “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.”

    Again, well said. I would say, however, that this requires more fleshing out. I mean, for instance, that the evolution-creation “culture sore” was definitely re-opened (if it ever closed). And the public schools wound re-opened (which had been seemingly closed or stable from the 1920s to the 1960s). The “culture sores” of the contraception debate (there’s a bad pun here I’m not going ot hazard) which began in the 1920s healed, or went stable, for a long period until the 1970s. …So I’m just continuing an ongoing conversation about the chronological limits of the culture sores—err wars—here, but it’s interesting to me.

    3. I have just got to read Dan Williams’ God’s Own Party.

    4. It ain’t “intellectual history in 140 characters or less” when it takes 7 exchanges to get out some small-but-important points! Your exchange points to the importance of blogs and other long-form writing outlets in relation to our work. If the world “goes Twitter” we USIHers will be the worse for it.

    – TL

  3. Great writing with the “acids of modernity” quote, I hope that makes it into the finished book.

    To exercise my penchant for contrariness, I ask when hasn’t modernity “burned gaping, irreparable holes in the fabric of normative America”? Going back to the era of Jacobinism, The Federalist party was able to moderate the borders of acceptable discourse through their effective cultural offensive and the concurrent development of the concept of American exceptionalism. The effects of this development was the marginalization of the Paine influenced wing of the Jeffersonian, the embryonic feminist movement is pushed back into the domestic sphere, and political life is restricted to white males.

    The normative American was Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, and he was specifically a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, but demographic changes caused by immigration led to the creation of “whiteness” and the influx of Catholics led to a notion of Christianity being the norm. Jews, African American, women, Gays have all fought their way into the American identity.

    So is the cause of the lack of culture wars in the middle third of the 20th century? Was it due to the highly restrictive atmosphere of the Cold War? Was this another instance of why the New Deal Era being what Cowie and Salvatore term “The Long Exception?”‘

    What are the consequences or who benefits from the Culture Wars? How did blue collar unionized workers no longer become the normative identity among the American Working class? What about the use of culture war attacks among the right? Are they fundamentally different?

    As for your tweets, I shall be curled up this weekend watching A Fish Called Wanda and reading Friedrich Nietsche. Thanks for the link to the review.

  4. @Brian: Thanks for mentioning Salvatore/Cowie, because I meant to include the phrase “long exception” in my comment. Speaking of economics (i.e. accidentally/indirectly), I’m not sure how politics, culture, and economics play together in the so-called “long Culture Wars.” Let’s do a long, rough-and-ready tracking of the economics/Culture Wars correlation (beginning after WWI). So:

    (a) Affluence enables CW in 1920s
    (b) Depressions suppresses(?) CW in 1930s (or does it?—reading something like Schlesinger’s *The Politics of Upheaval* makes one think of the Catholic factor in economic-political discussions of FDR)
    (c) WWII suppresses CW in the 1940s
    (d) Affluence suppresses 1945-1960 Culture Wars (or does it? McCarthyism does a better job of repression)
    (e) Affluence enables early CRM precursors to the Culture Wars from 1960-1970 as McCarthyism declines
    (f) Increasing economic instability/inequality enables CW from 1970s to 2001?

    How has ebb and flow of capitalism affected our view of identity in modern America? In my chart above, it seems that the question of what it means to be a modern American runs independent of affluence/recession/depression. – TL

  5. Tim, this seems to be too reductivist an analysis to me. But even if there’s a correlative or causal relationship between “affluence” and “culture wars,” you might be putting the cart before the horse. It might just be that the Culture Wars enabled affluence, and not vice versa.

  6. LD: “Analysis” gives my tracking too much dignity. I intended it to be reductivist to make a rough point about how economics and the culture wars don’t correlate, even in a rough way. At the very least the relationship is not simple. – TL

  7. My alias is explained at last! The “D” in LD stands for “Dignity,” which I am happy to confer as needed upon my worthy colleagues, commenters and occasional combatants in the blogosphere.

    I think there has to be a *connection* between Culture Wars and economics, but I’ll be danged if I know yet what it is.

  8. @Tim: You write: ” this requires more fleshing out…” I couldn’t agree more. I think I’ll write a book! I will say, however, that I think the overall cultural changes that reshaped the US in the Sixties and after were more profoundly earth shattering than anything since perhaps the Civil War. A good debate for historians. And yes, Twitter is not a replacement for blogs, especially for old-fashioned books.

    @Brian: Well said regarding the so-called culture wars of the early Republic (which just highlights the anachronistic way that all historians use the term culture wars). I think the last third of the 20th century was peculiar for a number of reasons. Yes, the cold war consensus or “the long exception” ended, which was a big deal, especially insofar as the New Deal order also came to an end. Deindustrialization and increased economic security definitely heightened cultural tensions, not always in predictable ways.

    Which leads me back to Tim and LD’s discussion on affluence/economics relative to the culture wars. On the one hand, there are always culture wars in American political culture. But what shape they take depends a great deal on economic and other factors. There were most certainly culture wars in the 1930s. Read Ribuffo’s “Old Christian Right” if you don’t believe me. But in times of economic hardship, normative Americanism gets fleshed out in more or less economic terms. You saw this happen a few years ago with the “great debate” about Obama’s so-called socialism.

    But I also think LD is right in that Tim’s admittedly reductionist outline puts the cart before the horse. The intensifying commodification of culture–concomitant to the increasing number of people in the information economy–helped make the late 20c culture wars I study. This is what theorists call the cultural turn. It was a turn of kind in economics as well.

    And yes, culture was commodified earlier. This is part of the acids of modernity. But it’s all a matter of degree, of intensity.

  9. Hi Andrew, I was glad to see your post because references to the “culture war” are omnipresent these days. My own take, as you know, is that any discussion of the topic, especially those centered on the Reagan era, must address the anti-homosexual hysteria that blanketed the nation. The animating force behind conservative rhetoric lacked any sense of compassion. The phrase on the lips of Republicans–“AIDS is killing all the right people”–is astounding for the scale of violence and indifference implied.

  10. I agree with you Lisa and, as you know, will be dealing with anti-homosexual hysteria in the book I’m writing. I would lump this as a special case under the gender shifts that shaped the culture wars. That I didn’t explicitly deal with that topic here is because, well, it’s a blog post and barely even covers the bare minimum. Of course, if I were to get into any serious discussion of Santorum, who is doing his best to represent the Catholic bishops in the political arena, I would have to get into his own anti-homosexual bigotry, which he’s made patently clear time and again.

  11. I think there is identifiably strong connections between economics and the culture wars. In *What’s the Matter with Kansas* Thomas Frank talks about running into an preppy (to use a dated 80’s word) politico who is playing the part of a culture warrior–and it’s so obviously an awkward fit, but in Frank’s description he’s successful anyway. A political-economic *motivation* to prosecute the culture wars is definitely there, even when it’s inauthentic. It’s at least partly a strategy of political economy. A lot of it’s about the ascendancy of the South as a base for a successful national coalition. Kevin Phillips says as much in *American Theocracy,* and he should know–he was a major player in designing the strategy. I think political messaging tries to leverage the sentiment of a certain cultural/political set of factions–and its center of gravity, its guaranteed fallback, is in the south.

    Check out Colin Woodard’s thesis in North American Nations about the differences in regional cultures and contemporary politics:


    The importance of region, the power of a regional base, and how that affects motivated political speech shouldn’t be overlooked… There *is* cultural exploitation going on in the culture wars… As Josh Marshall says about an elite cultural backlash against Mike Huckabee a few years ago:

    Just for the record, I find it fascinating just how openly the Republican establishment just hates Mike Huckabee. Don’t get me wrong. I can see why they’re bent out of shape. They think he’d be a rotten national candidate. And more importantly they’re pissed at him for not understanding the proper role of Christian conservatives in the Republican party, which is to supply votes, phone-bankers and general grunt work.

    My pal Mike Lind in one of his books had this great line about the GOP Triangular Trade in which Southern evangelicals provide the votes for a party financed by and run on behalf of Wall Street and with policies devised by a gang of New York intellectuals and scribblers. He put it more eloquently. But he had it about right.

    Basically, Richard Scaife provides the money to help keep his taxes low. Bill Kristol comes up with the ideas. And Mike Huckabee provides the votes.


    (Anyway, I’m probably not as well informed about certain things as some on this blog, but thought I’d throw this into the mix…)

  12. Corey Robin’s arguments about conservatives offering the masses the opportunity to “play the part of lords” come to mind. “Heartlanders” can participate in passing judgement on elite technocrats and their enabled hippies looking for handouts. That story is told over and over, wheeled out like a set piece, regardless of what’s really going on…

  13. I am wondering about the difference (if any?) between “[politically] capitalizing on the Culture Wars” and “capitalism and the Culture Wars.” (Disclaimer: the Culture Wars are not my primary field of interest. They are my “side project.” So, like JJ, I am throwing stuff into the mix. You’re welcome.)

    I keep going back to Michael Kazin’s approach to William Jennings Bryan, which seems to me to be more useful, if not more nuanced, than Thomas Frank’s approach to Bryan’s (neo?) populist ideological heirs in Kansas.

    The assumption that one’s economic interests should be what drives one’s electoral choices represents a particular way of valuing and giving meaning to how we live in society. And it might in fact be a superior way of evaluating political choices. But maybe not. And to suggest that there’s something “wrong” with Kansans and similar voters because they don’t vote according to a value system that they don’t have seems like a decidedly unhelpful piece of information.

    Kazin’s project — to understand “Bryan and his people” — is, I think, a model for how to make sense of not just neo-populism or neo-nativism or neo-anything-ism, but of pretty much any cultural/historical phenomenon.

    In contrast, I think the tendency to look at “Kansas-style” voters as exploited pawns in a cynical money-greased political game diminishes their dignity and their agency, glosses over their understanding of the world as irrelevant to “how things really are,” and disdains their ability to make informed or responsible political choices.

  14. I agree with y’all that economics/class and “culture” (race, gender, sexual politics, all that falls within and beyond these) are inextricably connected, and I have read some great take-downs of Frank’s thesis, notably the response from Ellen Willis. There are still other battles to fight in the realm of civil rights and the politics of recognition, and those that Frank claims we have won are neither safe and “over” nor unrelated to issues of class, either.

    Still, I have to say it is often tempting, if emotionally driven or cynical, to see conservative strategy as distracting from economics and focusing on cultural issues. Take the contraception issue — which I think so-called left-conservatives should recognize as at once an issue of cultural and class (healthcare!). It’s hard not to interpret the conservative response as exploiting, if feebly (politicians and religious leaders seem to be out of touch, in a very top-down way, with their constituents/congregants, who widely use contraception), it as a cultural issue to take attention away from what’s going on in the broader economy. Though I understand that historians have, for example, subsequently downplayed the centrality of the Southern strategy (in terms of its reception/efficacy), it was nonetheless an adopted strategy, meaning it’s hard to dismiss out of hand, as cynical, such explanations for the actions of politicians. Shit’s real.

    But my question is about false consciousness. I’ve seen this come up in modern South Asian historiography (in gendered/sexual violence) so I’m not as familiar with it in the US context. First, what are some good starting points for the debates on false consciousness as a historical explanation? Second, in light of Krugman’s more recent column, in which he cites the research of Suzanne Mettler as showing that 40-44% of those receiving Social Security, unemployment and Medicare benefits reported themselves as not using a government program, what do we do with that? I’m certainly not lambasting these folks, as Frank might, but it makes the ‘false consciousness’ claim hard to dismiss as itself morally and epistemologically wrong.

    • Zack – The best guide to thinking about “false consciousness” is to read Jim Scott’s Weapons of the Weak and Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks at the same time. Jim can’t quite see it, but there’s actually a lot of overlap — Jim’s critique of Gramsci applies much more to knee-jerk orthodox marxist interpretations of Gramsci than to Gramsci himself.

      Bill Barnes

    • Thanks, Bill. On second thought, I’m guessing the prevalent shame/stigma of receiving government assistance, coupled with what LD suggested, that such voters’ value systems (when it comes to voting) might simply be different and prioritize different things, is a better explanation. I just think that in rejecting Frank’s thesis as (among other things) condescending, we risk eliding that there are in fact seeming contradictions here.

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