U.S. Intellectual History Blog

An Emerging Historiography of the Culture Wars

If you’re a regular or even semi-regular reader of this blog, you know that I am writing a book on the culture wars. I am happy to report that I’m making considerable progress. Thanks to a sabbatical last semester, which allowed me to establish a regular writing routine, I have about 80,000 words written out of the 110,000 that the press has allotted me. I have considerable work ahead of me. Beyond writing two more chapters, I still need to write my introduction, which I am saving for last, in part because I suspect it will be my toughest task. But the end is in sight.

Knowing that I would be gearing up to write the introduction to my book this semester—that I would be thinking about the culture wars in the big picture—I decided to offer a graduate seminar on the topic, with a focus on historiography. One of the more difficult things about writing a book on the culture wars—as with doing recent history more generally—has been piecing together historiography. No historian has yet written a monograph on the culture wars, at least, on the culture wars as I define them. The historiography of the culture wars is, shall we say, jumbled. And yet, I think it is now safe to say that an historiography of the culture wars is emerging. I am going to use this post to analyze this emerging historiography.

Below is a list of 13 books. These are the books that I am assigning to my students, in the order they will read them. Obviously, this is far from a complete historiographical picture. But it is a start. Feel free to suggest additional books and articles in the comments—or to quibble with my selections. (If you are one of the authors listed below, and are willing to engage with my students after they read your book, send me an email.)

Thomas Frank, What’s The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America

I began the semester with Frank’s popular jeremiad because it is a very readable introduction to what I consider the conventional liberal wisdom on the culture wars, that, as he writes, “the culture wars get the goods.” In his typical pithy way, Frank relates the Andres Serrano Piss Christ controversy to this larger point: “Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.” Frank thesis goes as follows: cultural 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. Although it is easy to sympathize with Frank’s argument, he oversimplifies. First, his thesis willfully ignores that the two parties have failed to offer substantial economic alternatives since the late 1970s, when the Democratic Party joined the Republicans in prioritizing deregulation, free trade, and tax breaks for corporations (this, despite the fact that he includes a brief analysis of the Democratic Party’s move to the right—and more curiously, despite the fact that neoliberalism has long been one of the themes of his work). Second, Frank misses one of the great historical shifts in twentieth-century American political culture: the melding together of economic and cultural interests in new ways. You might say this is the political economy of the post-sixties cultural turn. (I’ve written about this elsewhere, such as in this article on why the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements were viewed as cultural phenomena despite being responses to the economic crisis.)

James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars

This is the signature account of the culture wars. Published in 1991, when the very term “culture wars” was only beginning to be uttered in political discourse, Hunter offers an exhaustive sociological analysis of the mutually antagonistic “progressive” and “orthodox” worldviews, which is crucial in relating the culture wars to changing religious-political affiliations. He usefully demonstrates that Catholics and Protestants, historically unfriendly almost as a rule, found common cause across faiths on culture war issues such as abortion and homosexuality. He argues, correctly in my view, that these polarizing, all-encompassing impulses—what I would describe as opposing epistemologies—overtook less pressing issues, such as, remarkably, theological concerns such as deciphering the best route to heaven. However, Hunter altogether ignores wide swaths of history that shaped the culture wars, including the period of “punctuated equilibrium” otherwise known as the sixties. In short, Hunter gave scholars a workable framework for thinking about the culture wars that has had a long life, and will continue to have a long life. But there is now plenty of room for historical revision.

Adam Laats, Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era: God, Darwin, and the Roots of America’s Culture Wars

It’s important to note that the culture wars are just a new name for a debate older than the nation itself: the culture wars, simply put, are a struggle to define a normative America. It’s also important to note that many of the specific divisions that form the culture wars—such as the fundamentalist-modernist division—are not new. Laats’s book reminds us of the signal event of the 1920s fight between fundamentalists and modernists, the Scopes Monkey Trial, in such a way that points to the late-twentieth-century culture wars.

Jonathan Zimmerman, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools

My book is about American political culture, focused mostly on intellectual history. But it also interweaves a great deal of educational history. I can’t imagine a history of the culture wars not focused on education. More broadly, I think educational history needs to be placed at the center of American historiography. There was a time when our most venerable historians agreed, Richard Hofstadter, for instance. When he first delved into educational history, he wrote Merle Curti that he was struck by how much there was to be learned about intellectual life in America by studying its schools. My work is in that spirit. As such, I include here Zimmerman’s book, which has become canonical in the historiography of American education.

Raymond Haberski, Jr., God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945

A good many of you have probably read Ray’s book, or at least, you’ve read the roundtable we featured on the book a few months ago, including my entry. As I wrote in my review, Haberski’s superbly written book is a valiant effort to understand the American civil religion, a “strange beast” of an undercurrent in U.S. intellectual history. He writes: “There is a fundamental irony of American civil religion—the nation lives with a misbegotten confidence born from a union of religion and reason.” Haberski’s book is the best at seeking to explain how the modern democratic nation known as the United States goes to war in the name of God; how it finds national meaning in its wars. For this reason, God and War should become a touchstone for postwar U.S. intellectual historians, including those who write about the culture wars. Civil religion operated as a sort of culture wars riptide. Ray writes: “The ‘culture wars’ seemed to mock the idea of civil religion.” God and War has been extremely helpful to my understanding the boundaries of the culture wars. If the culture wars were a war for the soul of America, civil religion was recognition that the nation had a soul to begin with.

Van Gosse and Richard Moser, eds., The World the Sixties Made: Politics and Culture in Recent America

This collection of essays offers a good supplement or even corrective to Hunter because the thesis that ties all the disparate essays together is that American political culture was remade by the sixties, and one of the most important legacies of this cultural transformation has been the culture wars. Some of the topics covered in the various chapters: feminism; urban protest; Hollywood and the cultural left; gay and lesbian movements; AIDS politics; “cartoon politics” (courtesy of Jim Livingston).

Martha Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus

I have yet to read Biondi’s latest, so I’m looking forward to diving into it with my students. One of my contentions is that the institutionalization of the sixties liberations movements in higher education forged a cultural divide at the heart of the culture wars. My guess is that Biondi’s book will reinforce this argument, but that’s to be determined (I’ll blog about it later). I did get a sneak peek of Biondi’s book in a chapter she contributed to Manisha Sinha and Penny von Eschen’s anthology, Contested Democracy, titled, “Student Protest, ‘Law and Order,’ and the Origins of African American Studies in California.” In that essay, Biondi sought to complicate two standard narratives: that black student protest was mostly done in the early sixties by SNCC activists around lunch-counter sit-ins; and that black power was mostly about beret-wearing, gun-toting militants in the streets. She argues instead that the black protest movement in the late sixties is an overlooked intellectual element of Black Power, and that this student movement expanded space for black students in universities, paving the way for a growing black middle class. “To be sure, student activists also used the rhetoric of revolution and engaged in confrontational tactics, and this radicalism has likely helped to obscure the legacy of their activism.”

Robert O. Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s

I can’t NOT assign the most talked about book at this blog, can I?! If you’ve been under a rock, check out the back-and-forth between Christopher Shannon, who gives the smartest traditionalist critique of liberal historiography I’ve ever read, and Self, who defends his book against such criticism admirably. (Side-note 1: This might be the best exchange we’ve ever hosted on this blog. Side-note 2: everyone should go out and read Shannon’s book, A World Made Safe for Differences, which I reviewed for this blog over five years ago—hard to believe we’ve been at it for so long!)

All in the Family is about how “family values” transformed American political culture rightward. Self describes this transformation, bracketed historically from 1964 to 2004, as a shift from “breadwinner liberalism” to “breadwinner conservatism.” He argues that those who challenged mainstream assumptions about sex and sexuality helped pave the way for this shift, even if unintentionally. In terms of the book’s explicit relation to culture wars historiography, Self’s goal seems similar to mine: he hopes to bring together the history of cultural politics with the history of struggles for equality. As he writes: “The hinge of the history recounted in this book is the moment when liberalism came to seem, to many millions of ordinary Americans, more like a moral threat than an economic helping hand.”

Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right

Obviously, the history of the postwar Christian Right is central to an historical understanding of the culture wars. There are a plethora of books to choose from on the Christian Right. You can’t go wrong with William Martin’s standard account, With God on Our Side. But I prefer Williams as the best new synthesis. God’s Own Party historicizes the remarkable turn taken by the Republican Party, which, in a snapshot, can be seen in its 1980 platform. Thanks largely to the new influence of Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority—the definitive Christian Right organization at that time—the GOP endorsed a constitutional amendment to restore prayer in schools, an anti-abortion plank, and an anti-ERA plank, the latter of which reversed 40 years of GOP history. Many historians have long assumed that this was the return of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists to the public sphere. Williams revises this idea: “Conservative Christians,” he argues, “never retreated from the public sphere.” Rather, the 1980 Christian Right takeover of the Republican Party “was an event more than fifty years in the making.” More: “fundamentalists never lost sight of the political vision that they had formed in the 1920s—the vision of reclaiming America’s Christian identity through politics.” So the book is about how the Christian Right gained power in the GOP, not about how it returned to a public sphere it never abandoned.

David Courtwright, No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America

The historiography of the culture wars—when historians explicitly frame their work as about the culture wars—is limited by its adherence to the bait-and-switch framework perfected by Tom Frank. David Courtwright’s No Right Turn, the first historical monograph dedicated specifically to the culture wars, or at least, what he considers the culture wars, adds historical weight to Frank’s more impressionistic study. Courtwright’s book is written in excellent, often hilarious prose. It convincingly argues that, although the cultural right entered the political arena with a vengeance, it failed to reshape the national culture due to the pervasiveness of countercultural values, which touched most members of the baby boomer generation regardless of ideological orientation. He also shows that where the cultural right failed, the economic right succeeded. This is true as far as it goes. But in thinking of the culture wars merely as a tool of the political class, and not as something real in their own right, Courtwright adheres to Frank’s thesis that the culture wars should simply be understood as a successful yet cynical Republican tactic: marshaling the spectacle of cultural controversy helped Republicans achieve their more mundane political and economic objectives.

As with Frank’s thesis, most liberal readers will accept Courtwright’s premises. But his interpretation is incomplete. Courtwright’s political history of contemporary America is excellent as an update to Kevin Phillips’ infamous 1969 explanation of the Republican “southern strategy,” particularly as he expands our understanding of conservative resentment beyond racial backlash to include issues such as abortion, what he terms the new “third rail” in American politics. But Courtwright’s political focus is too narrow. In avoiding the cultural, educational, and—amazingly—intellectual history of post-sixties America, Courtwright ignores the issues that define the culture wars: the controversies over education, art, history, museum exhibits, and popular culture. This cultural, educational, and intellectual history illuminates the ways in which the culture wars represented something more than mere escapades in exuberant irrationalism. That said, Courtwright’s is my favorite political history of the post-Nixon era–much better, for example, than Sean Wilentz’s Age of Reagan. It’s just not a history of the culture wars.

Lisa Duggan, Twilight of Equality: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy

This short, polemical work theorizes the history that Self’s book excavates so thoroughly. In short, Duggan brings together a Marxist analysis of neoliberalism with a feminist or queer theorist perspective on identity politics. I haven’t read the book since graduate school, so I will blog more about this when I read it again with my students.

James Livingston, The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century

Livingston is one of my favorite living intellectual historians–though I don’t think this is his best book. For that, read Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution. He and I had an exchange about The World Turned Inside Out at the blog—check it out (me & him). In short, he offers a different perspective in his challenging book. Like most other historians, Livingston recognizes that the disruptive sixties forged the terrain of culture war battles. But unlike others, he discounts the conservative reaction. Instead, Livingston posits that the cultural left won the ideological battles of the sixties, made evident by its domination of the commanding cultural heights of the university and by its hegemony over popular culture. In short, he maintains that the left “was never in danger of losing the so-called culture wars.” In this, Livingston offers an important intervention: by expanding the interpretative terrain of the culture wars to the realm of intellectual history, his book is a necessary corrective to Courtwright’s narrow political focus. However, Livingston’s intellectual history is too narrow in its own right. He places too high of a premium on the power of the cultural left, as if control over humanities departments and Hollywood was sufficient. Livingston ignores that those cultural realms dominated by conservatives—Congress, evangelical churches, AM radio, conservative think tanks—were equal if not greater in influence. In sum, the national culture, what Patrick Buchanan memorably referred to as “the Ho Chi Minh Trail to power,” was up for grabs. Courtwright uses the metaphor of trench warfare to describe the culture wars as a stalemate. This may be more accurate than Livingston’s cultural left triumphalism.

Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture

This is the most talked about book in the history of the USIH blog. Don’t believe me? Go down the rabbit hole. You can read my thoughts on the book here, a review that was part of a conference roundtable that also became a blog roundtable. Whereas I argue that the culture wars are defining lens through which to understand late-twentieth century American political culture, Rodgers’s thesis is different. “Fracture,” for him, is explanatory metaphor for recent U.S. history. Since the 1970s, “the terrain of common sense shifted.” Structuralist and other “strong readings” of society have given way to disaggregation. Rodgers writes: “Notions of power moved out of structures and into culture. Identities became intersectional and elective. Concepts of society fragmented. Time became penetrable. Even the slogans of the culture war’s conservatives were caught up in the swirl of choice.”

Although Rodgers is correct in many aspects, especially as his thesis relates to economic thought, I don’t think “fracture” captures the ways Americans thought about cultural politics. I argue instead that Americans increasingly divided into opposing epistemological camps, one informed by relativism, the other by certainty.

But to see this worked out more fully, you’ll have to wait for the book.

Now, dear reader: your thoughts on the emerging historiography of the culture wars?

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew,
    I’m thrilled to be included. What about including something that challenges the notion of culture wars, such as Morris Fiorina’s book? Or excerpts thereof? Or James Davison Hunter’s and Alan Wolfe’s book?

  2. I don’t know whether you would consider the book and historiography or simply a primary source of the culture wars, but I think 48 Liberal Lies About American History by Larry Schweikartis a useful book to examine. In particular its chapter on WMD in Iraq is an easily useful lesson. The book is written at a pretty low level of intellect. The book’s revisionist version of events is so easily disproved that I have always wanted to use it as a lesson for my students. Many of the sources cited are websites and thus easily accessible to students. The key to the WMD chapter is looking at the dates of all the citations (almost exclusively pre to very early Iraq invasion), and comparing it to post-invasion information. So it may be less useful for a graduate seminar, but could really be good for a undergraduate methods class (even high school).

    I would also disagree with Courtwright’s assessment that abortion is the new “third rail” of American politics. I don’t think in my lifetime (I’m in my mid-30s) there has been so much proposed and enacted legislation, or talk about abortion. Supporting restriction on abortion has become so non-politically destructive for conservative that the rape and incest provisions are no longer consider valid exceptions. If anything this past election cycle showed that rape is the “third rail”, but not necessarily abortion. I will excuse Courtwright in that I think the ability to be openly anti-abortion is a relatively recent phenomenon, and given the fact that his book was published in 2010 (and written before that) abortion may still have be a “third rail” topic.

  3. Take a look at Eli Zaretsky’s new book, Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument, and Eric Miller’s bio of Christopher Lasch

  4. Andrew,

    When I pursued Laat’s link to Amazon, it was cross-listed with Gary Nash et. al.’s History on Trial, about the effect of the culture wars on teaching history. Just an FYI in case you hadn’t seen the book.

  5. Adam: I probably should have assigned one of the books written by skeptics such as Alan Wolfe and Morris Fiorina. Even though I really don’t like those books. Wolfe and Fiorina put a narrow type of empiricism to work—relying almost exclusively on poll data—to dismiss the culture wars as the over-hyped preoccupation of the political class and the media. Such a characterization amounts to truism: elite actors generally defined or redefined the boundaries of most national political discourse. In Wolfe and Fiorina’s attempt to explain away the culture wars, they discount that politicians and public intellectuals necessarily tapped into popular discontent, which often lurked beneath the surface of consciousness as measured by polls.

    Rhett: I’ve heard of the Schweikartis book. It could be included among literally hundreds such books–which I would categorize as primary sources, definitely not historical scholarship. In fact, the Nash et all book referenced by Mark–“History on trial”–despite being grounded in solid historical scholarship, is more of a primary source. It was Nash and his colleagues defense of their National History Standards.

  6. Really cool-looking course. I might include Robin D.G. Kelley’s Yo Mama’s Disfunktional and Patricia Williams Alchemy of Race and Rights–your students may not recall the degree to which race was central to the right wing push on culture, and the brilliance of the pushback by critical race scholars. And perhaps some Tim Dean (or a selection of readings from October on the art dimension of the culture wars) or Michael Warner? Maybe the Sokal hoax anthology as a supplementary reading?

  7. What a great reading list. I too love James Livingston. In general I appreciate your refusal, if that is not too strong a word, of the usual “it’s the economy, stupid” cry of some on the Left. You are saying values and meaning are important and possible somewhat independent in their own right. Also important is how scholars are starting to revisit the crucial 1970s. Now I have to read Rodgers. And I can’t wait for your book.

  8. I like Alan Petigny’s *The Permissive Society: America, 1941-1965*. He begins his narrative in the forties to demonstrate that the seeds for the sixties were well embedded before that decade. He doesn’t directly address the culture wars, but I believe it may be useful because he writes about how new ideas concerning psychology, feminism, and so on permeated even the most conservative segments of society at midcentury. Of course later there is a kind of delayed reaction against these new ideas during the culture wars.

  9. An excellent start on historiography of the culture wars. Some additional books come to mind –

    Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams. Why Am is Wracked by Culture Wars. l995.

    Kevin Mattson, Rebels All, 2008.

    Geoff Eley, A Crooked Line, 2005.

    Linda Kintz, Between Jesus and the Market, 1997.

    Joan Walsh, What’s the Matter with White People: Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was. Wiley, 2012.

    Norton Garfinkle and Daniel Yankelovich, Uniting America: Restoring the Vital Center to American Democracy, 2006.

    Irene Taviss Thomson, Culture Wars and Enduring American Dilemmas, 2010.

    I don’t have a title, but how about something on the science wars, from Kuhn through creationists, climate denialists, etc – particularly since you seem to follow James Davison Hunter closely, claiming, contra Rodgers, “that Americans [are] increasingly divided into opposing epistemological camps, one informed by relativism, the other by certainty.” Is this a reprise of the old modernist vs traditionalist debates?

    Finally – You’re not likely to tip your hand, given the promotional considerations at stake, but is the following to be taken with a measure of historiographical irony? — “If the culture wars were a war for the soul of America, civil religion was recognition that the nation had a soul to begin with.”

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