U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Age of Fracture v. Age of Culture Wars

Anyone who writes about recent US history, particularly recent US intellectual history, must grapple with Daniel Rodgers’s award-winning book, Age of Fracture. Longtime readers of this blog are well aware that we’ve been wrestling with Age of Fracture ever since its 2011 publication date, a reckoning that includes a roundtable I organized for the 2011 S-USIH Conference that was published at the blog.

In this post I would like to briefly address how my new book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, is implicitly grounded in an historical theory for recent US history that differs from that which shapes Age of Fracture. I say implicitly because I left this historiographical debate out of the book for fear that it would seem like too much “inside baseball” to the prized “generally educated reader” for whom I ostensibly wrote the book. But the USIH Blog is all about insider baseball!



Book cover

Or this?

In attaching anxieties about ethical chaos—anxieties about the fracturing of American culture—to the specific political concerns of conservative Americans, A War for the Soul of America argues against a growing trend in US intellectual history that downplays the political distinctions of left and right. Age of Fracture, a history of American thought since the 1970s, contends that the politics of left and right had very little to do with the era’s key intellectual shifts. Rather, Rodgers argues that everyone, from left-wing feminists to Christian Right activists, had to grapple with new vocabularies that revolutionized American political sensibilities. As Americans organized their thought patterns into smaller and smaller units—as they increasingly thought about individuals instead of society, decentralized markets instead of centralized states—a cohesive sense of the nation became less legible. Fracture was the sign of the times. America was no longer whole.

As I think almost every USIH reader agrees, Age of Fracture is an exciting reinterpretation of recent intellectual history, particularly in showing how people enmeshed in seemingly incongruent conversations were using the same new words. Rodgers argues that a contagion of metaphors, including “fracture,” reshaped our sense of self and society.

I’m not so sure. By deemphasizing the political sources of fragmentation, Rodgers’s book fails to capture the actual sources of recent historical transformations. Although I’m no fan of militarized metaphors in general—“war on poverty,” “war on drugs,” blah, blah, blah—the “culture wars” metaphor has the merit of being attuned to the national polarization that reshaped American political culture in the sixties.

By downplaying political difference, Rodgers downplays the sixties. The “fracture” metaphor grafts onto neoliberal market logic that deemphasizes power and demystifies politics. As Corey Robin argues in what I think stands as the best review of Age of Fracture, fracture is always symptom of political reaction. We can’t think about fracture without thinking about the sixties liberation movements and the reactionaries who arose in opposition.

Interestingly, unlike Rodgers who emphasizes the market logic that slipped into the mainstream in the 1970s as the engine of historical change, many American intellectual historians argue that the forces of modernity had altered the landscape of American culture well before the 60s and 70s.

For many, the sixties are now best understood not as a rupture, but as one point along a more protracted trajectory. Dan Wickberg consents to this historiographical turn in a recent review essay he wrote for Modern Intellectual History. “Mid-twentieth century American intellectual history is in the midst of a boom,” he writes. “A younger generation of historians, now half a century distant from the era, and less inclined than their immediate forerunners to be committed to a vision of the 1960s as a critical turning point in modern culture, is reshaping what has been an underdeveloped field.” Wickberg argues “that there is a great deal more continuity than an image of the 1960s as cultural watershed would allow.” How so? “Questions of the contingency of all knowledge and values, critique of the claims of all authority, a sense of both the liberating intellectual freedom and the moral danger of a world unmoored from tradition: these characteristically ‘modernist’ concerns came to be articulated in their fullest way in the United States in the decades before and after World War II.” In short, fracture is old.

This historiographical correction is necessary insofar as the epistemological orientation of so-called postmodernity is not far removed from that of modernity proper. Foucault was said to have revolutionized American intellectual life with claims such that “knowledge is not for knowing, knowledge is for cutting.” But by then it had been over a half-century since William James’s antifoundationalist position that “‘the truth’ is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving.” More to the point, perhaps: In the 1940s, all Harvard students were assigned to read Margaret Mead, who did much to popularize the relativistic notion that what we might think is “natural” is actually cultural, an indication that perhaps part of American political culture had fractured well before the sixties.

But as I argue in The War for the Soul of America, the sixties universalized fracture. Many Americans prior to the sixties, particularly white, middle-class Americans, were largely sheltered from the “acids of modernity,” those modern ways of thinking that subjected seemingly timeless truths, including truths about America, to the lens of suspicion. Put another way, prior to the sixties, many Americans did not yet recognize the hazards of a world freed from tradition. They did not yet realize their sacred cows were being butchered. Many Americans only felt their worlds coming apart once they experienced such chaos as a political force, as a movement of peoples previously excluded from the American mainstream. They only grew wary of “an assault on Western civilization” after the barbarians had crashed the gates. The radical political mobilizations of the sixties—civil rights, Black and Chicano Power, feminism, gay liberation, the antiwar movement, the legal push for secularization—destabilized the America that millions knew. It was only after the sixties that many, particularly conservatives, recognize the threat to their once great nation.

In sum, the culture wars works as a better metaphor because it reflect the post-sixties power struggle.

43 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “I left this historiographical debate out of the book for fear that it would seem like too much ‘inside baseball’ to the prized ‘generally educated reader’ for whom I ostensibly wrote the book. But the USIH Blog is all about insider baseball!”

    You left the esoteric reading out in favor of the exoteric reading. The Straussians are disappoint.

  2. Professor Hartman,

    In your first book you wrote of “educational vigilantes,” I am wondering what was the process that transformed those vigilantes into “cultural warriors.” I am not surprised that you would not like the “fracture” metaphor, but I am curious about the origins of the culture wars you examine and what continuities or discontinuities you found in comparison with previous instances of ethnocultural politics in the nation’s history

  3. I think you make a compelling point here–so much so that I’m convinced I’ll have to re-read “Age of Fracture” before turning to your book.

    To approach this historiographic question from another angle, it’s worth considering how much liberalism changed in the time period both yourself and Rodgers have written about. Recent books, such as Lily Geismer’s “Don’t Blame Us” about the evolution of liberalism in Massachusetts as emblematic of larger national changes for moderate and liberals, are an attempt to give readers a more holistic account for political, cultural, and social changes at the end of the 20th century. For the last twenty years we’ve focused largely on conservatives, and with good reason. Rodgers’ book was an intervention to see the last forty years as a disruption for everyone across the ideological spectrum in the U.S. But I do think bringing back to the political–making it clear different sides of the cultural divide had different interests and different goals–is important too.

    It’ll be interesting, thinking about this some more, to consider Mark Greif’s book in light of how you both write about the 1970s and beyond. His is, in many ways, a prequel to the “Fracture”/”Culture Wars” era, albeit focused more on literature and the arts. For me, it seems all of these works address, directly or indirectly, the 20th century contest in American political and intellectual life between various strains of conservatism and liberalism, with radical ideologies often pushing liberalism in various directions. I suppose I could also put the Cowie and Salvatore essay about the New Deal exception of the mid-20th century into play here: that New Deal coalition was in place just long enough to push through various acts on behalf of civil rights, labor rights, etc., but fell apart in the 1970s thanks to a variety of factors. The fact that both you and Rodgers pick up at the end of that coalition is telling–it meant not just a political vacuum but an intellectual one that everyone attempted to fill.

    I hope that made some sense. I think my sinus medication is FINALLY sinking in, but I hope more folks join in on this particular conversation.

  4. Andrew,
    Thank you for this sneak preview of your book. I look forward to reading it when it comes out. I suppose at the level of ideas I am with the continuity school. That was pretty much my argument in A World Made Safe for Differences. But I agree with you that something new did happen in the sixties with the unprecedented mass dissemination of these ideas through an unprecedented expansion of higher education and mass media.
    No doubt many Americans objected to what intellectuals had long accepted as common sense, and no doubt these objections have been at the fault line of one significant line of political divide since the 1960s. Yet I am not sure if “war”—the metaphor of the combatants—is quite the right metaphor. That metaphor suggests ongoing struggle with an indeterminate outcome, when in fact at the level of culture, the war was over by the early 70s with a decisive victory for radical movements of the sixties. The political dominance of conservative Republicans has failed to turn back this cultural tide. Though happy to have the votes of the Christian Right, Ronald Reagan (and his successors) cared far more about free markets than “family values.” One could plausibly argue (as Rodgers has) that the libertarian principles of the Republican Party actually helped to foster the advance of the “radical” cultural movements of the sixties.
    Rodgers’ sense of fracture proceeds from what he takes to be a commonly held assumption that economic constraints that made the New Deal/Cold War Order possible drew legitimacy from a parallel set of cultural constraints. The Right revolted against the economic constraints and the Left revolted against the cultural. Our current culture “wars” pit a libertarian socialist Left vs. a libertarian traditionalist Right. The common thread is, obviously, libertarianism. At a time when the Right equates every economic constraint with totalitarian communism and the Left equates every cultural constraint with totalitarian fascism, perhaps it is best for historians to emphasize the consensus that underlies surface conflicts.

    • Hi Chris,

      By libertarianism, do you actually mean individualism–or do you see those as synonymous terms? I’m thinking of Robert Nisbet, for instance, who in THE QUEST FOR COMMUNITY (1953) called for a “new laissez-faire” rooted in “autonomous groups.”

      • Mark,

        I suppose I’m using those terms interchangeably, though I understand they currently have different connotations. The mainstream left-liberal tradition of social thought has a long tradition of critique directed at individualism, but its communitarian alternatives usually affirm, a la Dewey, a new individualism. Nisbet’s language is symptomatic of the confusion on the right. In defending the supposedly “traditional” value of community, he ends up using a very modern language of laissez-faire and autonomy, both of which play into current libertarian economics.

  5. “Many Americans prior to the sixties, particularly white, middle-class Americans, were largely sheltered from the “acids of modernity,” those modern ways of thinking that subjected seemingly timeless truths, including truths about America, to the lens of suspicion.”
    This is great line, Andrew, and one that find fun to work with. My understanding of Lippmann’s term “acids of modernity” is that, in fact, it was middle class America who had been upended in the early twentieth century by the modernist impulses from both above–the irreligious avant garde–and below–the religiously pluralistic culture of immigrants and their mechanized, democratized, industrial America.

    So what I have found most revealing in your argument is your ability to demonstrate how the metaphor of war makes sense in the aftermath of the rise of social movements built on earlier trends in democratization and a decline in cultural authority. I under Chris’s question about the use of war as the appropriate term, but I think you demonstrate the Manichean sense that many groups brought to their fights–each believing in their cause with a devotion to truth that had been traditionally reserved for that older order already under serious sustained assault since the early part of the century.

    • I think Lippmann is someone who helps confirm Andrew’s point about “sheltering,” as Lippmann hardly spoke for most Americans–even urban Americans. Like so much of early secularization theory, A Preface to Morals is a case of prophesying disenchantment rather than proving it. One of the biggest impacts of the book was to mobilize church leaders to ramp up their institution building–which paid off in the religious revivals of the 1950s.

      • Maybe I am missing your point here Mark. Are you saying that the breakdown of an older order was NOT what Lippmann had in mind because he wrote for an elite? Isn’t there a deep historiography of modernity and its discontents covering the teens through the fifties? I don’t think Lippmann represents the voice of the masses, but I don think he understood how modernity challenged an older order. My point is that the political implications of the 1960s, upon which Andrew’s argument rests, gathered force in the corrosive qualities of those ‘acids of modernity’ that we see at work in everything from movies to the New Deal.

    • My point was to defend Andrew’s claim about most people being sheltered from the “acids of modernity” until the 1960s. Perhaps, because I first encountered this post as a fuller talk Andrew gave at SAU, we are thinking of “Acids” in two different ways. In his talk, I took “Acids” to mean Neitzschean/Jamesean relativism or perspectivalism. Understood in this sense, Andrew’s certainly right that Acids-as-relativism didn’t alter popular consciousness until AFTER the 1960s showed how “truth” was a matter of one’s position in society. You are certainly right, though, that the New Deal and movies were felt popularly–although I don’t think they were as immediately “corrosive” of religion and tradition as Lippmann would have liked. If your point is that there was a slow cumulative quality to the breakdown of what Andrew calls “normative America,” that suddenly speeded up in the 1960s, then I’m on board.

      • Right, and I think that the metaphors at use are interesting: acid wears aways somewhat gradually the culture that had created some sense of unity among Americans, leaving them to wage war against each other in the wake of shattered illusions about who and what we are. The Manichean in all of us emerges after the acids of modernity destroy the illusions of truth. Always fun Mark!

  6. The question this conversation made me wonder about is whether libertarianism, as Chris uses it, and “fracture,” as Rodgers uses it, are synonymous. Is “fracture” necessarily libertarian in the era Rodgers (and Andrew) explore? Could “fracture” correlate to any other political ideologies or cultural sensibilities? And here’s another question: why did the right lean toward economic libertarianism during this time period and the left toward cultural libertarianism? That is another puzzle that has been on the minds of many pundits and scholars since the 60s moment itself. (Side note: this post and Matthew Linton’s review of Turner’s Democratic Surround pair quite nicely!)

    — Michael

  7. Quick note to let you all know that I have read your comments with appreciation and plan to respond tomorrow morning when my head is clearer.

  8. @Robert: Great comments (sinus medicine or not). I am particularly interested in reading Greif in light of our ongoing historiographical debates about continuity, change, periodization, and transformation. (Grief’s book is on my short-list of books to read). From the reviews I’ve read, it sounds like Greif is putting another spin on the intellectual history dealt with in Edward A. Purcell, Jr.’s important book, “The Crisis of Democratic Theory,” and perhaps also in my first book, “Education and the Cold War: the Battle for the American School.” The intellectual battles of the early to mid twentieth century were somewhat similar to the debates that played out in the culture wars, with one major difference. Those earlier debates did not take place on a post-1960s landscape in which more and more people had a stake, thus making the stakes seem that much higher (which is saying something since the earlier debates took place against the backdrop of world war). Greif analyzes the “Crisis” metaphor, which worked well in the earlier debates because it assumed broad agreement on fundamentals (epistemological, political, cultural). When a growing number of people began to question the fundamentals, a crisis resulted. The metaphor of “war” on the other hand works from the assumption that there is no consensus, that there never was agreement to begin with. Indeed, the 1960s shattered the postwar American consensus, making “war” a more powerful metaphor.

    In any case, nice reflections on the need to put political ideologies and trajectories other than conservatism into these historiographical conversations. That is definitely a project I am committed to with my new book. Not just right, but left, center, and right, as Leo Ribuffo has often scolded us.

  9. @Chris (and his respondents): Your questions are challenging and coalesce with analyses put forward by many pundits and historians, ranging from Thomas Frank to David Courtwright (who argues in his political history of the culture wars–NO RIGHT TURN–that libertarianism was the real winner of the 60s.) So if you and they are correct, the culture wars is at most a battle over different visions of libertarianism, one cultural and one economic. This is certainly a valid way to think about recent US history, but I would argue it is overdetermined by (dare I say) a nostalgic sense of history that traditionalist conservatives share with populists like Frank (and perhaps more so, with a populist historian like Christopher Lasch).

    My book shows that the cultural left that arose out of the sixties did not necessarily ditch collective economic sensibilities and in fact often married their cultural and economic leftist sensibilities in coherent fashion. Feminist support for state subsidized childcare would be one such example: it would better allow women to flourish as individuals with careers, while also serving as a progressive transfer of funds to working-class women who had to work no matter their feminist of individualist desires.

    On the flip side, conservatives tended to combine their cultural traditionalism with their anti-statism in ways that are coherent. Think about conservative responses to the secularization of the public sphere, especially the schools and curriculum, as indicative here. More specifically, it’s a truism or worse to claim that Reagan did nothing for the Christian Right. Yes he was more interested in cutting taxes for the rich and winning the Cold War, and turning back the legal tides of secularization was perhaps impossible and as such any efforts to these ends can be seen as merely an opportunistic sop to his Christian Right base. Yet still, the things that Reagan said on behalf of the Christian Right are notable in terms of empowering one side in the culture wars.

    It was Reagan, after all, who famously used the old description of the United States as a “city on a hill.” It was Reagan, not his evangelical opponent Jimmy Carter, who attended James Robison’s 1980 Religious Roundtable in Dallas, were he knowingly told the gathering of adoring evangelicals: “You can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.” It was Reagan who promised to reinstate school prayer, who campaigned to end the alleged IRS persecution of Christian schools, who advocated for the teaching of creationism, saying that evolution was “theory only,” and who vowed to overturn Roe v. Wade, admitting to deep regret about his earlier support for pro-choice legislation. It was Reagan who said: “The First Amendment was written not to protect the people and their laws from religious values, but to protect those values from government tyranny.” Rhetoric, perhaps. But are you, Chris, such a materialist that you would say such rhetoric was meaningless?

    This nostalgic lament about libertarianism ignores, perhaps, the longer trajectory of American history and avoids the question raised by Robert in his comment above about the New Deal era being an exception or an aberration.

    As I argue in my book’s conclusion: Perhaps Robert Bork was correct when he made the heretical argument that the individual freedoms enshrined in the Declaration of Independence were dangerous because they set into motion a society dedicated to permanent cultural revolution. How does one set limits on the proposition that “all men are created equal”? Against the assumptions of those who signed the Declaration, “all men” eventually came to include, in fits and starts, non-property holders, slaves and former slaves, blacks and other racial minorities, immigrants from strange lands, Catholics, Jews and other non-Christians, atheists, women, gays, lesbians, the disabled. Viewed in this way, the sixties liberation movements made manifest an ethos that dated to the nation’s founding. But, as the history of the culture wars shows, such liberation, no matter how foundational its ethos, met with fierce resistance. When new peoples laid claim to the nation, when new peoples had different ideas about the nation, the national culture fractured. It could not have been otherwise.

    • Andrew,
      Thank you for such a thoughtful and thorough response. I acknowledge a certain consistency within the opposing intellectual/political camps that emerged from the sixties, but I would still say that the contradictions outweigh the consistencies. I didn’t mean to imply that Reagan’s rhetoric was inconsequential or epiphenomenal. His ideas certainly did have consequences in that they inspired and mobilized the Christian Right to vote for him. That’s real, and that’s meaningful. But the bigger reality is that in terms of actual policy and cultural change, evangelicals did a lot more for Reagan than he ever did for them. The other side of the “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” debate is the question, “Why do you keep voting for a party that seems incapable of advancing your cultural interests?” The short answer would seem to be that given the only political alternative, people will settle for a party that merely affirms their values as opposed to one that actively, and successfully, undermines them. The liberal/left has their own version of this problem. Yes, “progressive” feminists support government subsidized child care for working class women. Given the conservative alternative—the necessity of work with no child care subsidies—the appeal is understandable, but the inconsistencies seem to have the upper hand. There was a time—the 1960s—when progressives saw the welfare state as an evasion of deeper issues of economic inequality, a sop to the poor to keep them from revolt and a salve to the consciences of guilty middle class liberals. Another spin on the Kansas question would be “What’s the Matter with Working-Class Democrats?” What has contemporary “progressivism’ done for labor and the working class? Progressive intellectuals wrote off labor as early as Mills’ New Men of Power (1948), and events of the sixties only exacerbated that rift. Appeals to the old New Deal labor tradition might have real political consequences in how people vote, but in terms of policy they have about as much connection to reality as Reagan’s support for family values. Bill Clinton gave us NAFTA, Hilary Clinton voted for the war in Iraq, but we have gay marriage. Conservatives succeeded in moving the center to the right on markets and militarism, and conceded the cultural ground to liberals; liberals accepted the rightward shift on markets and militarism, yet refused to budge on culture.

      Words like “nostalgia” never help these kind of debates, but since you have put it on the table, I think what I am trying to do is challenge the nostalgia for the sixties that seems to obscure the realities of our situation today. In your essay, you identified the legacy of the sixties by a familiar litany of “civil rights, Black and Chicano Power, feminism, gay liberation, the antiwar movement, the legal push for secularization.” The civil rights movement no doubt inspired these other movements, but was much more a movement of the fifties than the sixties, both chronologically and culturally. As David Chappell and others have argued, it was perhaps the last great non-secular moment in the history of “progressive” politics. It was much more the end of one era than the beginning of another. Drawing on the moral capital of the African American struggle for justice seems particularly troubling given the subsequent history of various liberation groups since the 1960s. African American have been the biggest losers in post-sixties America, in part because of continued racism, but just as much because of a changing economy that has marginalized working class people of all races, regions and ethnicities. The big winners have, of course, been the soldiers of Richard Florida’s “creative class,” overwhelmingly white and middle class. The rhetoric of outrage at racial injustice obscures the fact that the progressive movements of the sixties largely dismissed the working class as a class, and in doing so had at least some hand in creating the Fergusons of today. This situation would seem to require something more than government subsidized child care.

      • This is an important point, Chris, and it’s why I remain closer to Frank’s perspective that the culture wars has been a way to NOT deal with new inequities stemming from structural economic changes like deindustrialization and offshoring. In an interview with Andrew to run next month at RIAH, I ask him precisely about how the culture wars relate to these developments. Feels like we’re destined to debate this book to death before its release date!!

      • Without getting into the substance of your comments, Chris, I don’t necessarily use the charge of nostalgia as a pejorative. I’m sort of nostalgic for the culture wars in higher education–the canon wars–in the sense that both sides in the debate were arguing for a version of higher learning, a version of the humanities. Such seems so preferable to today’s neoliberal, vocational, instrumental, anti-intellectualism!

      • And, of course, this is part of what’s wrong with American governance — a focus on the executive in a winner-take-all system that has pushed the idea of quasi-parliamentary multiparty democracy to the side.

    • Andrew,

      I didn’t see a reply button after your last response, so I am not sure where this will end up. Just wanted to say thanks for the clarification on nostalgia. I suppose I share your nostalgia (in the best sense) for the culture wars and am grateful to S-USIH for providing a forum for a true exchange of ideas beyond the utilitarian concerns that increasingly drive higher education.

      • Mark,

        Ditto on the reply button issue from the last post (excuse my Luddite technological limitations). I haven’t read Frank’s book, but I suppose the class issue is what I am trying to highlight here. But I would also like to tie it to culture in a particular way. Too often, class is treated as a matter of inclusion/exclusion, as in Turner’s Democratic Surround (at least according to Matthew Linton’s review here at S-USIH–thanks to Michael for the tip). The problem is not simply exclusion, but the terms of inclusion. Thus, the African Americans and Catholics not functionally excluded from Democratic Party power by virtue of class still had to give up some very important cultural and religious commitments to gain a seat at the table–Jessie Jackson’s conversion on abortion being only perhaps the most egregious example.

  10. Sorry to be so ornery, Andrew. I’m writing about your book in other places, so I need to keep my powder dry (mostly). But one problem with a “war” metaphor is that assumes something like distinguishable and mostly coherent sides (though, as one knows from shooting wars in history, alliances can shift, and what was once an uncontested boundary can become a front line for conflict). But I just don’t see the neat (or even rough/approximate) alignment of political and social conservatism on the one hand, and political and social liberalism (or libertarianism, though I think that’s the wrong word) on the other.

    I think the spread of neoliberalism is the fault line/fighting front, and (as Rodgers showed by following the metaphor of the market) it runs willy-nilly across boundaries of right and left, and wreaks havoc on liberalism and conservatism alike. I suppose Chris Shannon might say that liberalism is to blame here for letting the snake of neoliberalism loose in the garden, but the problem there would be with the “is,” as well as with (as you put it) the nostalgia for a return to a “was” that both never was and most decidedly (for this liberal, anyhow) shouldn’t be.

  11. LD: Metaphors are merely rough-and-ready catchalls and thus far from precise. Like labels– “neoliberalism” –they miss as much as they hit. But they are indispensable because all we as historians have at our disposal in making sense of the past and communicating our sense of the past to others is language, as Derrida noted–signs. Its texts and turtles all the way down. Of course you already know this and as such this soliloquy is just my throat-clearing way of saying, “culture wars” does not capture everything important about the last 50 years of US history. In many ways we do indeed seem to exist in our own private Idaho. Which is why I give Rodgers a lot of credit for recognizing the ways in which our conceptualizations of the world have shrunk in scope–have fractured. But even neoliberalism or fracture can be–must be–understood in political terms, in terms of political actors. And as political lines are drawn, we are polarized. And more, in the morass of neoliberalism, people find meaning in these polarized lines. People enjoy the culture wars.

  12. Andrew and LD:

    Isn’t one of the most compelling reasons to stick with the “culture war” metaphor that the historical actors themselves used it? Of course, we should always be skeptical of our subjects’ self-depictions (I still lean closer to Frank’s skepticism about the culture wars, although Andrew’s treatment is very compelling). But it’s not like Andrew, Hunter, Prothero, et. al are imposing the metaphor as much as trying to understand it.

    Fun Fact: one of my colleagues, after hearing Andrew’s book talk, was convinced that Andrew must be a conservative because Andrew agrees with conservatives that the culture wars are real.

  13. “When new peoples laid claim to the nation, when new peoples had different ideas about the nation, the national culture fractured.” – Andrew

    “I think the spread of neoliberalism is the fault line/fighting front, and (as Rodgers showed by following the metaphor of the market) it runs willy-nilly across boundaries of right and left, and wreaks havoc on liberalism and conservatism alike.” – LD

    Here a few things start to crystallize for me. Andrew, you seem to be emphasizing new identity groups demanding increased political rights as the causal force in the “fracture” of the American polity from its short period of supposed unity from the New Deal through WWII and the 1950s (leaving aside the assumption, one that Rodgers by and large simply asserts in his book, that there was unity in the “age of conformity,” which is not the same thing as unity to my mind). LD, you bring our attention to Rodgers (and your own?) focus on new intellectual conceptualizations of economics, of the market economy, as the causal agent for fracture. And those seem like two intersecting, but quite different engines driving historical change.

    The first, Andrew’s, reminds me of an earlier argument from the 1980s and 90s about the legacy of the 1960s, which went something like this: there may not have been a revolution, but the lefties won because they vastly expanded the heterogeneity and inclusivity of the polity and its culture. Often, this was the position of 60s lefty veterans themselves (picture what I just wrote being spoken by Peter Coyote in a PBS documentary voiceover). And it was also a guiding principle for the culture wars themselves, which may partly (only partly) be why Andrew is highlighting it again for us, moving it back into the spotlight (Andrew I write this as speculation since I have not yet read your book, and of course look forward immensely to doing so).

    The second, Rodgers via LD, shifts the focus from identity politics to economic ideology as the driver of historical change, in this case of “fracture” in the American polity. What is useful about this framework is that it roots things in a larger history of capitalism (thinking of Jim Livingston’s recent posts here on USIH blog) without the turn toward identity as a factor and it dethrones the radical 1960s as a major historical factor in changes in American society (why the urge to do that dethroning? That’s another intriguing question, one that may require a good dose of Freudian theory to explain fully).

    I think the economic crisis of the 1970s (Judith Stein in the house!) cannot be underestimated here as crucial to cementing the neoliberal hegemony into place. As Rodgers is not the first to demonstrate, stagflation challenged Keynesian assumptions about economics to the core, yes? So in this sense, the Rodgers turn to economic ideology seems convincing.

    I would also say, though, that the identity politics of the culture wars remain volatile in ways that we still do not really understand. And it may well be that fracture is not the proper metaphor through which we can fully grasp the way that identity still drives historical forces today.

    Or maybe a better way to say all this is not to contrast fracture to war, but to ask: what kind of fracture (for there are many kinds, are there not?) do we seek to characterize here? What kind of war for that matter?

    — Michael

    • Michael, this is a really nice and illuminating reading. Not only do I understand better what Andrew is doing, I understand better what I’m supposed to be doing!

    • Ditto Lora’s compliment on this comment (though I don’t know the deep drivers of historical causality in her work). I’m so pleased you interjected the historical fact of stagflation as a complicating factor in the identity-fluctuations-as-causality angle.

      I really want to wait to dive into debates about Andrew’s book until I’ve actually read it. But, until I do read it, Rodgers’ work stands, for me, as the most convincing explanation (metaphorical and otherwise) of the largest number of Culture Wars problems and subplots. – TL

  14. PS

    Actually I’d add in a 60s reference to that penultimate paragraph:

    I would also say, though, that the identity politics of the culture wars, **arising out of the sixties counterculture and its “acidic” turn toward a radically pluralistic notion of self and society,** remain volatile in ways that we still do not really understand. And it may well be that fracture is not the proper metaphor through which we can fully grasp the way that identity still drives historical forces today.

    Maybe the title needed to be Age of Fractures, plural? Just as Andrew has pluralized the wars in his title.

  15. Mark, the fact that “Culture Wars” entered the discourse with a bang thanks to Hunter’s book and was seized upon pretty much immediately by people as an apt description of their own moment militates (!) against it for me as an analytical tool for that time — I tend to look at it more as an artifact from that time that needs to be historicized. However, there’s a fine historical precedent for taking a term of the time as an analytical frame: “Gilded Age.” And if it’s an artifact from the time that’s still in use today — and it’s certainly the case that, as Andrew put it above, “people enjoy the culture wars,” and definitely as present practice and not just past memory — then maybe that in itself argues for its usefulness as an analytical tool. And it’s not like it’s an either/or proposition — one can historicize a tool and then proceed to use it, and I think that’s what Andrew is aiming for here. I think he’s aiming to illuminate what the metaphor “culture wars” has made visible, and I’m aiming to illuminate what the metaphor has obscured. But I am not ready to proffer a better metaphor, partly because I’m still trying to figure out what that would be, and partly because, as I said, I have to keep my powder dry — which is plenty bellicose, as metaphors go.

  16. I agree with you LD and, by your own description of Andrew’s goal above–to historicize the Culture Wars–I’m not sure why we need a better metaphor.” It would be one thing if A WAR FOR THE SOUL OF AMERICA was pretending to explain EVERYTHING that’s happened since the 1960s, but I don’t think it is. In other words, why can’t the culture wars AND the neo-liberal takeover of Washington both be real?

  17. Mark, I’m not saying Andrew needs a better metaphor for what he’s trying to do. I’m saying that I need a better metaphor than “culture wars” for what I’m trying to illuminate — the conflict over “the canon” and how that connects to the neoliberal turn in the university. I wouldn’t say that my take is contradictory to Andrew’s — probably more like two overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. So “culture wars” works well for me for the part that overlaps, but not so well for what doesn’t overlap. And my frustration is that I have yet to hit on the right metaphor to trace the circumference of what I’m trying to explain — though, given the usefulness of “fracture” for me, perhaps I’m just trying to reinvent the wheel. What can I say? That’s how I roll.

  18. Thanks again everyone for all of the wonderful and smart comments. Since my book is not yet published I’ve decided to hold my breath on this debate until people have had a chance to read it. Then by all means let’s rehash this conversation.

  19. Now I’m feeling bad for tabling this debate, since it’s been so fun and enlightening. I’m just trying to hold a few things back so the book is fresh to you all. Thanks again everyone.

  20. Yes, Andrew, you should feel bad for not disclosing everything right now. Who do you think you are, Bill O’Reilly, whose killer historical insights are obviously worth paying for. I expect your page proofs posted next week. 🙂

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