U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Are the Culture Wars History?

Book coverWhat follows is an interview that I did with Mark Edwards about my book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the ultureulture Wars, which was originally posted at the excellent Religion in American History Blog. Below the interview is a list of the archives I consulted while researching the book, as well as a selected bibliography, both of which were cut for space reasons but which scholars of recent US history will no doubt find useful. A bibliography of the culture wars is somewhat unique in its easy mix of primary and secondary source materials.

Mark Edwards is Assistant Professor of History at Spring Arbor University and is the author of The Right of the Protestant Left: God’s Totalitarianism.

ME: You mention in your Acknowledgements that Leo Ribuffo gave you the topic for this book.  Could you say more about how and why it came about?

AH: After one of Professor Ribuffo’s seminars that I took in graduate school, Leo offhandedly suggested that I should write my dissertation on the battles over education during the 1950s. A few years later I had a dissertation, which he directed, and a few years after that I had my first book, Education and the Cold War. Leo seems to have a knack for knowing how to match my interests to the gaps in the literature. So in 2008, just as my first book had come out, Leo once again offhandedly suggested in an email that perhaps my second book should be a history of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. He knew then, and I soon discovered, that no historian had ever written a monograph about the culture wars. And the topic really did match my interests since it allowed me to explore education, politics, and culture—all through the lens of intellectual history.

But Leo suggesting that I write a history of the culture wars was also deeply ironic, because he doesn’t think that historians should take the “culture wars” label seriously. He always prefaces the “so-called culture wars.” He thinks it’s hyperbolic and that Americans have always had shouting matches related to the national identity.

ME: You write that “the history of America, for better and worse, is largely a history of debates about the idea of America” (p. 2).  In seeing the culture wars as struggles over normative American identity, you seem to be hinting at a “long culture wars” argument to be made explicit by Stephen Prothero in his forthcoming book, Why Liberals Win.  Of course, culture is always a contested space, but do you think that broadening the scope of the culture wars (as you and Prothero seem to be doing) risks losing what made the cultural contests of the 1980s and 1980s unique?

AH: Actually I argue that, yes, the struggle over a normative American identity is as old as the nation itself, but that what we call the “culture wars” is specific to the 1980s and 1990s and that what makes that era’s cultural struggles unique is the cultural revolution otherwise known as the “sixties.” You’ll note that my argument, and the entire book, hinges on the sixties as a sui generis decade. So although I can’t judge Prothero’s book until I read it, my guess is we’ll differ on this question of change and continuity. I don’t think the cultural conflicts of the 80s and 90s bear that much resemblance to earlier conflicts—and this is because of the sixties, which served to fracture American political culture.

Many American intellectual historians argue that the forces of modernity altered the landscape of American culture well before the sixties. 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, the fractures associated with the culture wars are 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 my book, 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. This recognition was the motor force of the culture wars.

ME: Speaking to the “uniqueness” question, what about the Cold War?  Your first book looked at American education in light of geopolitical conflict, yet this new work hardly mentions international developments at all.  Where they not a significant part of the culture wars?

AH: The Cold War might not have ended until 1989 or 1991, but the Cold War as the pervasive shaper of American political culture had ended by the early 1960s. So the Vietnam War not only helped destroy the Cold War liberal consensus, it and the movement that arose to stop it ended the power of the Cold War to determine the fate of political culture. So whereas I dramatically concluded my first book—an intellectual history of education up until the early 1960s—by stating that Americans had created an educational system to aid the nation in fighting the Cold War, such international conclusions did not reveal themselves to me during my research into the culture wars. The debates that riveted the nation during the culture wars had very little to do with fears about a foreign enemy.

Ironically it was when the Cold War officially came to an end that the nation’s role in the world became a major culture wars anxiety. I deal with this in Chapter 9—“The Contested American Past”—where I contend that the frenzied national debate over the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit was a significant barometer of the confusion regarding the nation’s role in a post-Cold War world. The history wars of the 1990s challenged the legacies of old frontiers—the West, the Cold War—precisely because new, unknown frontiers were on the horizon. When Bob Dole complained about the exhibit’s message—that “the Japanese were painted not as the aggressors but as the victims of World War II”—he was expressing discontent with the lack of agreement over what he considered an exalted national purpose.

ME: Were religious issues, institutions, and persons central to the culture wars?  You write that evangelicals “formed the demographic bedrock of the conservative culture wars” (p. 101), but you also suggest that the culture wars began as a “shouting match between the New Left and the neoconservatives” (p. 69).  Were Phyllis Schlafly and Jerry Falwell not as important as others have made them out to be?

AH: I answered this is an earlier post which I will repeat here because it serves as the best way to answer this important question.

Many historians assume that the culture wars (those series of angry quarrels about what it means to be an American that dominated national headlines during the 1980s and 1990s) boiled down to a growing divide between religious and nonreligious Americans. James Davison Hunter had a lot to do with such an understanding thanks to his 1991 book, Culture Wars: The Struggle To Control The Family, Art, Education, Law, And Politics In America, the standard-bearer in the scholarship of the culture wars.

Hunter’s thesis, which proved convincing to most observers, was that American society had become increasingly divided between mostly secular “progressives” and mostly religious “traditionalists.” Hunter’s smoking gun was the fact that conservative Americans who had previously been pitted against one another over different religious traditions—Protestants versus Catholics, to name the most obvious example—were then joining forces in their recognition that secular forces were the real threat to their values.

This is correct as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.

A War for the Soul of America revises Hunter’s argument by emphasizing the ways in which the “secular sixties” gave shape to the culture wars.  Hunter does mention that the tumultuous events of the 1960s played some role in constructing this new polarization. But on the whole he avoids historicizing this divide, working from the assumption that it is merely a byproduct of the much longer history of evangelical push back against modernist forms of knowledge that fanned the flames of religious skepticism, such as biblical criticism and Darwinism. That Hunter gave us a vocabulary and an analytic model for understanding this new cultural and political polarization is admirable. But Hunter does nothing to shed light on how the sixties gave birth to the culture wars. As a sociologist of religion, he focused his attention on those who framed the debate in solely religious terms—militant Christian Right leaders such as Jerry Falwell, and militant secular liberal leaders such as Norman Lear.

I argue that many of the battles of the culture wars—battles over divisive issues such as affirmative action, multiculturalism, intelligence testing, and the canon—had little to do with Hunter’s religious divide. These debates were often secular reactions to the secular social movements of the sixties that made up the New Left. As an intellectual historian I noticed that New Left thinkers and activists had disturbed normative conceptions of American identity to an unprecedented degree. I also noted that those who challenged such New Left sensibilities most vociferously were those whom came to be called “neoconservatives.” By focusing on the sixties, my book relocates the origins of the culture wars away from debates about religion and towards the mostly secular shouting matches between New Leftists and neoconservatives.

None of this is to say that religion did not factor into the culture wars. The growing alienation that religious conservatives felt at living in an increasingly secular nation was a crucial factor in their fighting the culture wars. But many such conservative Americans only felt their worlds coming apart once they experienced the chaos of modernity as a political force, as a movement of peoples previously excluded from the American mainstream. The radical political mobilizations of the sixties—civil rights, Black and Chicano Power, feminism, gay liberation, the antiwar movement—destabilized the America that millions knew. It was only after the 1960s that many conservatives recognized the threat to their once great nation. And it was the neocons who first recognized this threat, first taught Americans how to be afraid, and first taught Americans, including religious conservatives, how to fight back.

ME: Are the tools of intellectual history the best way to make sense of the culture wars?  How do you see your work relating to sociological or cultural studies accounts of American disunion?

AH: There is more than one way to skin this cat. Certainly Hunter’s sociological approach or, say, Michael Berube’s cultural studies approach in his excellent book Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (Verso, 1994), or the more political historical approach taken by David Courtwright in his excellent No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America (Harvard, 2010) have all added important dimensions to how we conceptualize the culture wars. But ultimately the culture wars are a heated national debate about the idea of America and its relation to ideas about human nature, freedom, tradition, identity, and history. So yes I do think intellectual history is the best method for understanding the culture wars.

ME: You conclude that “the logic of the culture wars has been exhausted.  The metaphor has run its course” (p. 285).  Are the culture wars really history?  If so, are you ready to declare a victor?  And, if so, are we heading toward a new period of national unity?

I absolutely do not see national unity anywhere on the horizon. Cultural polarization will remain the order of the day. But our current conflicts have ever so slightly begun to have a different feel to them. I think this is evident in the recent national debate about Indiana’s religious freedom law. The nation’s attitudes about homosexuality have become radically more tolerant. Homophobia is on the wane. A rapidly growing majority of Americans favor the legalization of same-sex unions. The courts have followed suit by upholding the legality of same-sex marriage in state after state. Even a majority of Republicans under the age of 50 now support same-sex marriage. Leaders of Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention have recently admitted defeat in the gay marriage debate.

And yet, I would not rule this an unadulterated victory for the left. The almost singular focus on marriage equality signifies a narrowing of a vision elaborated by gay liberation activists of the sixties, and later by queer theorists like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who radically challenged what they saw as heterosexual norms like marriage. As the cultural historian Lisa Duggan argues, the marriage agenda complements conservative economics. “In the broadest sense,” Duggan writes, “‘marriage promotion’ in welfare policy aims to privatize social services by shifting the costs of support for the ill, young, elderly and dependent away from the social safety net and onto private households.” In other words, more radical or queer notions about kinship rights—which would afford those bound together in complex, often non-nuclear ways with basic legal protections—have been forgotten in the push for gay marriage.

This is what I mean by the conflicts seeming more different. Freedoms and rights have been vastly expanded. In some ways this signifies a victory for the left. But in other ways, in terms of our mutual obligations to the larger society, which have largely eroded, I think this has meant that the right has won. So we’re in a very paradoxical moment, and the history of the culture wars helps make sense of this paradox.


A War for the Soul of America

Archives Consulted

  • Afro-American Studies and Research Program, University of Illinois Archive Research Center, Urbana, IL.
  • Harry A. Blackmun Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  • “Firing Line” Collection, Hoover Institution, Palo Alto, CA.
  • Rodolfo (“Corky”) Gonzales Papers, Western History Collection, The Denver Public Library, Denver, CO.
  • Carla A. Hills Collection, Hoover Institution, Palo, Alto, CA.
  • Everett Koop Papers, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD.
  • Edwin Meese Papers, Hoover Institution, Palo, Alto, CA.
  • Daniel Patrick Moynihan Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  • National Education Association Records, Special Collections Research Center, Gelman Library, the George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
  • Norman Podhoretz Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  • Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Simi Valley, CA.
  • Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library, New York City, NY.
  • Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS.

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2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hopefully I can get some free time during the summer to read A War…; it sounds great!

    In this interview I particularly enjoyed the references to the narrowing of the queer liberation movement to marriage equality in the mainstream. What is even more interesting is what is not mentioned: radical queer critiques often point out that this narrowing interconnects with how of mainstream queer politics is white, male, upper-class, and cisgender. Gender and especially race inequality are again at the forefront of contemporary debates. Perhaps culture wars has lost valence as a metaphor, but we are definitely witnessing an increase in ideological and social conflict, particularly surrounding the issue of race. What is perhaps truly different from the 80s and 90s is a much stronger emphasis on the structural and socioeconomic elements involved.

    • Oops: I meant to say: how the leadership in mainstream queer politics is mostly white, male, upper-class, and cisgender.

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