Recently, Andrew Hartman posted a review by Paul Horwitz of his book, A War for the Soul of America, on Facebook. He noted that, like most reviewers of his book, Horwitz contested the claim of his conclusion that the culture wars are over. Easily, this has been the most common criticism he has received – Jeffery Aaron Snyder even made a bold refutation of Andrew’s argument the headline for his entire review.
So I am, it seems, one of the few people who agree with Andrew that the culture wars are effectively over. I do understand how one could be skeptical of this claim; as Jacqui Shine does in her review, there is a long list of news stories and twitter hashtags that would seem to illustrate that the culture wars are alive and well. I’ll simply say here that, as in many things, I prefer to take a look at the longue (or, at least, longer) durée – including the 1980s and 1990s, conservative culture warriors have succeeded in accomplishing surprisingly few (indeed, almost none) of their original goals. As former Moral Majority executive Reverend Ed Dobson pointed out, “What did Ronald Reagan do for us in eight years of office? He gave us credibility, and he ultimately did nothing in terms of our long term agendas.” Moreover, in a war with only metaphorical, rather than physical, battles, there will of course be no clear point of surrender – but if we can only declare the culture wars over when there are no longer any fundamentalist trolls on the internet, we will indeed be waiting quite a while.
What I find more surprising, however, is that some understood Andrew’s conclusion as optimistic. Horwitz, for example, takes Andrew’s quick reflections at the end of his book as expressing an easy assumption that we have learned our lesson about the limitations of identity politics. But to my memory, I sat staring at the last page for a few minutes while my thought process went something like, “My God, he’s right. We’re so screwed. I mean we are fucked.” Because while Andrew does indeed argue that the culture wars are more or less over, he points to neoliberalism as ensuring this settlement. As he writes, “Capitalism, more than the federal government – Mammon more than Leviathan – has rendered traditional family values passé.”
Most reviewers, interestingly, gloss over this point (Horwitz’s review being an important exception to this). In some cases, this results in not merely omission, but misunderstanding. Consider Snyder’s review, for example. Taking on Andrew’s argument about the embrace of diversity, Snyder seems to think he is claiming that “the fracturing” described by Daniel Rodgers is now resolved, summarizing Andrew’s position as stipulating that “[t]he culture fractured but was then reconstituted into a more diverse and inclusive whole.” While it is true that Andrew argues that the notion of diversity has been integrated into the mainstream, his conclusion does not intend to cheerily declare that equality and freedom have been achieved but rather to draw our attention to the fact that some of the accomplishments of the 1960s have arrived, ironically, on the coat tails of what most liberals and certainly all leftists consider to be a far from liberating process.
The instinct to flee from this reflection, I think, plays a substantial role in the aversion to the idea that the culture wars are over. Take, for instance, the sudden and exhilarating triumph of the movement for gay marriage. In the amount of time it took for me to get a doctorate in history, the status of this struggle went from being defeated by California voters to becoming nationally triumphant. It is rare for such progress to be made so swiftly and with so little blood shed (literately at least if not figuratively). Yet any analysis of how this came to be has to reckon with the reality that gay marriage progressed so quickly mostly because advocates pushed for it along the lines of a logic that is completely compatible with capitalism. Indeed, as the libertarian brand of conservatism rose in power and influence, many of its adherents found themselves forced to change position on the question of gay marriage. For if government interference, along the lines of enforcing majority social values, could be legitimized in the case of forbidding gay marriage, it left open a loophole through which God knows what could crawl (taxes, single-payer health care, a country where mass shootings do not occur on a regular basis…). Thus, the lucrative possibilities and lure of American individualism, once again, trumped all other social and political concerns.
I’m not sure how controversial this argument is; it is precisely that it seems more ignored than refuted that makes me suspect it is playing an unannounced role in insisting that the culture wars are, somehow, timeless. There is also, of course, a brand of liberalism that doesn’t know what to do with itself if it doesn’t have the specter of the Religious Right to sit and ogle at – this would be the What’s the Matter With Kansas approach, and of course no political combatant could ever ask for an easier target. But I would wager that it is deeper than this, even; if something so clearly good (gay marriage and, hopefully, a continuing gay rights movement) could come to be partially because of something so clearly bad (neoliberal ideology and its attendant economic inequality) how should we feel about that accomplishment? Even more troubling, what does that say about the chances of future social movements against capitalism having any success? If, as Andrew puts it, “in the sphere of culture, the Left had its share of victories” it obviously failed pitifully at changing economic structures. So have we achieved, in short, something valuable at the expense of greatly damaging our chances for a world even more fundamentally transformed?
I have my own tentative answers to these questions, and I take comfort that history is rich with examples of good things coming out of bad ones, and bad things coming out of good ones. Sometimes you can’t get water from the rock, and sometimes you can – or, alternatively, sometimes you have to just take the rock and hurl it against the Bastille, and even in the chaos that ensues, something approaching a new world might emerge. Moreover, there has always been, and continues to be, those who refuse to endorse a vision of the good society that requires the embrace of arbitrary and unfounded oppression – just as the evils of racism far outweigh the benefits of a united white society, so do the evils of homophobia and sexism far outweigh the benefits of a heterosexual patriarchy. Indeed, activists from within the various movements for liberation, from feminism to the gay rights movement, continue to fight for an intersectional leftist conscience that directly challenges, rather than cooperates with, global capitalism. I retain my hope, then, that there remains a purpose in continuing to fight for an egalitarian politics that locates freedom in social obligations as much as from them.
However, I did not write this post intending to go into my own thoughts on this question, but rather to simply articulate my hunch that an avoidance of this question has played a role in the near-universal rejection of Andrew’s argument that capitalism has killed the culture wars. There is a comfort in old enemies, of course, but also a corresponding despair in the thought that more diversity has not brought more solidarity. As Andrew notes in his conclusion, “without a common culture, it is extremely hard to build the solidarity necessary for social democracy.” This is a problem, however, we cannot afford to ignore – the challenge before us (and by “us,” I obviously mean those of us who identify as leftists and socialists) is what kind of common culture we ought to build and how we can build it. That’s the riddle history has given us; so let’s get to solving it.
 God in America documentary series, Episode 6, PBS, 2010.
 Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 290.
 Hartman, A War for the Soul of America, 6.
 Hartman, A War for the Soul of America, 290.