The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How America’s culture wars have evolved into a class war

A member of the March to Confront White Supremacy holds a sign during a brief rally in September. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It is tempting to see the Unite the Right rally last month in my hometown of Charlottesville and the counterprotests it inspired as yet another tragic — albeit, violent and racist — episode in the culture wars. Indeed, history has long been a source of conflict in the culture war. (Similar arguments were made in 1992 over the meaning of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America, for example.) Then as now, we see in microcosm a struggle to define the meaning of America, marked by fierce polarization over different visions of what America is, what it has been, and what it could be.

Yet, while there are elements of the ongoing culture wars present in the debate over Confederate statues, the rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville reveals how the culture wars have evolved and metastasized into a class war with several sprawling components, far different from the one Karl Marx might have predicted. Much of this evolution has to do with a widening gap between members of America’s middle class.

The cultural conflict of the last four decades has mostly taken place within the white middle class, mainly between the aspiring lower-middle and the comfortable upper-middle classes. But the cleavage between highly educated professionals and the less educated, nonprofessional, lower middle and working classes has widened in recent years, producing new tensions, as Richard Reeves has documented in his book “Dream Hoarders.”

Is America more divided by race or class?

Overlaying the cultural divisions of yesteryear are new and strikingly different ones. This is the heart of the new culture war: Where the culture wars of the last several decades were fought over sexuality, religion and family, today’s culture wars offer a new set of cultural battles linked with shifting economic circumstances, including globalization, immigration and the changing boundaries of legitimate pluralism.

What’s driving the wedge between these separate segments of the middle class? While the professional class has fared well in the recovery from the Great Recession, the lower middle class has lost ground. Wages are stagnating for middle and low wage workers, union membership and its traditional benefits are on the decline, income inequality is on the rise, and manufacturing jobs have been lost to technology and other countries. Thus those in the lower end of the middle class have grown increasingly estranged from their counterparts in the professional class as they have watched their opportunities and hopes for a better life grow more distant and, in some cases, disappear.

What is more, these members of the lower middle class see many of the values and beliefs they live by — once perceived as honorable in their own communities — ridiculed as bigoted, homophobic, misogynist, xenophobic and backward by a relatively privileged and powerful elite. According to a study entitled “The Vanishing Center of American Democracy” conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (which I lead), about 8 of 10 Americans with less than a college degree believe that “political correctness is a serious problem in our country, making it hard for people to say what they really think” compared with 5 of 10 of the well-educated. Likewise, 7 of 10 of the less educated believe that “the most educated and successful people in America are more interested in serving themselves than in serving the common good” compared to just over 4 of 10 of college or postgraduate educated Americans. In the face of this shift in fortunes, members of the lower middle class have confronted the sting and humiliation of social “deplorability” long before Hillary Clinton uttered the word during last year’s presidential campaign.

Another feature of our new culture wars is our crisis of legitimation, the very kind of crisis that troubled postwar German social theorists when they attempted to make sense of the rise of Hitler and prevent a similar historical nightmare from occurring. A growing majority of Americans believe that their government cannot be trusted, that its leaders (and the leadership class more broadly) are incompetent and self-interested, and that as citizens, they personally have little power to influence the powerful institutions or circumstances that shape their lives. Survey research shows that this distrust has grown and even hardened.

America’s views about trade aren’t just economic. They’re also about race.

Unsurprisingly, this crisis, too, follows a class pattern. The poorly educated are one and a half times more likely than the college educated to hold the highest levels of distrust of the government; nearly three times more likely to be highly cynical of politicians; and over twice as likely to express the highest levels of alienation from the political process. Among the poorly educated who are religiously conservative, the levels of distrust, cynicism and alienation are even higher.

As a result, the credibility of the political establishment, conservative and liberal — its governing philosophies and ideals, its institutional authority, and its leadership — has been depleted. Most significantly, the idea that one can find truth in the words of politicians or that there are even agreed-upon truths to which politicians could be held to account has largely vanished. The party establishments and their governing philosophies, moreover, are no longer tethered to the aspirations and interests of their constituencies; a reality reflected not only in the continuation of a long-term growth of self-identified independents, who now outnumber Republicans or Democrats at 39 percent of the electorate, but in the fact that significant minorities of Republicans and Democrats don’t believe their party represents their views of how the government should operate. Moreover, 63 percent of the American population agrees that “what Americans really need is a new political party because the current two-party system isn’t working.”

Whatever else the culture war of the last several decades accomplished, it unquestionably contributed to the intensification of this legitimation crisis. On any issue, from abortion to same-sex marriage, what was considered reasonable and justifiable governance and policy for one side came to be viewed as irrational and indefensible by the other. The resulting political discourse has been less about persuasion and compromise than about demonizing the opposition through overstatement and hyperbole.

Antagonistic public discourse is hardly new in American history. What is new are assorted media platforms that favor the sensational over the substantive, the superficial over the serious, and the visceral over the thoughtful. To be sure, there are still journalists committed to objectivity and truth.  But the relentless pursuit of ratings, market share, and advertising dollars by the media establishment predisposes it in ways that guarantee a debased public discourse into the future.

Black rural America and white rural America are different ideological spaces

We want to believe that the tragic insults to liberal democracy today — whether in the White House or the streets of Charlottesville — are atypical, and that soon, reason and good sense will again prevail. Yet the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump are not an aberration, but a reflection of the political estrangement of our times. So is the authoritarian impulse we see bubbling up from the fringes. Genuine democratic freedom has become an opportunity for carefully staged political theater, the end of which is the denial of democratic freedom. The culture wars we fought before have given way to a new and worrying confrontation, the stakes of which feel darker and higher.

The streets of my hometown are now one stage upon which these larger, longer-standing cultural and class dynamics are playing out. As long as these conditions are in place, I fear we are likely going to see much more of it well into the future.