The old culture war politics is dying, but new culture wars are gathering force. The transformation of the battlefield will change our public life.
The idea of a “culture war” was popularized by Pat Buchanan in his joyfully incendiary 1992 Republican National Convention speech, but it was introduced into the public argument a year earlier by James Davison Hunter, a thoughtful University of Virginia sociologist.
In his 1991 book “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America,” Hunter described a raging battle between the orthodox, committed to “an external, definable and transcendent authority,” and progressives, who could be “defined by the spirit of the modern age, a spirit of rationalism and subjectivism.”
It was a fight, in other words, between those whose deepest commitments were to God and the sacred, and those who believed that human beings evolved their own value systems through a process of steady enlightenment. The first group feared we were moving away from commitments that made us decent and human. The second welcomed more open attitudes on questions ranging from sexuality to racial equality to women’s rights.
This culture war created the religious right and a backlash among more secular Americans — who happen to be one of the fastest-growing groups in the country. Their skirmishes focused especially on the legality of abortion, society’s view of homosexuality and, more generally, the public role of religion.
That this culture war is receding is most obvious in our rapidly changing responses to gay men and lesbians. The turnaround in public opinion on gay marriage is breathtaking. According to the Pew Research Center, only 27 percent of Americans favored gay marriage in 1996; by 2014, that proportion had doubled, to 54 percent.
Not for nothing did President Obama declare in his State of the Union address last week: “I’ve seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country.”
Abortion is a different matter because public opinion on the question has been quite stable. Over recent decades, Americans have generally supported abortion rights by margins ranging from 5-to-4 to 3-to-2. And many hold somewhat ambivalent views, resisting black-and-white certainty. Rachel Laser, a close student of the issue, has called these middle-grounders the “Abortion Grays.”
But the politics of abortion have become more complicated for its opponents. This was evidenced by the decision of House Republicans to pull a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks because the exception for rape victims — it required them to report the crime to the police — was seen as far too onerous. A group of House Republican women forced the bill off the floor.
Notice, however, that House Republicans were able to pass without much difficulty a remarkably restrictive bill that would overturn Obama’s executive actions on immigration. It was aimed not only at his measures to keep families together but also at a highly popular provision for the “dreamers” brought to the United States as children.
This is the new culture war. It is about national identity rather than religion and “transcendent authority.” It focuses on which groups the United States will formally admit to residence and citizenship. It asks the same question as the old culture war: “Who are we?” But the earlier query was primarily about how we define ourselves morally. The new question is about how we define ourselves ethnically, racially and linguistically. It is, in truth, one of the oldest questions in our history, going back to our earliest immigration battles of the 1840s and 1850s.
It is revealing that the contest for the Iowa caucuses in the 2016 Republican presidential nominating campaign had its informal kickoff on Saturday at an event organized by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). King is known for the special harshness of his opposition to illegal immigration, having once spoken of immigrant children with “calves the size of cantaloupes.”
The other issue gaining resonance is often cast as economic, but it is really about values and virtues: Why is the hard work of the many, those who labor primarily for wages and salaries, rewarded with increasingly less generosity than the activities of those who make money from investments and capital?
Politically, this could be explosive. What is at heart a moral battle could rip apart old coalitions, since many working-class and middle-class social conservatives are angry about our shifting structures of reward. If issues such as abortion and gay rights split the New Deal coalition, this emerging issue could divide the conservative coalition. The rise of Pope Francis could hasten the scrambling of the moral debate, since he links his opposition to abortion with powerful calls for economic justice and compassion toward immigrants.
Politicians, like generals, often fight the old wars. (So, by the way, do columnists.) Recognizing how the theater of combat is changing is the first step toward mastering it.