The culture wars are hot again, illustrated by the recent flare-up between the Disney corporation and Florida Republicans. After Disney publicly criticized the Florida HB 1557 legislation, known to critics as the “don’t say gay” bill, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and the state legislature responded with punishing sanctions. As one state representative tweeted before voting on reprisals, “Disney is a guest in Florida. Today, we remind them.”
The reaction to Disney shows how cultural institutions have become an area of intense anxiety for conservatives — particularly institutions believed to promote social justice commitments on race, gender and sexuality. But more specifically, the organized attacks on Disney reflect the decades-long political legacy of what has been called the “new right.” This militant conservatism places culture at the forefront of its efforts to take back the nation from what critics term the “woke” agenda of social justice advocates. And by approaching culture as an arena for political battle, the new right ultimately raises significant challenges for civic health.
The new right: Culture as battleground
The major figures of the European New Right argued in the late 1960s that the deepest level of politics rests in culture, where values are expressed and public opinion forged. This position yielded a distinctive new right vision of politics: to secure lasting social change, it is necessary to work on the hearts and minds of citizens — to transform their ideas, values and beliefs. As a result, the new right proposed that the fundamental medium of politics must go beyond a narrow emphasis on elections or policies. Instead, political struggle must work to shape public sentiments through images, terms and symbols.
This commitment to a cultural politics continues to define the new right legacy on the contemporary political stage. New right media magnate Daniel Friberg, for instance, proposes that an ascendant right must disseminate and anchor “a particular set of cultural ideas, attitudes, and values in a society, which eventually leads to deeper political change.” Notorious white nationalist Richard Spencer asserts that “big ideas are more important than policies” in securing political change. And more recently yet, Republican candidate for Ohio’s open Senate seat J.D. Vance argued that conservatives must “seize” the cultural institutions of the left and use them to reclaim the nation through a committed “de-woke-ification program.”
These proposals express a common thread. The task of an ascendant conservatism cannot simply be to “conserve” traditions or values. Nor can a meaningful conservative movement limit its efforts to policies or laws. Rather, it must go on the cultural offensive to break the perceived stranglehold of the left upon a wide range of cultural institutions.
The language war: Disney and “grooming”
The current tempest in Florida illustrates how this approach leads to a distinctly militant form of cultural politics. For instance, the anti-Disney offensive turns upon an accusation that has flooded the media circuit: Disney’s concern for LGBTQ youth wasn’t just part of a social justice agenda that deviates from the values of what the new right calls “mainstream Americans,” a category left conspicuously undefined. Rather, conservative critics charge that Disney’s opposition to the Florida bill, officially called the Parental Rights in Education bill, grew from a “groomer agenda.”
Traditionally, the term “grooming” is used to describe an adult preparing a child for sexual predation. Within the conservative media ecosystem, the term has been expanded to cover a broader set of anxieties over children, homosexuality and gender flexibility — a particular object of concern across the contemporary new right.
The label gains significance in the current flare-up, where it is applied to supporters of LGBTQ-friendly educational policies to charge them with psychological manipulation and support for pedophilia. In a particularly clear instance, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweeted, “Anyone who opposes anti-grooming laws like the one in Florida is pro-child predator.” The accusation is instantly recognizable as a political tactic. It short circuits debate over school materials by tarring the opposition with the moral stain of child sexual abuse — thus disqualifying their positions from any serious consideration.
This disqualification strategy helps explain why conservative activists have deliberately and tirelessly propagated this term. Manhattan Institute fellow Christopher Rufo argues that accusations of “grooming” are essential to winning what he has called the “language war” to secure public support for conservative educational policies. The reference to war reveals, more broadly, that language is a primary weapon on the cultural battlefield of the new right. Terms and labels are designed to shape perception, organize fears and manufacture outrage that can be used for political gain.
The civic costs of the culture war
This aggressive politics of language demonstrates how the new right weaponizes anxieties and fears to shape public opinion. The ongoing effort to suppress teaching about LGBTQ issues builds on Rufo’s earlier campaign against teaching “critical race theory” in the nation’s schools — a school of scholarship that connects abiding racial inequalities to the long history of American racial hierarchies. That campaign pursued a similar path of disqualification, repeatedly labeling racial justice advocates “cultural Marxists” or “neo-racists” to depict them as effectively un-American.
The culture wars have been associated with distinct civic liabilities. These clashes typically focus on existential divides over civic values — for instance, religion, abortion, obscenity or sexuality. As a result, once these antagonisms are aroused, they tend to resist compromise or negotiation. As veteran culture warrior and former Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan wrote in 2002, “unlike normal politics … culture war is a zero-sum game” that both reflects and feeds civic division.
But the “groomer” campaign shows that the new right’s approach to culture war does more than amplify polarization; it also reflects the new right’s long-standing hostility toward egalitarian ideals and politics. Social cleavages are not just deepened by culture war tactics. More significantly, these divisions, fears and resentments are used by conservative activists to forestall movements for justice by historically marginalized groups. Underneath the new right’s cultural politics lies a larger aim with fraught civic stakes: to preserve and defend entrenched hierarchies from movements for social equality.
Michael Feola (@feolski) is an associate professor of government and law at Lafayette College, author of “The Powers of Sensibility” (Northwestern University Press, 2018), and is currently finishing a book manuscript on the far right’s politics of racial anxiety.
Read more TMC analysis in our topic guide: LGBTQ+ politics around the world.