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Are the culture wars really over?

America’s late 20th century culture wars commenced with a nearly official declaration. The venue was the Houston Astrodome, the site of the 1992 Republican National

America’s late 20th century culture wars commenced with a nearly official declaration.

The venue was the Houston Astrodome, the site of the 1992 Republican National Committee that re-nominated George H.W. Bush.  The warrior-in-chief was Pat Buchanan, the conservative columnist who unsuccessfully took Bush on in the primary.

“There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America,” bellowed Buchanan. “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”

From that point on the Big Theme in analyzing American politics was Red versus Blue America.  Politics became more partisan.  Conservative Democrats turned into Republicans and liberal Republicans disappeared. The rise of cable news and the web resurrected a world of ideological mass news outlets that had been mostly dormant for a century.

Last week, Republican campaign consultant Alex Castellanos told The New York Times that indeed the Democrats “did win the culture war.”

This isn’t an idiosyncratic view.  Writing in The American Conservative, Rod Dreher said, “A major, decisive battle in the culture war is over. The other side won.”

Tim Noah writing from the left on MSNBC.com said, “the culture wars are over, and they have been for some time.”

Is the war really over? If so, who won?

The Culture Peace argument is straightforward: the swift and wide social acceptance of gay marriage and legalizing marijuana show that conservative social values are losing support; the pace of change will increase as the more liberal millennial generation starts to be more in charge and as the minority population grows.

That makes senses. But it collides with realities like the energetic Tea Party movement, the continuing battle of women’s reproductive rights and political parties that are more polarized than ever.

There is good reason why the end of the culture war is not obvious.  The whole idea has always been something of a political red herring. It is a useful but ultimately artificial way of looking at politics and society.

1. The depth of the culture war was always exaggerated.  Political issues are only a subset of values – an especially divisive and distorted subset. And the social issues of the so-called culture war were never the key issues in elections, just as they aren’t now.

2. While attitudes about some cultural and social issues have changed remarkably fast in a liberal or tolerant direction, other issues remain as polarizing divisive as ever.  And new issues to argue about have emerged. 

3.  While the temperature of cultural conflict may have gone down since the 1990s in society, it has gone way up for politically engaged people, Congress and the media.

The clash

The phrase “culture war” entered the popular vocabulary before Buchanan’s speech. In 1991, sociologist James Davison Hunter published an influential book called “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” That marked the beginning of the idea’s – or the phrase’s – popularity. But even Hunter warned not to take the idea to extremes.

In truth, most Americans occupy a middle ground between the polarizing impulses of American culture….  most Americans, despite their predispositions, would not embrace a particular moral vision wholly or uncritically. Where the polarizing tendencies in American culture tend to be the sharpest is in the organizations and spokespeople who have an interest in promoting a particular position on a social issue.

Many years ago, I wrote that a whole Polarization-Industrial Complex had emerged to profit off the so-called culture wars.  The 1970s and 1980s saw an explosion of special interest groups and single-issue groups and a corresponding explosion of political professionals to service them – pollsters, direct mail companies, PACs and the like. Another explosion came with the web and the rise of ideological news.  Talk radio and cable followed. Eventually, Fox News became the red channel and the MSNBC the blue channel.

Certainly, there were some super-charged cultural issues in the 1980s and 1980s, led by abortion, gun control, sexual mores, federal funding for the arts and prayer in school. Few issues were more divisive than affirmative action, which was more about race than culture and which has largely disappeared.

These areas were important in the elections of those years partly because they were being used as “wedge” issues. These were issues used to wedge culturally conservative white, working class voters in the South and Rust Belt union states away from their traditional ties to the Democratic Party.

That dynamic has changed. White voters without a college degree comprised 53 percent of the electorate in 1992, the year of the Buchanan proclamation; in 2012, that number was only 36 percent.

Wayne Baker has written two studies of values in America, “America’s Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception” and, more recently, “United America.”

“Wedge issues inflame the rhetoric, but the 'culture war' is a phantom war as far as the American people are concerned,” he wrote in an email. “Sure, there are some sharp disagreements, but my national polls (and others) show that the American people remain largely united around a core set of values.” True now, true 20 years ago.

In elections, social issues – which always meant different things to different people – never were among the top issues in exit polls. Political scientist Morris Fiorina of Stanford told me “the data indicate that their role has been exaggerated all along.”

The change

The idea that Democrats/liberals/secularists/progressives/urbanites have won the culture war sprouts from the dramatic change in public opinion on a few select issues.  

The prime example is gay marriage.   Take a look the public opinion history:

Image caption here

Gallup

In the 1990s the idea that gay marriage would be legal in many states would have been downright weird. The change in law and public opinion has been extraordinary.  But even though a majority supports gay marriage, a big chunk doesn’t.  It remains a divisive issue and legal and legislative battles are still being intensely fought.

Smoking pot is another case study:

Image caption here

Gallup

The graph looks like half of a fat joint, right. It’s a big change in society.

The biggest symbolic change of all is Barack Obama, the country’s first black president.

But of course Obama’s presidency is itself divisive, now more than when he was first elected. New majorities may form around issues and legislation may follow, but the issues can remain polarizing.

On other core social issues, there has been virtually no change in decades. Abortion would be the top example:

Image caption here

Gallup

The country is far more divided over gun control than it was 20 years ago:

Image caption here

Gallup

New issues have emerged for voters where public opinion is polarized along cultural battle lines: climate change and access to contraception would be the leading examples right now.

Demographic trends would appear to favor growing acceptance of liberal views on the divisive cultural issues, another reason to declare victory in the culture war.

Young voters – the Millennials – are distinctly more liberal on most of the social issues. Women are as well and they vote more than men.  But minority voters, also a growing force, tend to be more religious.

Other changes in social structure also will change arguments over social issues. For example, in 1960 about 70 percent of the adult population was married.  That fell to 60 percent in the mid-1990s and roughly 50 percent today.  More than 40 percent of new mothers are unmarried

Religiosity in America also has changed greatly. According to Gallup, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, no more than 2 percent told pollsters they had no religion. It was up to 13 percent last year. 

All these changes reconstruct what looks mainstream, normal or acceptable in society.  The evolution of values is constant in human history though the pace varies Conflict over values is also constant. Yes, values are changing at a fast pace.  We should be so lucky that conflict over them wanes.

The politics

For all this, culture war issues are less prominent in campaigns. “Their significance has diminished, both because of larger concerns like the economy, and also because most people are reasonably satisfied with the status quo on abortion and have come to accept the inevitability of gay marriage,” Fiorina says. “And not to be snarky, but I don't think that birth control pills and climate change have the disruptive potential that race and abortion did.”

There is one place, however, where the culture war is still raging: Congress.

The war is fought on partisan battle lines.  Votes in Congress are more partisan than they ever have been before. And of course, not much gets passed.

This reinforces and also is partially caused by partisanship in the electorate.  A thorough study of political polarization by the Pew Research Center concluded, “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.”

The study, importantly, also said this:

These sentiments are not shared by all – or even most – Americans. The majority do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views. Most do not see either party as a threat to the nation. And more believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.

Yet many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.

That was the true story of culture war. And it is the story of polarization today.  Americans share basic values on a deep level but have some fierce political arguments. But more so than at other times in our history, our politicians and most politically active citizens are dividers, not uniters.

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