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The Culture Wars are Dead

Long live the culture wars!

“Make America Great Again.” Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, festooned on ball caps and T-shirts or emblazoned on placards at boisterous rallies across the red-state landscape, evokes the fervent belief among many Americans that the nation is no longer theirs. Once upon a time, the slogan deftly implies, things in America made sense: right and wrong were distinguishable, hard work was rewarded, people respected authority, love of country was widely shared, as was faith in God. But this familiar America now seems upside down in the eyes of millions of the nation’s citizens.

Of course, it is no coincidence that the rhetorical power of “Make America Great Again” peaked at the end of Barack Hussein Obama’s eight years in the White House. Nothing quite signals decline to the Trump faithful like a black president with a Muslim name.

Beyond its present-day appeal, though, “Make America Great Again” speaks to the narrative of decline that has defined conservative cultural attitudes since the 1960s. It is, at bottom, a nostalgic call to revive and restore the orderly, disciplined, and authority-respecting America before the social movements of the 1960s endowed people of color, women, gays and lesbians, immigrants, and other seeming outsiders and fringe characters with the right to call themselves Americans.

In this way, the multivalent Trump slogan marks but the latest stage in the culture wars that have polarized the United States for decades. Trump and his supporters are breathing new life into the venerable right-wing tradition of complaining that the nation went to hell during the Age of Aquarius. Those on the left, by contrast, have tended to view American life through the eyes of those “others” whose very existence challenges the America of Trump’s constricted imagination. These have long been the dividing lines in the culture wars.

Trump’s ascendancy to the White House thus seems to indicate that the culture wars endure. In the years prior to Trump’s improbable victory many observers predicted that the culture wars were dying. So did I. In the conclusion to my A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (2015), I argued that the logic of the culture wars had been exhausted; that the metaphor had run its course. Of course I didn’t believe that Americans had come to a peaceful consensus on the issues that had polarized the nation since the 1960s: abortion, affirmative action, controversial art and censorship, evolution, feminism, gay rights, multiculturalism, national history standards, pornography, school prayer, and sex education, to name but a few. Cultural conflict would persist, I argued, as it has throughout American history. But I suggested as well that such conflict was now being fought in a different register, one shaped by the ever intensifying disruptions of neoliberalism in American social and economic life.

Trump’s ascendancy certainly complicates that prognosis, though without, perhaps, overthrowing it altogether. Perhaps we can get a handle on the state of America’s new millennial culture wars by asking questions that extend beyond Trump and Trumpism. It may well be, for instance, that in lieu of the traditional culture-war uprisings against the various gate keeping institutions presiding over our common life, we’re seeing a new brand of identity-themed insurgency, one that might prove more sinister and abiding than the former mobilization of cultural conflict on the left and right flanks of our politics. Perhaps the two strongest forces in American history—cultural conflict and capitalism—have merged to create a political culture more divided and despairing than anything in the recent past. And if so, what now?

Class and Correctness

A 2016 study by the sociologists James Davison Hunter and Carl Desportes Bowman, The Vanishing Center of American Democracy: The 2016 Survey of American Political Culture, finds that Americans are more divided than ever. The study also shows that one of the principal effects of persistent and worsening polarization is a crisis of legitimacy: an overwhelming majority of Americans are disaffected with government and other elite institutions, including media and higher education. One example of such alienation is opposition to “political correctness,” a term that arose in the early 1990s as part of a critique of universities that sought to regulate speech. Such regulations often reflected latent racial and sexual tensions as new peoples and perspectives were welcomed into the American system of higher education. For these demographic reasons, some degree of conflict on college campuses was unavoidable, and the growing adoption of measures such as campus speech codes prohibiting discriminatory language was unsurprising.

The national debate over guns has hardened in recent years. This division aligns almost perfectly with the national debate over race.

Yet a full quarter century later, the battles over political correctness have, if anything, intensified. Right-wing media dedicates countless gleeful hours of airspace to lamenting “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and other signs of civilizational collapse. And the notion of political correctness has morphed into a catch-all term, aimed at faculty who seem afraid to utter the truth about controversial issues for fear of offending “snowflakes” or other supposedly delicate, oversensitive, and conflict-averse souls. As the Hunter-Bowman survey finds, three of four Americans believe political correctness is a serious problem, “making it hard for people to say what they really think.” No wonder, then, that Trump’s frequent vulgar outbursts, on the stump and in his Twitter account, resonate: while many people see his speaking style as ignorant, irresponsible, and downright cruel, his supporters view him as an unvarnished truth-teller. Either way, nobody ever accuses the tweeter-in-chief of political correctness.

In addition to noting the tenacity of old cultural divisions, the Hunter-Bowman survey also asserts that these divisions have been modified in crucial ways. Hunter, whose 1991 book Culture Wars was the first scholarly inquiry about the topic, writes: “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.” Cultural conflict has fused with class-based discord to create an unusually toxic politics.

The changing character of American polarization can be seen in the uneven distribution of disaffection. According to the Hunter-Bowman survey, the elderly are more likely to distrust the government than the young, whites more than blacks, rural dwellers more than urban, religious people more than secular. The strongest predictor of difference is education: those lacking a college education are highly prone to alienation from government; those with advanced degrees are as a group happy with government and other elite institutions. This is where capitalism and class matter. In our neoliberal, post-industrial economic order, educational attainment is highly determinative of life chances. Educational credentials tend, for example, to track how badly people have suffered from the ongoing effects of the 2008 recession. A credential gap, with its class implications, has mapped onto enduring cultural divisions. And this helps explain why the culture wars feel more urgent, more existential, than ever.

Deplorables and Sons of Bitches

When asked about their attitudes toward government, racial minorities, especially African Americans, are among the least alienated groups. This might seem odd since African Americans lost vastly disproportionate amounts of household wealth as a result of the 2008 economic meltdown. But it makes more sense when we consider that the Hunter-Bowman survey was conducted in 2016, when Obama was still president. Needless to say, the same basic dynamic operates on the other side of the racial divide: just as Obama represented a sense of political belonging for African Americans, Trump epitomizes the social grouping that has rallied under Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate “basket of deplorables” moniker: older, rural, uncredentialed, and yes, white.

Race has almost always been at the forefront of American political and cultural life. The United States, after all, was founded on the dispossession of indigenous non-whites, and made rich by the enslavement of African blacks. But in the wake of the civil rights movement that defeated Jim Crow, explicit and officially sanctioned expressions of racism waned. Even conservatives who had once unapologetically defended white supremacy shifted gears and instead championed “colorblindness,” sometimes in an effort to make racial problems disappear. Yet a formal commitment to racial equality on the part of American institutions was at least tangible evidence of progress. That racial inequality remained firmly intact despite such a commitment left many Americans befuddled—and the persistence of racialized economic and social divisions in turn opened the door to reactionary explanations blaming poverty on cultural pathology.

Now, however, such confusion no longer seems to be a problem. With the Trumpist capture of the American right, the racial lines of the culture wars are fully visible again. On one side is Trump, who advanced the astonishingly popular “birther” crusade that questioned the first black president’s citizenship (and by extension, his legitimacy aspresident); who called undocumented Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers and promised to build a wall on the Mexican border; who banned large numbers of Muslims from entering the country. On the other side is Black Lives Matter and all those who want to hold to account cops who murder unarmed black people. Trump calls the mostly black NFL players who protest racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem “sons of bitches,” while black athletes like LeBron James and Stephen Curry speak openly about Trump’s bigotry. This feels different.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan gave a speech in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered during the Freedom Summer of 1964. When Reagan announced, in that particular location, his belief in “states’ rights,” he tacitly signaled sympathy with white southerners who longed for the halcyon days of Jim Crow. But when Trump called the unrepentant “tiki torch” white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville last year “very fine people,” there was nothing tacit about his endorsement. The upshot of Trump discarding coded rhetoric about race is that our political discourse is at once both more vicious but also more honest. Trump ripped the scabs off the wounds of American racism that the civil rights movement worked to heal.

Popping Off

The national debate over guns has also hardened in recent years. This division aligns almost perfectly with the national debate over race. This is not to say that gun control is new to the culture wars. In 1997, then NRA vice-president Charlton Heston delivered a tongue-in-cheek speech on behalf of the deplorables, titled, “Fighting the Culture War in America”:

The God fearing, law-abiding, Caucasian, middle-class Protestant—or even worse, evangelical Christian, Midwestern or Southern—or even worse, rural, apparently straight—or even worse, admitted heterosexuals, gun-owning—or even worse, NRA-card-carrying, average working stiff—or even worse, male working stiff—because, not only don’t you count, you are a down-right obstacle to social progress. Your voice deserves a lower decibel level, your opinion is less enlightened, your media access is insignificant; and frankly, mister, you need to wake up, wise up, and learn a little something from your new America; and until you do, would you mind shutting up?

During the 1980s and 1990s—the heyday of the culture wars—guns rarely ascended to the top of any roster of leading flashpoints in the conflict. But then in 1999 came Columbine, the first school massacre, followed by a wave of mass shootings. Almost twenty years later, guns may be the single most divisive issue in American politics. National Review pundit David French frets that the gun debate, because it has become a true Kulturkampf in which empathy for the opposing side has evaporated, might “break America.” David Brooks laments that “we don’t really have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict, and policy fights are just proxy battles as each side tries to establish moral superiority.”

In this view of the intractable posturing now blocking honest debate over gun ownership, the two tribal antagonists play their roles in ritualistic fashion. In the aftermath of each horrific massacre, almost always committed by an angry white man with legal access to an arsenal of military-grade weapons, gun control advocates call yet again for legislation that would make it more difficult for psychos to obtain deadly weapons. In response, politicians in the pocket of the gun lobby offer “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their families. After a few days of thoughts and prayers, spokespeople for the NRA blitz the media with complaints that their antagonists are politicizing tragedy. No laws get passed. Rinse and repeat.

Trump, notwithstanding his many indiscretions and confessed history of sexual assault, has already managed to give the religious right the gift of a Supreme Court justice.

The recent massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which a young killer took the lives of seventeen people, spurred a wave of activism led by the students who survived the attack. That these articulate young survivors are leading the charge against the nation’s gun fetishists has made life a bit more difficult for the gun lobby, though the smear machine is still cranking. Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, used the occasion of his first speech after the Parkland gun butchery to rattle on about a “socialist wave” that was infecting young people. If the socialist agenda is successful, according to LaPierre, “our American freedoms could be lost,” especially our freedom to own assault rifles and other fearsome war machines. In response to the ridicule that greeted LaPierre’s paranoia, Trump took to Twitter to affirm that “Wayne” is “a great American patriot.” He then signed off: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!

Where’d the Outrage Go?

Even as the two sides in the culture wars dig deep trenches along some fronts, making headway in either direction nearly impossible, other fronts have seen movement. Over the past several years, for instance, the religious right has been losing the culture wars over sexuality, religion, and family. But this liberal victory of sorts has not led to peace and tranquility—quite the opposite.

The nation’s attitudes about homosexuality have become much more tolerant, codified in the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which guaranteed same-sex couples the fundamental right to marry. Although that decision sparked a series of apoplectic jeremiads from many conservative leaders, these outbursts mostly fell on deaf ears: now even a majority of Republicans under the age of fifty support same-sex marriage. This radical attitudinal shift forced leaders of Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention to admit defeat in the gay marriage debate.

And even when religious conservatives gain the political leverage necessary to enact local laws that match their traditionalist views of sexuality, they continue to lose the larger national debate. In response to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law in 2015 by then Governor Mike Pence, which granted homophobic Indiana bakers the right to refuse to sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples, several corporations boycotted the state, leading to an estimated $60 million revenue loss. When North Carolina mandated in 2016 that individuals can only use public single-sex bathrooms that correspond to the sex identified on their birth certificates—an obvious attack on transgender rights—the NBA moved the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans.

Another significant measure of evangelical decline is the religious right’s fulsome embrace of the brash philanderer in the White House. In the face of the sexual revolution, the religious right had long promoted the ideal of chaste and pious political leaders, aka “good family men.” Hypocrisy was written into this ideal from the start, since the overriding feature that most attracted the religious right to politicians was their politics. If chastity and piety were prerequisites, Reagan should hardly have been palatable to evangelicals. As one Jimmy Carter supporter bitterly pointed out, Reagan was “a Hollywood libertine, had a child conceived out of wedlock before he and Nancy married, admitted to drug use during his Hollywood years, and according to Henry Steele Commager, was one of the least religious presidents in American history.” And yet Reagan won nearly 61 percent of the white evangelical vote over the born-again Carter in 1980. What mattered was that Reagan unambiguously aligned himself with conservative evangelicals less interested in his personal history than in his politics.

We might say the same for Trump, who, notwithstanding his many indiscretions and confessed history of sexual assault, has already managed to give the religious right the gift of a Supreme Court justice—by far the movement’s most coveted political spoil—while also offering random sops such as the bid to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. To sort out this bewildering mix, it’s crucial to recall that for evangelicals as for most other major political actors, proportion matters. Trump’s improprieties are legion. There’s no return to the pious ideal for evangelical leader Franklin Graham, who proclaimed of Trump’s 2016 victory that “it was God, in my opinion, and I believe His hand was at work.” This was mere weeks after the release of the infamous “pussy tape” which caught Trump bragging about his assaultive sexual exploits to television host Billy Bush.

Grabbing Back

On January 21, 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration, hundreds of thousands of women sporting pink “pussy” hats marched on Washington, D.C. In all, an estimated five million people participated in the Women’s March in cities across the world. This massive march announced that the “pussy grabber” president, who won the presidency thanks to the anachronistic Electoral College, would be met by defiance at every step. It seemed that Trump’s election had kick-started a renewed feminism that came to call itself, simply, the Resistance. It also seemed as if a conventional division in the culture wars—feminism versus the patriarchal backlash—had been reignited. But this feminist reawakening has had unintended consequences that have largely exploded stable political alliances.

In 2017, dozens of women came forward to accuse Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual abuse. He was fired from the company he helped found and dismissed from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Weinstein’s abusive behavior had long been known in Hollywood but he was never previously held accountable, for the simple reason that his victims, all women employees or actors, correctly believed that Weinstein and his powerful cronies would blackball them in retaliation should they speak out. But in a climate transformed by female resistance—a climate in which it suddenly became safe for more women to proclaim that yes, sexual harassment and abuse has been a problem for #MeToo—the tables turned on predators like Weinstein.

Several more famous men soon fell from grace, including Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, and Al Franken. What’s curious about this phenomenon is that political alliance no longer saved such men. Whereas the iconic feminist Gloria Steinem defended Bill Clinton against accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power, because she deemed a president who opposed the Christian Right agenda more important than bringing down a single sexual miscreant, few came to the defense of Franken, who lost his Senate seat despite his pro-feminist record.

Feminism is transcending the older culture wars—evidence, perhaps, that it is at long last prevailing. Still, it should be noted that if #MeToo signals a major feminist success, victory will not be smooth. Culture war victories never are. Signs of a turbulent adjustment period are already on the horizon, as justice bleeds into panic. One such example: citing the logic of #MeToo, a woman recently circulated a petition to have a 1938 Balthus painting removed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York because in her eyes it depicted a teenage girl as a sex object. And there will undoubtedly be more ominous modes of backlash on the cultural right. Many of the tiki-toting white supremacists in Charlottesville—not to mention the gun-strapped mass killers who haunt our schools, movie theaters, night clubs, and concert halls—tend to be young men struggling to find a meaningful, traditionally masculine existence in an America they believe is currently overrun with feminist, man-hating privilege.

Re-Divide and Conquer

This tour of the recent culture-war battleground discloses two key trends. First, economic anxiety and class resentment have mapped onto cultural divisions to make the culture wars angrier, more tribal, and more fundamental than ever before. Second, some older culture war struggles are subsiding due to success on the left.

And by way of charting a possible avenue of post-culture-war resistance, I would add a countervailing observation: appearances to the contrary in Trump’s America, cultural conflict is not the only division possible. In the depths of the neoliberal order, class struggle might overtake cultural conflict as the defining antagonism in American life. Developments in higher education indeed show that this shift may already be in the works.

During the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, left and right shared a commitment to the value of the humanities as a crucial element of American higher education. What the antagonists then disagreed upon, often ferociously, was how to define the humanities. Conservatives contended that all American college students should read the Western canon as they defined it—limited to a core group of texts typically authored by dead white men. In contrast, academic leftists sought a more inclusive, multicultural humanities curriculum.

In today’s dog-eat-dog world of neoliberal capitalism, a humanities education designed to inculcate intellectual curiosity and humanistic empathy serves no purpose.

But now, a humanities education—designed to inculcate intellectual curiosity and humanistic empathy—serves no purpose, especially beside such plainly better-compensated and culturally respectable real-world pursuits as vocational and managerial training. In other words today’s neoliberal order is fine with revised canons, and with more inclusive, multicultural understandings of the world—but not with public money supporting something so seemingly useless as the humanities. In the age of neoliberalism, conservatives have briskly abandoned their traditionalist defense of the Western canon in favor of no canon at all. Culture warriors on both sides have been overtaken by events. A bipartisan neoliberal consensus that emphasizes job training as education’s sine qua non now dominates the landscape.

When young people flocked to the Bernie Sanders campaign, they responded enthusiastically to his offer to make free higher education a priority. But this ardor didn’t only stem from the ruinous impact that ballooning student debt will visit on their life prospects. They also yearn for a more human existence that transcends the soul-crushing neoliberal order. This new division, between the technocratic rulers of a deeply unequal society and the idealistic young Americans who want something better, hardly resembles the culture wars of yesteryear. It feels, rather, like a new kind of class struggle—and finds a strong echo of the Parkland survivors’ implacable dedication to a new approach to the politics of gun ownership, in defiance of the bitter fatalism of all too many of their political elders. Although the outcome of these inchoate struggles is far from certain, they furnish more than a modicum of hope to the exhausted culture-war conscientious objectors who are looking for a way out of the pinched and dispiriting trench-warfare of the American Kulturkampf.