U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Culture Wars: Notes Towards a Working Definition

This week was my spring break, which finally allowed me enough time to read Daniel Rodgers, The Age of Fracture in as much depth as it warrants. This post does not serve as a review of the book. I plan to roll out a long review here alongside the panel on Age of Fracture that I’m assembling for the Fourth Annual U.S. Intellectual History Conference. (If you want to read a review now, check out these three: Robert Westbrook’s at Book Forum; Lisa Szefel’s at the History News Network; and Nemo’s at PhD Octopus. Also, be on the lookout for a roundtable discussion of Age of Fracture in the next issue of Historically Speaking.)

Let me just say for now that, despite some disagreements I have with Rodgers—some major, some minor—the book is very good. In fact, I think anyone who wishes to write about recent U.S. intellectual history will now have to go through Rodgers. In this sense, I see Age of Fracture catapulting to canon-like lists like the one put together by David earlier this week. In other words, I agree with James Kloppenberg, who writes in a blurb that Age of Fracture is “the most wide-ranging and ambitious interpretation of late-twentieth century American history available.” But like I said, this post is not a book review.

Rather, how Rodgers deals with the culture wars, the topic of my current book project, reminds me that one of my biggest obstacles in writing this book is defining the culture wars. Related to this major hurdle: How do I impose boundaries on a topic that seemingly relates to almost everything of consequence that happened during the 1980s and 1990s? And, of course, none of this even speaks to causation. I’m finding these tasks daunting—it’s given me a clue as to why no historian has yet to write a book specifically on the culture wars.

Rodgers does not define the culture wars that differently from common understandings, though his points of emphasis are somewhat unique. He writes that, in contrast to those who celebrated cultural hybridity and the destabilization of identity, such as avant-garde artists or postmodern English professors:

To release and destabilize not merely goods and fashions but “everything”—tradition, certainties, truth itself—was, for other Americans, a source of fear an outrage. Not until 1991, when James Davison Hunter’s book Culture Wars put the title phrase on every op-ed page, did that unease acquire a general name. For the next decade the term served as a banner for partisans, a verbal crutch for journalists, and the focus of a flourishing industry among academics seeking to explain its novelty and dynamics. In fact, cultural wars in which highly polarized moral values flooded into partisan politics had a long history in the American past. But that did not make their effect in the age of fracture any less important. They helped to mobilize conservative churchgoing Americans into new alliances and new political battles. They split university faculties into feuding intellectual camps. They stoked strident school board contests. They made the fortunes of best-selling books. Across the last quarter of the twentieth century, the emergent talk of fluidity and choice grew in tandem with contrary desires for centers and certainties, each drawing on the other’s energy” (145).

In other words, for Rodgers, the culture wars were a battle between those who celebrated cultural fracture with those who, against all odds, sought to piece the national culture back together out of an older stock. What was this older cultural stock? Many argue race figures foremost. Others point to religious changes that brought more Americans into cultural conflict. But Rodgers contends changes in gender relations, though hardly mutually exclusive from other cultural shifts, were paramount. The culture wars were “above all, in ways that historians of these culture clashes have only begun to realize… a battle over women’s acts and women’s and men’s nature” (145). “The women’s movement and the culture wars,” Rodgers continues, “were to be inextricably bound together. In complicated ways, they were parts of the same story” (146).

I tend to agree with Rodgers here, though like Lisa Szefel I think Rodgers under-emphasizes sexuality more broadly construed, since he only dedicates a little over one page to homosexuality, AIDS, and conservative backlash to gay rights. I also think he might have made more of the ways in which cultural conservatives adjusted to shifting gender norms even as they seemingly rejected such transformations. One of Bethany Moreton’s cleverest points in her award-winning To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise is that Wal-Mart was a key site for men to learn that an ethos of service, framed as an explicitly Christian attitude, was the best adjustment to deindustrialization and the loss of manly work, while still allowing them to maintain patriarchal relations with women, however softened. This ethos spread out nationally, and even internationally, with the Promisekeepers. I contend, similarly, that fighting the culture wars allowed people at all points of the cultural spectrum to adjust to the altered moral, racial, and gendered realities, even if such adjustment often came in the form of rejection or nostalgia.

Although I am still working all of these moving parts out in my mind, one thing seems clear. It’s time to move beyond James Davison Hunter, who set the original terms for how we came to frame the culture wars. This is not to say that his book is anachronistic or beyond use. His exhaustive account of the mutually antagonistic “progressive” and “orthodox” worldviews is crucial in relating the culture wars to changing religious-political affiliations. He usefully demonstrates that Catholics and Protestants (and to a lesser extent, Jews), historically unfriendly almost as a rule, found common cause across faiths on culture war issues such as abortion and homosexuality. However, Hunter altogether ignores intellectual history, a serious omission given that the culture wars were largely fought on terrain forged by intellectuals, whose understandings of contemporary debates were attached to longstanding epistemological disputes over truth, justice, and identity. Here Rodgers offers an important intervention. I hope to offer a substantial one as well.

I also think it’s high time we move beyond the simplistic reading of the culture wars offered by left-liberals like Thomas Frank, E. J. Dionne (Why Americans Hate Politics), and to a lesser extent, Todd Gitlin (The Twilight of Common Dreams). This interpretation has come to operate like conventional wisdom. Take Frank’s popular jeremiad, What’s the Matter with Kansas (now a film, too), where he argues that “culture wars get the goods.” In his typical pithy way, Frank relates the Andres Serrano Piss Christ controversy to this larger point: “Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.” Frank’s thesis goes as follows: cultural conservatives often voted against their own economic interests due to their irrational obsession with the culture wars, to which Republican politicians cynically lent rhetorical support as they attended to more important matters, such as rewriting the tax codes in favor of the economic royalists.

Similarly, Gitlin argues that the culture wars were a great distraction from more universal problems, such as economic inequality, that should have spoken to everyone, especially left-leaning intellectuals. This paradigm endures. In last year’s Dissent symposium dedicated to the subject “Intellectuals and Their America” (which I analyze at length here) Dionne continues his longstanding critique of the cultural left. “While the political right spent the 1980s and 1990s preaching the gospel of privatization and the virtue of pursuing individual satisfactions,” Dionne writes, “many in the progressive academy engaged in their own form of withdrawal. An aesthetic radicalism replaced political radicalism, and a battle over texts and canons displaced the fight over whose interests would be served by government and whose ideas would define mainstream politics.” Whether blaming a cultural left for fetishizing “identity,” as Gitlin and Dionne do, or accusing a cynical right for baiting and switching their way to power, as Thomas Frank does, this dismissive narrative has proven convincing to many observers, including several historians.

The historiography of the culture wars, though sparse, has begun to move way from What’s the Matter with Kansas oversimplifications, but only to a degree. David Courtwright’s excellent new book, No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America, adds historical weight to Frank’s more impressionistic study. Courtwright convincingly argues that, although the cultural right entered the political arena with a vengeance, it failed to reshape the national culture due to the pervasiveness of countercultural values, which touched most members of the baby boomer generation regardless of ideological orientation. He also shows that where the cultural right failed, the economic right succeeded. This is true as far as it goes.

But in thinking of the culture wars merely as a tool of the political class, and not as something real in their own right, Courtwright adheres to Frank’s thesis that the culture wars should simply be understood as a successful yet cynical Republican tactic: marshalling the spectacle of cultural controversy helped Republicans achieve their more mundane political and economic objectives. Read at the strictly political level, there is merit in this argument. But Courtwright’s political focus is too narrow. In avoiding cultural and intellectual history, Courtwright ignores the issues that I think define the culture wars: the controversies over education, art, museum exhibits, and popular culture. This cultural and intellectual history illuminates the ways in which the culture wars represented something more than mere escapades in exuberant irrationalism.

James Livingston offers a very different perspective in The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century. (For my essay review of this book, go here, and for Livingston’s response, here. I think future graduate seminars on U.S. Intellectual History will, or at least should, assign Livingston alongside Rodgers.) Livingston posits that the left won the ideological battles that have carried over from the Sixties, made evident by its domination of the commanding cultural heights of the university and by its hegemony over popular culture. The left “was never in danger of losing the so-called culture wars.” Here Livingston offers an important intervention: by expanding the interpretative terrain of the culture wars to the realm of intellectual history, his book is a necessary corrective to Courtwright’s narrow political focus. However, Livingston’s intellectual history is too narrow in its own right. He places too high of a premium on the power of the cultural left, as if control over humanities departments and Hollywood was sufficient. Livingston ignores that those cultural realms dominated by conservatives—Congress, evangelical churches, AM radio, conservative think tanks—were equal in influence. In sum, the national culture, what Patrick Buchanan memorably referred to as “the Ho Chi Minh Trail to power,” was up for grabs.

I have yet to settle on a definition or thesis. But I’ll conclude by pasting the thesis statement I wrote in my book proposal—which one reviewer loved, another, not so much. I’m hoping that your comments will help me out! (Remember, the book proposal format calls for grandiosity!)

Here goes:

Most scholars understand the culture wars to have been ephemeral. I argue against that consensus. Although the culture wars were emotional, overstated, and often hyperbolic, they were not necessarily a proxy for more important developments. Rather, I contend that the culture wars are best understood as the terrain that allowed Americans in the 1980s and 1990s to acknowledge, if not accept, the transformations to American life wrought by the tumultuous developments of the 1960s and 1970s. Most explicitly, the culture wars granted Americans space to articulate new understandings of American life in the context of the altered landscapes of race, gender, and religion. Through the culture wars, Americans found new forms of solidarity in the face of an increasingly rudderless and fragmented culture that threw into doubt all foundations. I contend that the culture wars, then, are the defining narrative of postmodern America.

15 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Andrew, I think “terrain” and “space” constitute the most helpful way to think about the culture wars. When I teach it, I often simply say that divisive social, cultural, political issues were fought at the level of culture in both the productive, artistic sense and way-of-life, values sense. So, it is not that conflicts were necessarily new, but the terrain on which those conflicts were fought was shifting and expanding.

    I also agree that a discussion of the interplay between intellectuals, politicians, and cultural producers/distributors is essential to analyzing the culture wars. Those groups worked to empower and reinforce one another often drawing disparate people and groups into conversation and conflict.

    Anyway, this is a complex topic, and I look forward to seeing where you end up.

  2. Andrew:

    I do look forward to your book which will put so much of this action in one place and in the kind of context that will make it accessible. I have a few questions for you:

    First, in this age of fracture, were there issues or events in which Americans did rally around or came to some consensus?

    Second, the standard argument I think is that the cold war had provided a unifying theme for Americans and once it was gone the fractures that had been there all along came to dominate rather than be subordinate to the cold war. Was that the case or did issues that divided Americans in the 1990s need time to stew in the 60s and 70s and part of the 80s? And if so, why?

    Third, and I apologize for harping on this, it still seems to me that at certain moments real war punctuated this fractured state of affairs. I am thinking primarily about the Gulf War and, in another sense, the steady rise of popular opinion of the military as the only institution still worth believing in. Does either war or opinion about the military matter in this narrative of the culture wars or are they simply separate because they consider very different types of intellectual debates?

    As a coda to David’s list of canonical books: I do think texts on foreign policy and war are necessary. We might include Gaddis’s Strategies of Containment; Ninkovich’s Modernity and Power; and in the spirit of Hofstadter, Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy.

  3. Thanks, Ray. I’ll attempt to answer your questions in order.

    1) As Rodgers tells it, Americans rallied around very little collectively between the early 1970s and 9/11, 2001. His epilogue deals with the aftermath of September 11, when the civil religion imagined by 1960s thinkers seemed a momentary reality, although superficially, as represented by the ubiquity of the flag. Rodgers suggests that the age of fracture might have ended on 9/11, but he also says there is obviously no going back to the consensus years of the first few decades after WW2, that whatever should be said of our society now will have to be said in light of thirty-plus years of disaggregation.

    2) Rodgers downplays the Cold War. He also downplays sixties polarization. He contends rather that the economic crisis of the 1970s, when all the old explanations lost their coherence, triggered the exodus away from thinking big about power, institutions, and, well, a common nation or society. Economics is the driving force. But interestingly, and somewhat misleadingly I think, he uses the market more as a metaphor than as a dull economic reality for changing the way American thinkers viewed society. Economic thought, not economic realities. This is one of my critiques of his methodology that I hope to build on in my review to come, or during the panel discussion at USIH 4.0.

    3) I agree with you that war matters and that supporting the troops is a way that most Americans could still come together even in the age of fracture. But post-Vietnam I don’t think this ever touched the American soul in the same way as it did in previous wars, especially WW2. I don’t think Rodgers even mentions the first gulf war. And though he does say that Americans rallied around the war on terror post-9/11, he argues that the outsourcing of the war is more indicative of where we’re at than any collective outpouring of patriotism.

    But in general, yes, more about war is necessary if we’re to understand recent US history. Getting humbled internationally (not just Vietnam–think about how US power seemed to be waning in the Middle East and elsewhere in the 70s) had a lot to do with the culture wars. More than I’ve yet to consider.

  4. “Courtwright ignores the issues that I think define the culture wars: the controversies over education, art, museum exhibits, and popular culture.”

    I would disagree that those things define the culture wars, because a key ingredient is class anxieties and conservative figures’ exploitation of that. Authors like Sam Tanenhaus, Rick Perlstein, and Thomas Frank cite Nixon as the first culture warrior in the ways he exploited cultural resentments. What gave Nixon’s rhetoric power was his tapping into the status anxieties of his audience. This is true of Joe McCarthy as well, who sat with Nixon on HUAC. This kind of class tinged rhetoric was put into manifestos by intellectuals like Kevin Phillips, Irving Kristol, and Bill Buckley:


    It’s true that on the most basic level, the culture wars are about what peoples’ felt identities are, and what alienates them. But alienation can be reinforced, which conservatives have spent a lot of time doing over the past few decades.

    If you focus too much on the cultural, you miss the political consequences that I think machiavellians like Irving Kristol knew fairly well. Crucially, culture war isn’t simply waged on cultural issues (“education, art, museum exhibits, and popular culture”), it’s waged against matters of what should be shared fact, as this column by Paul Krugman pointed out a few years ago:


    I think when you talk about the culture wars, you can’t just focus narrowly on things like shocking art that made headlines in the 80’s. I agree with Rick Perlstein, et al, that you have to include Nixon and Agnew’s antipathy for the press and intellectuals, Edith Efron’s the News Twisters, etc. It’s not just culture that’s the battlefield, it’s also matters of straightforward information and scientific findings, which requires a broader definition of the culture wars than just education and art controversies.

  5. Gosh, I wish I had seen the sign that said “This is not a public discussion” before I spent an hour of my morning thinking and typing that comment that was deleted. Is there a comments policy that I violated?

  6. JJ: I don’t ignore politics and think Courtwright, Perlstein, et all, make good points about how Republicans mobilized resentment. Perhaps even more important in terms of this historiography is Michael Kazin’s “Populist Persuasion,” (Part of David’s canon) which demonstrates how the special interests getting one over on the so-called “people” shifted from the railroads and banks of the late 19th century to the liberal elite of the late twentieth century (academics, Hollywood types, trial lawyers, etc…) I have posted several times about how neoconservatives redeployed the new class theory to such purposes. Rather, my complaint is that what Courtwright (who’s book I love, so much so that I wrote a glowing blurb for the back cover) calls the culture wars ignores intellectual, cultural, and educational history. Courtwright’s book is great political history (I much prefer him to Perlstein). But it’s not a fully encompassing history of the culture wars. What I’m seeking to do is put the political in more explicit dialogue with the cultural, intellectual, and educational. I think this will be necessary to more fully understand the culture wars.

    (Note to others seeking to comment: Bill Fine’s long comment was also eaten up by the spam folder, which is what prompted me to post his full comments as a stand-alone entry. If anyone else has this problem send me an email. Sorry and thanks for reading.)

  7. A couple more thoughts. I basically agree that the “culture wars represented something more than mere escapades in exuberant irrationalism,” but I disagree with the past tense (they haven’t gone away), and I’d like to defend the people who are charging culture warriors with irrationalism.

    Check out this piece, “Anti-Intellectualism in the Modern Presidency: A Republican Populism”


    This piece argues that Republican presidents, in their efforts to seem *authentic* to the electorate, have done so by appearing anti-intellectual. Then over time, this reached a point of excess, where the political class actually became anti-intellectual itself, which affected its ability to govern competently.

    More on authenticity: Interestingly, in this speech to AEI before the last presidential election, Sam Tanenhaus brings up Trilling’s *Sincerity and Authenticity* to describe the modern Republican base:


    When Trilling wrote *Sincerity and Authenticity*, he was criticizing the “Dionysian left” (Tanenhaus’s phrase) for taking authentic self expression to the point of insanity (which Nixon and Neoconservatives were able to exploit). But Tanenhaus is pointing out the irony that this critique works very well against the modern Republican base (and implicitly against the movement conservatives exploiting that base).

    Maybe you could conceive the culture wars as two competing authenticities? The 60’s left authenticity that Trilling criticized, and the culture warring New Right authenticity that Tanenhaus criticizes for its “revanchist” tendencies.

    But if you cast the two as equivalents, you run into problems. One form of irrational self expression peaked in 1972 or thereabouts, the other is still very irrational now, and seems a long way from being finished (see the letter to the editor that professor Fine posted).

    But the idea that something changed in the 60’s culturally and is something of a lasting fixture sounds true to me. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the philosopher Charles Taylor’s work where he calls the post-1960’s an “Age of Authenticity” (after Lionell Trilling’s essay)… But I do think you have to be careful with a lot of this material. There are a lot of parties over characterizing the record, treating outrages as the norm, etc. It’s important to avoid taking a lot of this at face value…

  8. Thanks, JJ, especially for the Charles Taylor reference, which I need to check out. I certainly don’t think the culture wars are at an end, though I try and treat my topic historically first and foremost. And I agree this stuff needs to be treated with care. Easier said than done.

    I take issue with Tanenhaus. Check out my review of his book on conservatism here.

  9. AH,

    I’m coming to this party late, but please allow me to contribute a few beverages:

    1. Frank’s thesis is unsatisfying in many ways, but for me the main thing is this: Once you enlighten the supposedly hoodwinked working-class about the monetary losses, they persist in fighting the culture wars. Frank blames this on religion, but the culture wars are about more than religion (e.g. abortion) and income. As JJ said, identity is important. This points to Frank’s small definition of the culture wars (e.g. class and politics).

    2. I’m now of the opinion that histories of the culture wars need to go much longer than the 1970-present “hot period” (here I’m with Ray on the Cold War-submerged-differences thesis). I know this doesn’t help with your book’s chronology, but I believe historians of the culture wars need to understand the forces at work as: cultural modernity (dating from the 1890-1920 period), postmodernity, religion, traditional mores/duties, long-term capitalist trends, and even Ray’s point about the war/peace movements. Post-capitalism matters too, as do the internal theological matters within Western religions, particularly Protestantism and Catholicism (think of the fractures within these sects). When we link to modernity, we can work with literature on alienation and individualism (radical and rights-oriented). In other words, I see the culture wars as post-postmodernity—a reaction to the radical relativity of postmodern thought and an attempt, as you say, to ground oneself and one’s tribe in something deeper. [Aside: Because of these complications, I’m not sure a small or medium-sized book will ever adequately cover the culture wars.]

    3. On the opening lines of your thesis paragraph: “Most scholars understand the culture wars to have been ephemeral.” Conceding the grandiosity and simplicity of proposal language, do you think this statement is true? Does Hunter see the issues at hand as ephemeral? Does Frank? Does Gitlin? Does Dionne? If by ephemeral, you mean bait-and-switch, well, okay maybe. But I think all four of these writers see the culture wars as something serious and of consequence—weighty if you will. Though Rodgers goes to deeper issues, the kind you and I agree are important, that doesn’t mean the prior folks undersold the culture wars importance. The problem, rather, is that they haven’t explained it well enough.

    …Now on to Bill Fine’s comments. Too much good stuff! – TL

  10. Thanks for the comments, Tim.

    Point 1: Actually, Paul Boyer argues (in an essay in the Schulman/Zelizer collection on conservatism in the 70s) that Frank doesn’t pay enough attention to religion. That he ignores conservative politicization amongst evangelicals. In an AHA paper that I read, Molly Worthen contends that the culture wars originated in internal religious debates, such as in the Baptist Church in the 70s–a stretch, but more fuel to the anti-Kansas gist of my thesis.

    Point 2: Whoa! I’m going to have enough trouble fitting the sixties through the present in my allotted 300 pages. It’ll have to be enough to acknowledge and draw out some of the precursors in the introduction. I’m not out to write THE intellectual history of the 20th century (just yet)!

    Point 3: Chalk this up to book proposal grandiosity (though I do think the liberal intelligentsia has discounted the real-ness of the culture wars.


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