U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Yes, the Culture Wars Are Over (or, stuff I say on Facebook)

Recently, Andrew Hartman posted a review by Paul Horwitz of his book, A War for the Soul of America, on Facebook. He noted that, like most reviewers of his book, Horwitz contested the claim of his conclusion that the culture wars are over. Easily, this has been the most common criticism he has received – Jeffery Aaron Snyder even made a bold refutation of Andrew’s argument the headline for his entire review.

Book cover

So I am, it seems, one of the few people who agree with Andrew that the culture wars are effectively over. I do understand how one could be skeptical of this claim; as Jacqui Shine does in her review, there is a long list of news stories and twitter hashtags that would seem to illustrate that the culture wars are alive and well. I’ll simply say here that, as in many things, I prefer to take a look at the longue (or, at least, longer) durée – including the 1980s and 1990s, conservative culture warriors have succeeded in accomplishing surprisingly few (indeed, almost none) of their original goals. As former Moral Majority executive Reverend Ed Dobson pointed out, “What did Ronald Reagan do for us in eight years of office? He gave us credibility, and he ultimately did nothing in terms of our long term agendas.”[1] Moreover, in a war with only metaphorical, rather than physical, battles, there will of course be no clear point of surrender – but if we can only declare the culture wars over when there are no longer any fundamentalist trolls on the internet, we will indeed be waiting quite a while.

What I find more surprising, however, is that some understood Andrew’s conclusion as optimistic. Horwitz, for example, takes Andrew’s quick reflections at the end of his book as expressing an easy assumption that we have learned our lesson about the limitations of identity politics. But to my memory, I sat staring at the last page for a few minutes while my thought process went something like, “My God, he’s right. We’re so screwed. I mean we are fucked.” Because while Andrew does indeed argue that the culture wars are more or less over, he points to neoliberalism as ensuring this settlement. As he writes, “Capitalism, more than the federal government – Mammon more than Leviathan – has rendered traditional family values passé.”[2]

Most reviewers, interestingly, gloss over this point (Horwitz’s review being an important exception to this). In some cases, this results in not merely omission, but misunderstanding. Consider Snyder’s review, for example. Taking on Andrew’s argument about the embrace of diversity, Snyder seems to think he is claiming that “the fracturing” described by Daniel Rodgers is now resolved, summarizing Andrew’s position as stipulating that “[t]he culture fractured but was then reconstituted into a more diverse and inclusive whole.” While it is true that Andrew argues that the notion of diversity has been integrated into the mainstream, his conclusion does not intend to cheerily declare that equality and freedom have been achieved but rather to draw our attention to the fact that some of the accomplishments of the 1960s have arrived, ironically, on the coat tails of what most liberals and certainly all leftists consider to be a far from liberating process.

The instinct to flee from this reflection, I think, plays a substantial role in the aversion to the idea that the culture wars are over. Take, for instance, the sudden and exhilarating triumph of the movement for gay marriage. In the amount of time it took for me to get a doctorate in history, the status of this struggle went from being defeated by California voters to becoming nationally triumphant. It is rare for such progress to be made so swiftly and with so little blood shed (literately at least if not figuratively). Yet any analysis of how this came to be has to reckon with the reality that gay marriage progressed so quickly mostly because advocates pushed for it along the lines of a logic that is completely compatible with capitalism. Indeed, as the libertarian brand of conservatism rose in power and influence, many of its adherents found themselves forced to change position on the question of gay marriage. For if government interference, along the lines of enforcing majority social values, could be legitimized in the case of forbidding gay marriage, it left open a loophole through which God knows what could crawl (taxes, single-payer health care, a country where mass shootings do not occur on a regular basis…). Thus, the lucrative possibilities and lure of American individualism, once again, trumped all other social and political concerns.

I’m not sure how controversial this argument is; it is precisely that it seems more ignored than refuted that makes me suspect it is playing an unannounced role in insisting that the culture wars are, somehow, timeless. There is also, of course, a brand of liberalism that doesn’t know what to do with itself if it doesn’t have the specter of the Religious Right to sit and ogle at – this would be the What’s the Matter With Kansas approach, and of course no political combatant could ever ask for an easier target. But I would wager that it is deeper than this, even; if something so clearly good (gay marriage and, hopefully, a continuing gay rights movement) could come to be partially because of something so clearly bad (neoliberal ideology and its attendant economic inequality) how should we feel about that accomplishment? Even more troubling, what does that say about the chances of future social movements against capitalism having any success? If, as Andrew puts it, “in the sphere of culture, the Left had its share of victories” it obviously failed pitifully at changing economic structures.[3] So have we achieved, in short, something valuable at the expense of greatly damaging our chances for a world even more fundamentally transformed?

I have my own tentative answers to these questions, and I take comfort that history is rich with examples of good things coming out of bad ones, and bad things coming out of good ones. Sometimes you can’t get water from the rock, and sometimes you can – or, alternatively, sometimes you have to just take the rock and hurl it against the Bastille, and even in the chaos that ensues, something approaching a new world might emerge. Moreover, there has always been, and continues to be, those who refuse to endorse a vision of the good society that requires the embrace of arbitrary and unfounded oppression – just as the evils of racism far outweigh the benefits of a united white society, so do the evils of homophobia and sexism far outweigh the benefits of a heterosexual patriarchy. Indeed, activists from within the various movements for liberation, from feminism to the gay rights movement, continue to fight for an intersectional leftist conscience that directly challenges, rather than cooperates with, global capitalism. I retain my hope, then, that there remains a purpose in continuing to fight for an egalitarian politics that locates freedom in social obligations as much as from them.

However, I did not write this post intending to go into my own thoughts on this question, but rather to simply articulate my hunch that an avoidance of this question has played a role in the near-universal rejection of Andrew’s argument that capitalism has killed the culture wars. There is a comfort in old enemies, of course, but also a corresponding despair in the thought that more diversity has not brought more solidarity. As Andrew notes in his conclusion, “without a common culture, it is extremely hard to build the solidarity necessary for social democracy.”[4] This is a problem, however, we cannot afford to ignore – the challenge before us (and by “us,” I obviously mean those of us who identify as leftists and socialists) is what kind of common culture we ought to build and how we can build it. That’s the riddle history has given us; so let’s get to solving it.

[1] God in America documentary series, Episode 6, PBS, 2010.

[2] Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 290.

[3] Hartman, A War for the Soul of America, 6.

[4] Hartman, A War for the Soul of America, 290.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for these excellent reflections, Robin Marie! Like you, I’ve been surprised by the reaction to Andrew’s claim about the end of the Culture Wars, which I think is far more nuanced than reviewers have given him credit for (I mean, he suggests the “logic” of the Culture Wars, not the culture wars themselves, are over, right?).

    Of the AHA panel on the culture wars today (including Andrew, Adam Laats, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, and Stephen Prothero, with Leo Ribuffo commenting), only Andrew seemed willing to offer a definite beginning and end to the culture wars (hence, my use of Culture Wars when mentioning Andrew’s work). Perhaps more will be said on this in the future.

    I am wondering, though, what you (and perhaps Andrew) would say to Robert Self’s main point in All in the Family, as I understand it, that “family values” were essential to the formation of the neoliberal order which Andrew now says have rendered family values obsolete. Seth Dowland’s new book, Family Values (Penn), would have something to say about this as well.

  2. Hi Mark, thanks for this comment! I have to confess that as I have not yet read Self’s book (I know, a terrible oversight, but I’m about two years behind on my “to read” list!) I can’t comment much on this. I am wondering, does Self define “family values” as explicitly and only applying to heterosexual marriage? Because of course, much of the critique from the dissenting queer community has centered on how gay marriage succeeded at the expense of a more radical re-imagining of relationships and families; i.e., the movement might have swapped heterosexual imagery for same-sex partnerships & parents but otherwise appealed and remained loyal to heteronormative ideals and values (which, I think they argue, are in this culture pretty much, more or less, capitalist values). So if Self sees a very strict traditional family values scheme as essential to neoliberalism, then it would seem there is indeed a big disagreement there between those two groups. But, like I said, I haven’t read his book, so you’ll have to fill me in on that! That would be pretty interesting if they disagreed, however, and a reason to push his book up a few notches on my list.

    • I’m not sure if Self himself sees traditional family values as essential to neoliberal advances, but his subjects (the Religious Right) certainly did.

      • Ah, ok – well that certainly makes sense; the Religious Right never has realized that capitalism is actually their number 1 enemy.

  3. I understand why so many reviewers would jump on Professor Hartman’s provocative conclusion. It’s so damn easy! Lazy thinkers simply find some current culture war kerfluffle in the news and voila! thesis debunked. His thesis and argument are too well constructed. Nine months after its publication, I find myself trying to reconcile the findings of Professor Hartman’s first book, Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School. In War for the Soul of America, he argues that the culture wars ignited due to the emancipatory movements of the 1960s’ New Left. One could make the argument based upon his first book the culture war battles over education of the latter 20th century were a continuation of disputes since the days of John Dewey.

    Secondly, I wish that he’d expanded his examination of Gay rights and the backlash. Once again, I feel that the soft underbelly of his thesis isn’t the ending of the culture wars, but the timing of the beginning. Anita Bryant, and her crusade to purge the teaching profession of homosexuals didn’t come in response to Stonewall, but a powerful antecedent occurred during the 1950’s, the years of “normative America.” Karen Graves in a book entitled, And They Were Excellent Teachers: Florida’s Purge of Gay and Lesbian Teachers, documented how the state of Florida through the Johns Committee investigated, intimidated, and ran Gay and Lesbian teachers from the profession from 1956 to 1965.

    I’m in no way denigrating my former teacher’s book. He has performed an important service since his book will frame the historiography of the culture wars for the next quarter century.

  4. I find arguments about the Culture Wars being over, in terms of diversity, to rely on either a shallow definition of diversity or a narrow definition of “Culture Wars.”

    The language of diversity has been co-opted. If we look at “diversity” as engagement and inclusion (i.e. real empathy with the other), then the Culture Wars are ongoing. Based on the current state of U.S. culture and political culture, we are nowhere near an “end” to those battles in the larger war for an inclusive society. It makes more sense to say that a certain stage or episode in a longer Culture Wars is over. The victory of “diversity” has been rhetorical.

    On my last sentence, I think that all democratic societies that are based on argument, conversation, and negotiation, will always have to contend with cultural “battles.” There will be a never-ending war to lift up and convince intransigent, irrational, ideological, and anti-intellectual elements to leave behind their prejudices and fear of the other. Culture wars are often about enlightenment principles and progress, and there is always the risk of backsliding. Culture wars are never-ending in democracies that value full equality.

    Returning to my point about the co-optation of the language of diversity, I’m totally with Andrew that capitalism has enabled that state of affairs. Neoliberal democrats have participated in that co-optation. In the name of profits (i.e. peace and stability that enable profitable commerce), we have created an identity politics that trades in the language of diversity while leaving the substructure of racism intact and inequality worse. – TL

  5. I think your comment Tim, and Brian’s above, point to an important question of definition; what makes a war a “cultural” one rather than a more traditionally defined and understood struggle over power distribution, i.e., politics? I actually think the issue of race here sticks out the most in this regard (in terms of American history and what we call or don’t call “the culture wars”) and so I’m planning on writing a post about that next week!

  6. Thanks, Robin Marie, for this post defending my conclusion as pessimistic! And thanks everyone else for the comments. Rather than respond directly here, I will point you to the forthcoming posts from our recent AHA panel on the following theme: “Are the Culture Wars History: New Comments on an Old Concept.” Authors include me, Adam Laats, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Stephen Prothero, and Leo Ribuffo.

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