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Reevaluating the Culture Wars


A War for the Soul of America:
A History of the Culture Wars

by Andrew Hartman
University of Chicago Press, 2015, 384 pages, $30

In America, “culture war” is a term of surprisingly recent origin. It dates from the early 1990s, and the conflict it signified was declared over almost as soon as it was named. “In his convention speech, Pat Buchanan referred to the ‘culture wars,’” Irving Kristol wrote in 1992, “I regret to inform him that those wars are over, and the Left has won.” Despite occasional conservative successes, the Left “completely dominates the educational establishment, the entertainment industry, the universities, [and] the media.” Reminiscing about his notorious Republican convention speech twenty-five years later, Buchanan admitted Kristol had been right.

Even so, the conflict over sex, gender, curricula, and religious expression dragged on into the 2000s, lending a certain coherence to American politics. James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars (Basic Books, 1991)—a blend of sociological analysis and frontline reportage that popularized the term—noted that sectarian hostilities between Catholics, Protestants, and Jews had been replaced by orthodox and progressive cleavages cutting across the major religions. For more than a decade, Hunter’s analysis served as a reliable guide to the cultural terrain.

This decade, however, social critics have largely caught up with Kristol. The legalization of same-sex marriage, especially, struck what seemed a note of finality. New York Times reporter Jonathan Martin wrote that historians could remember 2015 as the year “when deeply divisive and consuming questions of race [and] sexuality . . . were settled in quick succession, and social tolerance was cemented as a cornerstone of American public life.” Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America (2015) was published two months before Obergefell v. Hodges, but it partakes of the same spirit. As a historian of the culture wars, Hartman offers not just an account but an epitaph. “This book gives the culture wars a history,” he writes, “because they are history. The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course.”

Today, however, these premature judgments have been reversed, and Hartman’s book unwittingly helps explain why. Alongside his argument that the culture wars have ended, his major claim is that the rise of identity politics since the 1960s is an essential part of the story, equal in significance to the rift between orthodoxy and progressivism. These arguments cut against each other. Religious conflict has subsided dramatically, but identity politics remains potent, throwing off more cultural sparks than it did a decade ago. As the country becomes more diverse, less religious, and more aware of the economic valences of group identity, cultural conflict has increased, with expectations of more strife on the way.

That presents a deeper challenge to the culture war’s supposed victors than at first may appear. It is trouble enough that history has disobeyed the Left yet again. Worse still, the fault may not lay with history at all, and not simply with a resurgent Right, but to a large extent with the Left and the party politics of the Democrats. The disagreements dominating the Left today over what counts as good and true cultural change, and who gets to decide, undermine the whole idea of a coherent, uniform shift in American culture. With the goalposts in flux, liberals and progressives have become deeply unsure of how to assess the strength of their cultural politics.

Who Started the Culture Wars?

Who caused the culture wars in the first place? A firm consensus on the question—if it ever existed—has been lacking for over a decade. Hartman, for instance, set out to debunk the answer put forth by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan Books, 2004). In one sense, Frank—who doubled down on putting economic politics above cultural ones in Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books, 2016)—has been stuck arguing from the margins. On his telling in Kansas, culture clashes are “forgettable skirmishes.” Republican operators stir them up to benefit material interests running counter to those of their so-called base. Supply-side tax cuts, deindustrialization, de-unionization—these are the terrible achievements of our time, and the Left, drawn into the trap of cultural politics, has surrendered its power to stop them. Frank believed even Republican voters would themselves resist, absent the “hallucinatory appeal” of wedge issues like guns and abortion. He took for granted that working-class Americans were “getting their fundamental interests wrong.” Frank reintroduced the Left to the idea of false consciousness, this time as Midwest populism, not continental philosophy.

George W. Bush’s victory over John Kerry seemed to confirm Frank’s thesis. The specter of same-sex marriage drew so many evangelicals to the polls, Americans were told, that it tipped battlegrounds states like Ohio into Bush’s column. It was what many on the left—and the right—wanted to hear. “Almost everybody I encounter in politics is familiar with Frank’s bestseller,” wrote the columnist Robert Novak. Soon candidate Barack Obama, the authoritative voice of his party, was recorded at a San Francisco fundraiser giving a now-infamous variation on the Frank thesis. “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them,” he said. “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them . . . as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Political scientists were less impressed than the future president. A year after Kansas, Larry Bartels argued that white voters in the bottom third of the income distribution “have actually become more reliably Democratic in presidential elections over the past half-century.” In fact, what pundits and historians condescendingly refer to as “symbolic” cultural issues become increasingly important to voters the more money they have. Andrew Gelman showed that Kansans had consistently voted 10 percent more Republican than the national average for a very long time, making Frank’s false-consciousness theory what the experts call “overdetermined”—unnecessary to explain the phenomenon. Even if economic issues were important, cultural ones were too, and not simply because they were “roundabout” expressions of class-based anger.

Hartman’s critique of Frank is different—qualitative, not quantitative. He takes a long view of the culture wars, seeing them as repercussions of “the sixties,” that mythologized time of troubles which came late in that decade and stretched into the next. Contra Frank, events like the 1965 Moynihan Report, the fight over the ERA, and even Dan Quayle’s attack on Murphy Brown are not exactly “forgettable.” Beyond that, however, they draw our attention to something more than the sum of their parts: a deep and protracted public argument about how much of our traditional culture ought to be retained and honored.

Hartman describes that culture, or really a version of it, as “normative America,” meaning “an inchoate group of assumptions and aspirations shared by millions of Americans during the postwar years.” These were bourgeois values like hard work and personal responsibility, social mobility and delayed gratification, sexual restraint and defined gender roles. But they also included “racist, sexist, homophobic, and conservative religious norms.” The key for Hartman is that social “normativity” did not give way on its own. While, in Frank’s telling, the characters with agency are the Right’s market-driven profit-seekers, who subvert mainstream values because it’s good business, Hartman subscribes to Corey Robin’s theory of “the reactionary mind,” which defines conservatism as “a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” Conservatives cannot be prime movers, or leading agents of change; they can only be counterrevolutionaries, responding to stimuli. The culture wars, therefore, are not attributable to the Right but to the Left. Intriguingly, this means Hartman at least partly agrees with the populist conservative interpretation of the past fifty years that Frank derides. But where Frank is concerned with restoring economic liberalism to its pride of place on the left, Hartman locates political agency with the cultural radicals—what he calls the “New Left.”

From Culture War to Culture Wars

But is the New Left a discernable entity? Or is it an idea that attributes agency to a thing that doesn’t exist? The early historians of the New Left tended to restrict the term (in an American context) to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), several kindred groups and journals, and maybe some prototypical intellectuals like C. Wright Mills and Paul Goodman. Hartman follows a historiographical trend that broadens the scope of the New Left beyond white college students like SDS spokesman Tom Hayden. His usage may be the broadest of all: the New Left becomes an amorphous zeitgeist packing in the sexual revolution, all of the “sixties liberation movements,” and most of the varieties of identity politics to emerge in the second half of the twentieth century. In fairness, the temptation is strong to throw all these cultural changes under a single heading, and an argument could be made in Hartman’s defense. I am partial, however, to the New Left historians who reject this baggy-pants approach. “Some sympathetic scholars are reluctant to acknowledge the limits of the New Left’s political success,” writes Douglas Rossinow in The Politics of Authenticity (Columbia University Press, 1998). They give it “as much credit as possible by conflating the categories of ‘New Left,’ ‘the movement,’ and ‘the sixties.’” Postwar feminism, for example, sprang up among mainstream liberals, and its less important radical strain was more of a backlash against the male-dominated New Left than an allied movement.

The New Left’s politics shook out into two varieties, one of procedure and one of solidarity. On the procedural front, its members believed that bureaucratic organizations had grown so large that they outstripped the reach of democratic accountability. The New Left followed the sociologist C. Wright Mills, who argued in The Power Elite (Oxford University Press, 1956) that the federal government, the military establishment, and many giant corporations formed an “intricate set of overlapping cliques,” which were defined not so much by conspiratorial partnership but by an unprecedented convergence of interests between them. Academics, of course, often found themselves lumped right in. The New Left’s solution to corporate power was “participatory democracy,” where voluntary associations would connect the public as directly as possible with those who made decisions. It was an attempt to kill what SDS president Carl Oglesby called “the colossus of history, our American corporate system,” with a thousand paper cuts in the form of endless local meetings.

This was itself a culture war (against “corporate liberalism” rather than conservative mores), but it was so unsuccessful that Hartman mostly ignores it. He is more interested in the New Left’s solidarity with marginalized groups, and in the identity-based movements that replaced the New Left and managed to gain footholds in the universities. The story of that transformation has been told many times, often in tones of threnodic despair. “What was . . . distinctive about the [SDS’s] Port Huron Statement (1962), what excited student activists around the country,” Todd Gitlin wrote, “was its rhetoric of total transfiguration. In a revival of the Enlightenment language of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, SDS spoke self-consciously . . . about the entire human condition.” This appeal to commonality, to universal humanism, did not survive the end of the decade. The participatory ethos, with its emphasis on decentralization, interacted with the politics of racial solidarity in unforeseen ways. Expectations, moreover, rose faster than conditions could change. The result, as Gitlin explained in The Twilight of Common Dreams (Metropolitan Books, 1995), was a bleakly centrifugal politics:

If society as a whole seemed unbudgeable, perhaps it was time for specialized subsocieties to rise and flourish. For this reason . . . the universalist impulse fractured again and again. In the late 1960s, the principle of separate organization on behalf of distinct interests raged through “the movement” with amazing speed. On the model of black demands came those of [radical] feminists, Chicanos, American Indians, gays, lesbians. One grouping after another insisted on the recognition of difference and the protection of their separate and distinct spheres.

Gitlin saw this as a tragedy. A New Left based on “universalist hope” dismembered itself into a post–New Left politics of “separatist rage.” The retreat to the university, meanwhile, was a retreat from relevance. The culture wars amounted to the Right occupying the heights of power as a miscellany of interest groups identified with the Left marched on the English department. Twenty years ago, this was a conventional view. While the Democrats were busy making concessions to the Republicans, the Left had become sullen, arcane, and merely observant. It had become Henry Adams with tenure and a ponytail. “Leftists in the academy have permitted cultural politics to supplant real politics,” the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in the mid-nineties. “They are spending energy which should be directed at proposing new laws on discussing topics . . . remote from the country’s needs.”

Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America rejects this distinction between self-indulgent cultural politics and “real” politics. Its goal is to recast the culture wars so that they seem important in their own right. It is not that Hartman has revelations to make about Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or, say, the 1986 assault on Stanford’s “Western Civ” curriculum. His point is that these episodes now look less like distractions from one grand struggle and more like harbingers of another. They appear more significant now that the host of every awards show makes nervous jokes about the whiteness of the nominees, the CEO of a major corporation is forced to resign for having a view of marriage that was nearly universal twenty-five years ago, and even a liberal lion like Stephen Colbert is attacked within days of his first show because of the racial makeup of his writing staff. Hartman is right that elements of the New Left goaded us in this direction. So did mainstream liberalism. But A War for the Soul of America does not sufficiently explain the relationship between the two. In his chapters on feminist politics, race relations, and higher education, Hartman brings on liberals in supporting roles, though it is sometimes hard to integrate them with an opening schema emphasizing the “immeasurably influential” New Left. (We get one page on the McGovern campaign and brief assertions that the New Left “reshaped . . . to some extent, the Democratic Party.”) When Hartman declares that “the sixties gave birth to a new America,” he is ascribing the maternity above all to the New Left. However, it is possible to flip the emphasis. As Louis Menand wrote in 1988,

The ’60s was not a crisis of liberalism. It was in a sense the epitome of life in the liberal society. . . . For procedural victories the ’60s is nearly unrivaled in our history. It produced the series of Supreme Court cases, beginning with Mapp v. Ohio (1961), that applied federal due process requirements to the states via the 14th Amendment; the criminal rights cases—Escobedo v. Illinois (1963), Gideon v. Wainright (1963), Miranda v. Arizona (1966); the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with the sweeping anti-discrimination provisions of Title IX; the [Economic] Opportunity Act of 1964, with the mandate for “maximum feasible participation” in its Community Action Programs; Reynolds v. Sims (1964)—one man, one vote; the Voting Rights Act of 1966; the free speech cases Times v. Sullivan (1964) and Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969); the privacy cases Griswold v. Connecticutt (1965) and Roe v. Wade (1973); the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

“These acts and decisions,” Menand continued, “for better or worse, and more decisively than anything associated with the New Left or the counterculture, define the society we live in today.” Almost thirty years later, this remains a compelling argument. The New Left was not responsible for the enduring conflict over abortion, to take one especially striking example. In large part, the culture wars were the public’s sulky adjustment to a concentrated burst of liberal reforms.

Gravitational Forces

With the role of mainstream liberalism de-emphasized, Hartman’s history has three major players. If the New Left was the cultural Big Bang, then the Christian Right and secular neoconservatives were the gravitational forces checking its expansion. Hartman labors to be fair, but his politics are apparent even in the selection of material. While he happily recounts the fundamentalist opposition to evolutionary biology, he neglects to inform his readers that there was also a culture war against Darwinian explanations of human behavior. The storm of controversy provoked by E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology led to an August 1977 cover story in Time. Several months later, a group of protesters seized the stage as Wilson was about to give a lecture and dumped a pitcher of ice water on his head. As he noted in 1994, “The ice-water episode may be the only occasion in recent American history on which a scientist was physically attacked, however mildly, simply for the expression of an idea.”

Hartman is nevertheless right to distinguish conservative Christians and neoconservatives, and since the Christian backlash has received the most attention, he deserves credit for giving “the neocons”—Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, James Q. Wilson, and the rest—the prominence they deserve. These men were influential well beyond their numbers. (“To complain that the dominant intellectual voice in public life today is neoconservative is to register a perfectly legitimate gripe,” said the New Republic in 1987.)

Neoconservatism became notorious for its hawkish foreign policy, but it began as a strain of thought among journalists and social scientists who were preoccupied with domestic issues. It began, in fact, as an upgraded form of mid-century American liberalism. In the first half of the twentieth century many American conservatives, especially those of a pious bent, took a long view of cultural decay, regarding a spiritual corruption like nineteenth-century Darwinism as continuous with a secular corruption like the New Deal state. Hartman rightly notes that the neoconservatives, in contrast, believed our decline “resulted from much more recent phenomena.” In the mid-1960s, most of them were satisfied with the course of liberal civilization—up to and including its New Deal reforms. It needed defending from Communists and extending to African Americans. Then three related domestic developments shook their faith in liberalism and turned them into heretics: first, the authority of academia was overthrown on campus; second, the authority of morals was overthrown in family and sexual life; third, the authority of the law was overthrown in our major cities, where neoconservatives were “mugged by reality” in the most literal sense.

Unfortunately, Hartman doesn’t explain why the liberal neocon reaction against New Left radicalism was so influential and enduring. If A War for the Soul of America has a refrain, it’s that the sixties were “liberating to some, frightening to others,” a phrase that Hartman repeats several times. It encapsulates his view that the sixties were a mind freak—an exogenous shock to the traditionalist psyche. He neglects that “progressive” post-sixties developments caused large groups of people to regress in ways both material and psychological.

Take the issue of crime. Hartman’s treatment of the post-1965 crime wave is his book’s greatest failure. An uninformed reader would be left with no indication of the underlying sociological trends which fueled the culture wars. In one characteristic line, Hartman writes that crime was an issue “that aligned the neoconservative imagination with white working-class sensibilities.” The language here—imagination, sensibility—relegates crime to the realm of symbolism. In fact, violent crime soared 367 percent in the twenty years after 1960, and neoconservatives seized control of the discourse because they treated the problem with the seriousness it deserved. “It was the condition of the Upper West Side of Manhattan under liberal rule,” Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker, “far more than what had happened to Eastern Europe under socialism, that made neocon polemics look persuasive.” Chicago made international headlines in 2012 after reaching the dubious milestone of 500 homicides. In 1974, the figure was almost double that—970. The following year, in the midst of the deepest economic slump since the Great Depression, city residents told Gallup pollsters that their biggest problem was crime, naming it more often than unemployment or the high cost of living.

The cultural consequences were manifold, but Hartman is not interested in exploring them. It is telling that the rise and fall of violent crime almost perfectly mirrors his chronology of the rise and fall of the culture wars. Crime was a pervasive menace for a wide class of city-dwellers in the thirty years after 1960 (to an extent that it is not for as wide of a class today). Fear of crime profoundly influenced elections and bled into many areas of culture—particularly into cinema, where futuristic visions routinely and mistakenly projected the crime spike as continuing, exponentially, into the twenty-first century. One of the best books on mass incarceration after 1980, William Stuntz’s The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (Belknap, 2011), blames “an excess” of leniency for the partisan bidding war that led to putting millions in prison. You cannot shirk the basic task of government (protecting citizens from violence) without courting an ugly popular backlash. The damage to liberal credibility festered for decades afterward.

Hartman’s coverage of the sexual revolution is better but still seriously inadequate. The pages on Phyllis Schlafly’s campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment are some of the most vivid and sophisticated in the book. But again, a clear explanation of the trends culture warriors were responding to is lacking. The book does not stress nearly enough the remarkable paradox of the sexual revolution—the reality that, as Bill Wasik has written, “of all the mass utopian notions of the twentieth century, the sexual revolution was both the most spectacularly successful and, in the end, the most thwarted.” Hartman is more apt to write with the sweeping finality of a Mr. Sammler. The traditional family, he says, suffered its “dissolution” in the 1970s, when family values became “passé.” The fruits of the sexual revolution were much more ambiguous. New Left propaganda notwithstanding, as Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have noted, “the very women who have benefited most from their newfound freedoms, the well-off and the well educated,” are also the most likely to accept “a conservative understanding of what marriage is and ought to be—a lifelong commitment that predates childbearing and exists in large part for the benefit of children.” White women with college degrees have a nonmarital birth ratio that is not very different from the overall figures of the Eisenhower era. The sexual revolution had “ramifications” in a very precise sense: it led to different consequences for different socioeconomic cohorts. Hartman seems vaguely aware of this, but he cannot bring himself to analyze it. He writes at one point that class increasingly determines access to abortion “and a whole lot more.” Those last five words shy away from an essential truth about why culture-war arguments keep coming back.

The neoconservatives, by contrast, were alert to these developments from the beginning. The neocon urtext is the 1965 Moynihan Report, a Johnson administration paper warning that increasing rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing among African Americans would vitiate the promise of the civil rights revolution. Hartman gives a fair description of the controversy surrounding this report, although he chides Moynihan for being “cagey” about the relative importance of cultural and economic factors in driving up illegitimacy. Hartman’s own inclination is to blame the negative consequences of the sexual revolution on economic changes such as deindustrialization. It is a curious bias for someone trying to reclaim the significance of the culture wars. (One wonders how Hartman would explain the sturdiness of the American family during the Great Depression.) But as sociologist Andrew Cherlin has written, “Neither cultural change nor economic change would have been sufficient by itself to produce a group of non-college-educated young adults who now have a majority of their children outside of marriage.” The truth is that social science has not progressed beyond the need for Moynihan’s “caginess,” which is to say his muddled causation. And that goes double for our cultural historians.

The Soul of American Liberalism

The coda to A War for the Soul of America takes a curious step back to Thomas Frank, arguing that capitalism, more than the state, has brought about cultural revolution. As Hartman writes, “Capitalism sopped up sixties liberation and in the process helped dig the grave of normative America.” He could have put a finer point on the historical irony. The thesis that the New Left kicked off a culture war which is now decisively over ought to leave liberals decidedly unsettled if, as is the case, a left-wing guerrilla campaign against “corporate liberalism” ended with corporations as the most powerful of liberal culture warriors. The point shines through in Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s illuminating Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (HarperBusiness, 2004). Hartman notes it only sardonically, at book’s end.

One could write an updated version of Frank’s own The Conquest of Cool (University of Chicago, 1997), in which corporations engage in progressive (rather than transgressive) culture-warring, to distract from widespread discontent with rising inequality and dwindling opportunities. In the absence of Hartman’s Normative America, there is money to be made in Woke Consumerism. As Tara Isabella Burton has noted, the public has to find some outlet for an “affirmation of values,” and capitalism increasingly fills the void through “inclusive” yet quasi-tribal branding and consumption.

Whether or not corporations have effectively ended the culture wars, Hartman is surely correct that we need a new terminology to speak adequately of the post-Obergefell era. Descriptive categories often mutate into historical periodizations: literary “modernism” ended in the 1930s, “alternative rock” is synonymous with the mainstream music of the 1990s. “Culture war” is falling victim to the same fate. It evokes the paisley ties, loose-fitting suits, double-bridge eyeglasses, and bleary C-SPAN videos of the Clinton years. It reflects a time when social conservatism was not a token sound bite at a prayer breakfast but a formidable power on the national stage, one in which Democrats like Tipper Gore often played as outsized a role as Quayle Republicans. As Peter Beinart wrote in an Atlantic essay, the decline of organized religion has not stopped Americans from viewing politics in terms of “us” and “them.” It has led Americans to define us and them “in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.” As cultural conservatives become more secular, “they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation.” Identity politics on the left, meanwhile, is stronger than a decade ago. Today, the goal is statistically equivalent outcomes for every race, gender, and social group. Recognition of the massive emotional force behind this and similar objectives was missing from the spate of election postmortems which counseled the Democratic Party to move beyond “identity liberalism.” Critics such as Mark Lilla ignored the central grievance of the ideology they were attacking, preferring to treat identity politics as a near-disorder cured by better pedagogy and a recommitment to citizenship.

Both of those things would help, but it is hard to see how Lilla can win the argument. When “identity” actors lack concrete options to achieve equity, they tend to shift to the broader and more abstract realm of culture, taking comfort in symbolic victories. “The age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end,” Lilla declared in the New York Times. The only way that would happen is if our elites decided to roll back the politics of race, sex, and gender, and our corporations decided to stop using identity as a marketing strategy. For better and for worse, the soul of American liberalism remains at once too optimistic and too eschatological for that to happen anytime soon.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume I, Number 4 (Winter 2017): 87–99.

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