The Culture Wars Are History

expanded edition comments from “the culture wars” panel @ chicago public library, edgewater branch, 29 August 2015.
Stuart Carlson, It's the Culture War Stupid!


Also available at the S-USIH blog. Building on my book review of Andrew Hartman’s A War For The Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars for The National Memo.

Andrew Hartman’s A War For The Soul of America marks the first extensive attempt to historicize the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s.[1] While books of sociology, political science, and social criticism (including historians writing as social critics) abound on the topic, written from all sides of the ideological spectrum, Andrew’s is the first to consider the phenomenon through the lens of historical research. His insistence that we think of the culture wars as something from the past—as over—is a dimension of his argument that has irked many reviewers, who have been quite positive about the book otherwise, but it is precisely because Andrew treats the culture wars historically that he is able to contribute to long-running debates both within and, more importantly, about the culture wars. I will explain how in a moment.

First it is worth locating A War For the Soul of America in its own historiographical moment. Andrew’s book joins a slowly emerging historical literature on post-1960s American society. We now have a fairly developed set of studies concerning the 1970s, a good half dozen books on the 1980s, and even a few recently written in a historical mode about the 1990s (we haven’t yet cracked Y2K so far as I know). I think there are three reasons why, in this context, Andrew’s book has deservedly received a lot of attention. First, it is well researched. This is no small matter since it is somewhere between a monograph and a survey that investigates a period not yet well trod by historians. There is wonderful new research as well as many tantalizing details in the book. Second, Andrew’s book is well-written yet quite historiographically sophisticated; it’s a model of academically grounded writing that is neither dumbed down nor, in the opposite direction, too specialized. Finally, Andrew’s book connects the past to the present and has garnered attention precisely for his provocative argument that the culture wars are over, are history.

This is a rather daring argument. If one listens to the rhetoric of the current passel of Republican presidential candidates, cultural issues seem to remain central. It even sounds surprising if one is attuned to the recent upsurge in leftwing activity around race, such as Black Lives Matter. In both cases, economic issues take a backseat, or at least move over to the passenger side of public rhetoric, while questions of culture—of values, of attitudes and sensibilities, of representation and symbolic as well as material factors—return to take over the wheel. It’s not that material factors—economics or state power—are absent, but they are run through the filter of cultural representation, values, and issues of what it means to be American. (In a funny way, economics and culture have merged into a new post-culture wars combination: the rigidity of the anti-statist Republican rhetoric about free market values arrives as much as a cultural platitude, a supposedly timeless and universal truth, as an argument grounded in anything resembling actual economic theory; Black Lives Matter critiques the very real and material and deadly use of state power, especially police brutality, by linking it to persistent problems in the cultural logic of white privilege.)

That these recent voices from contemporary American public life fuse the material and cultural in new ways suggests there might be something to Andrew’s position: Americans may still be at war over fundamental questions of culture, but this is not your father’s (or mother’s) culture war anymore. Save for President Obama’s historic victories, conservatives have by and large dominated politics in the United States since 2000, but this was not because the liberal side lost the culture wars. Traditional values still exist, to be sure, but they have been swept up, by and large, in a national culture that is more permissive and tolerant. There are “residues,” as Andrew puts it, of the older conflicts of the culture wars, but they are faint, dying words on the battlefield. This is not to say there are still not ugly, visceral struggles between right and left in American public life, but the culture wars as an effort to return the country to some pre-modern set of mores and practices, as conservatives hoped, simply did not take. For instance, while racism certainly still exists, as does police brutality and vigilante violence against African-Americans, the acceptability of it, the tolerance of it, in public discourse is far diminished. In the end, the powers that be did have to take down the Confederate flag above the South Carolina statehouse. That’s a big shift even if it is very far from the arrival of full racial equality in America.

At the rhetorical and ideological levels, something has changed too. Conservatives sometimes now seem to occupy the most relativistic, radical, and “postmodern” positions of all, while liberals increasingly ground their arguments in assertions of fundamental rights and timeless truths that a few decades ago were the territory of conservatives attacking the left. For the right, it seems to be hands off my guns, not a timeless right for all to guns; or, hands of my healthcare (except of course when it is one’s own Medicare!). Meanwhile, liberals try to maintain institutions and norms by expanding them for more inclusivity and universality. There’s something so surprising about these switcheroos. Andrew’s book attempts to explain the flip-flopping.

He does so by turning to the legacy of the 1960s. For Andrew, the key point is that the left won the culture wars in the sense that conservatives were unable to roll back the expansion of what it meant to be American that occurred because of the social movements of the 1960s. In the 1980s and 90s, the left staved off defeat, he contends, and preserved the lasting impact of the 1960s social movements, but in doing so it made a devil’s bargain with the forces of corporate capitalism, which ultimately had no problem with the left’s culture wars vision of permissiveness and tolerance and a kind of soft, symbolic, pluralistic multiculturalism. Capitalism, it turns out, will gladly sell Robert Mapplethorpe the rope to…well I won’t finish that metaphor if you know Mapplethorpe’s work, controversial as it was for its supposed obscenity during the culture wars. For Andrew, while struggles between left and right over equality—economic, political, cultural, over what equality is and how it should be realized in the United States—rage on, their particular formation during the culture wars does not. There have been enormous victories for the expansion of liberal rights for gay Americans; the black and Latino middle classes have expanded; and while thoroughly corporatized and driven by capitalist motives for profit, American culture sustains spaces for a wide range of freedoms of expression. Nonetheless, Andrew’s argument, put forward in the final pages of A War For the Soul of America, sounds strange in the context of culture’s continued role in mediating contemporary political battles.

And there is an odder quality to Andrew’s book buried within that strangeness. One could even say that by adopting a historical approach, Andrew unintentionally nostalgizes the 1980s and 90s. The danger here is that his book becomes the historical equivalent of a VH1 I Love the 80s hit parade. This is because compared to the contemporary divisiveness in American society, the wars over culture from the 1980s and 90s don’t seem much like wars at all. In fact, they seem rather quaint. With the recent atrocities against African-Americans by both representatives of the state and violent individuals, mere controversies over whether NWA should be allowed to sing “F*ck the Police” or if 2 Live Crew should be arrested for being nasty as they want to be seem downright civil. The closing of Planned Parenthood clinics and continued undermining of Roe v. Wade in recent years, all occurring while abortion remains, ostensibly, legal, makes the attacks on women’s rights during the 1980s and 90s seem ugly, but contained, compared to current tactics. And after reading Andrew’s book, one might long for debates over the content of public education when now its very existence as a public right and obligation seems fiercely under attack from the right and, sometimes, even members of the left who support privatization.

All that said, would anyone really care much about a bottle of urine with a cross in it in an elite art museum today, as senators and others did passionately when it came to Andreas Serrano’s Piss Christin the late 1980s? Maybe. But probably it would be just another meme on the Internet, fodder for a cheap joke on the various late night talk shows. While the culture wars raged in the 1980s and 90s, today something more brittle and angry prevails in the United States: if it is not outright war, then it is a far coarser kind of struggle bordering on civil war. For instance, white society certainly poked fun at Jesse Jackson in 1984 in offensive ways, but nowhere near the racist vitriol that President Obama has been subjected to in the last eight years. That’s the kind of desperate, shrill response you get when you win, thus, in a way, proving Andrew’s point that the left has scored an overall victory in the culture wars.

If the danger lurking in Andrew’s book is that it causes us to start to pine for ye ol’ culture wars with their trifling disagreements and still somewhat civil discourse, the good thing is that A War For the Soul of America also reminds us that the culture wars were experienced as just that: war. They were tumultuous for those who lived through them and cared about them. What the culture wars were not, Andrew shows most of all, were direct or straightforward. We might even think of them not as a war in the typical sense of the metaphor—a clear conflict between two sides waged out in the open—but rather as a kind of proxy war for deeper political and ideological struggles. They were waged in the cultural realm, across a range of topics, from education to hip-hop, attitudes about the law to abortion, Hollywood to the halls of art museums housing controversial exhibitions, but they were never just about culture itself.

In fact, whether the culture wars actually existed at all was a central disagreement among scholars and observers of American life at the time. The debate hinged on how one chose to understand what the culture wars were—and, by extension what we mean by the terms culture and war. Sociologist James Hunter Davison, whose 1991 book Culture Wars in part gave the phenomenon its name, contended that a struggle was underway at the most foundational levels.[2] In other words, this was not a struggle born of the 1960s, as Andrew argues. It went way deeper than that. What erupted on the surface of American public life in the 1980s were, for Hunter, but the tip of the iceberg, the visible aspect of tectonic forces far below. What he termed “orthodox” traditionalist and “progressive” modernist strains of thinking wended their way out of a long-running intellectual history of the Enlightenment. In the United States, at the tail end of the Cold War, conservatives and liberals, your Republicans and Democrats, emerged as the two warring political perspectives, but they were really manifestations of deeper cultural forces. And whereas other factors had previously shaped American society—religious differences, sectional rivalries, class conflict—now it was a long lurking cultural divide that finally emerged fully to structure central battles over American life.

For Hunter, orthodox traditionalists believed that attitudes and actions should be rooted in transcendent, stable, universal values and rules while progressive modernists pictured society as relative, accommodating a wide range of positions, practices, sensibilities, and ways of living. Traditionalists felt utterly rocked by modernity and hence sought out solid ground and sturdy firmament. Progressives, by contrast, were perfectly fine with different strokes for different folks. Here we ostensibly have the two undercurrents out of which you get red states and blue ones, the so-called heartland of flyover country and the latte-drinking cosmopolitan coasts. Below them, for Hunter, cultural attitudes were the structuring elements. Regardless of various combinations of opinion that individuals might adopt across the ideological spectrum in the moment, all had to contend with, and were often swept up in, the logics of these two opposing ways of picturing moral foundations. Drawing upon the cultural structuralism of Emile Durkheim, Hunter’s point was that culture shaped the ground—was the ground—upon which people developed their beliefs and constructed arguments about what is right or wrong. In other words, the ideas influenced us as much as we did the ideas. Culture created the conditions within which we live. We can navigate culture’s arrangements of belief and action, but they also take on a life of their own, configuring the world around us and even our very internal compasses as well.

Culture rules! So Hunter argued in neo-Durkheimian fashion. Others vehemently disagreed in the aftermath of the publication of his book. Against Hunter’s position that we had to look deeper into culture as a structure to grasp the stakes of the conflicts over culture in the 1980s and 90s, social scientists more oriented toward quantifiable opinion polling and conscious thought rather than subterranean cultural forces chose to stay on the surface of social life. Steven Brint, Paul DiMaggio, John Evans, Bethany Bryson, and many more, but most especially political scientist and sociologist Alan Wolfe, responded forcefully to Hunter. Their position was, essentially, what’s the hubbub, dude?Elites may be at war, with cantankerous conservatives such as Allan Bloom, Lynne Chaney, Bill Bennett, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and David Horowitz battling it out against radical activists and their liberal intellectual allies, such as Judith Butler, Camille Paglia, Lawrence Levine, Gary Nash, and Derrick Bell, but among the masses, there was no war when it came to culture. Culture didn’t rule; people did. And most Americans, they contended, were “tolerant traditionalists,” as political philosopher William Galston put it.[3] Which is to say, most subscribed to cultural attitudes that were, as journalist E. J. Dionne, Jr. put it, “a rich and not necessarily contradictory mix of liberal instincts and conservative values.”[4] Out there in the populace, there simply no culture wars even if they raged in more elevated and powerful quarters of society. To claim as such, a few even whispered, distorted the truth in dangerous ways, sparking political conflagrations over meaningless cultural issues when most Americans had ample common ground upon which to sustain a successful democratic public life in the nation.

To see a culture war or not to see one, that has been the question among scholars. Into these debates about the culture wars, debates that date back to the time period itself, steps Hartman. By taking a historical perspective, he proposes an important synthesis of the two seemingly antithetical positions raised by Hunter and his critics. Andrew’s historical lens on the topic, grounded in primary archival research and informed by the sensitivity of an intellectual historian to the role of ideas in cultural politics, shows us the interplay between the surface of life and its deeper levels. In A War For the Soul of America, which is chock full of details but also shifts often to reveal their larger stakes, Andrew places us at a kind of middle perspective. This is what history excels at providing as a method and narrative form. We glimpse the lived experiences of the past, but also catch their connections to larger stakes. We shift between establishing shots and close ups. And we can follow Andrew as he cuts or pans between the two.

Precisely because he writes in a historical mode on the culture wars, Andrew is able to show with great subtlety how the binaries of left and right, progressive and orthodox, liberal and conservative, radical and reactionary, that supposedly dominated the 80s/90s culture wars were themselves far more complex. Per Hunter, Andrew demonstrates the influence of culture as a structuring force. Ideas matter. They ordered and organized conflict both socially and politically in the United States during the 1980s and 90s. But per Wolfe and other of Hunter’s critics, when conflicts played out, the culture wars turned out to be far less Manichean than Hunter claimed. Andrew’s story is rife with ironic twists and turns: so-called conservatives and liberals crossed the lines of their ostensibly binary struggle repeatedly. Whether in the debates over education policy and something like home schooling or in the ambivalent intersections between libertarianism and evangelical fundamentalism on the right or the complex liberal-conservative views on race and poverty of someone such as sociologist William Julius Wilson, we see that culture had a power, a structuring dimension, but it was often as much to muck things up as clarify them into precise categories of opposition. The free market wing of the Republican Party and the evangelical traditionalists had many differences, but they both found a common hero in the ambiguous cultural figure of Ronald Reagan. Even topics such as pornography or homosexuality or sex education, in which the underlying cultural and moral values between opposing sides were more cut and dried, still garnered their share of contradictory elements. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who started out as a conservative Reagan appointee, eventually endorsed quite liberal notions of sexual education in response to the AIDS crisis. Feminist anti-pornography activists such as Andrea Dworkin found common cause with evangelical “family values” conservatives in Indianapolis. It’s not that there were no culture wars, as Hunter’s critics argued by trying to survey the general populace, it’s more a question of what kind of wars these struggles over culture were.

The best way to understand this is to note that when it came to cultural issues in the 1980s and 90s, war was not always the straightforward competition between two sides that we might imagine. Particular elements of culture did not necessarily clang up against each other at clear walls and boundaries. Within them, they often contained multitudes. Tracking closely the strange journeys of both ideas about culture themselves and the political and ideological alliances formed by people expressing those ideas, Andrew’s book suggests not only that politics make for strange bedfellows, but so too does culture (especially, as I wrote in a review of his book, when the politics and culture involve issues such as who should get to be bedfellows with whom). Hunter’s critics argued that culture is almost meaningless as a structuring force. Imagining it as such, giving it that kind of power, discounted the free will of individuals to decide for themselves what they believed. Hartman’s historical account, while complicating Hunter’s binary simplification, demonstrates that culture still mattered, even if its power during the culture wars was often to create ambiguity as much as sort out the world clearly into two opposing camps.

A War For the Soul of America reminds us that a contrast between culture as a structure or a superstructure, as the solid ground upon which we stand or the invisible air we freely breathe, is ultimately a false one. Culture is a medium and as such it has its effects, but it is not static. It bends, absorbs, shifts, changes, adjusts. It flows through the granular and specific, soaking these instances of people thinking and acting with larger values, attitudes, sensibilities, and energies. In turn, it shifts direction, quality, even substance, as it encounters particular people and their settings within larger social worlds. In the case of the culture wars, what made them important was not that they were a total war involving all Americans; rather, it’s that they created spaces of controversy that asked, sometimes even forced, Americans to consider where their most deeply held beliefs met up with a broader public life. Speaking the line that gives Andrew the title for his book, presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan was, in his way, right (much as I, or Andrew, would care to admit): there was a war for the soul of America going on in the 1980s and 90s. It was a war for the soul of America and the souls of individual Americans. That’s what made it a cultural conflict. The culture wars were cultural because culture is how the personal meets the political (and the presence of that idea, “the personal is political,” from the 1960s, resurfacing in the 1980s and 90s validates Andrew’s insistence on the influence of that era).

The question remains though: if these were wars over culture, what kind of wars were they, exactly? Particularly in the historical rearview mirror, the culture wars look less like the binary Cold War struggle many argued it was at the time. In the history that Andrew relays, culture just as often balanced competing worldviews in one and the same object or position or expression or action as it did something like distinguish between opposite perspectives. Andrew’s book reminds us that wars waged over ideas, values, beliefs, behavior, practices—over culture—don’t necessarily look like two sides on a battlefield running at each other with flags (one side waving the stars and stripes, the other side burning it I suppose). They don’t stand in neat regiments firing military cannons (or I guess, since we’re talking the culture wars, canons). There are also, just as with actual military conflicts, guerrilla wars, multisided wars, wars of occupation, proxy wars, and wars driven as much by John le Carré-like grey areas of espionage as outright confrontation.

To be sure, at times the culture wars were an outright civil war between two sides, a binary struggle between two opposing moral positions of what society and the world should be like, but Andrew has shown that, from a historical perspective, the culture wars were just as often messy battles in which there were many intersecting sides with all kinds of contradictory positions, competing tensions, shifting alliances, and uncertain underlying values. In fact, as the Carré reference I just made suggests, maybe the culture wars were in fact rather like the Cold War itself. That struggle was ostensibly structured by a fundamental moral and philosophical conflict between two clear sides, capitalism and communism, but in practice, it was often far less binary. It was full of gray zones, distorted mirror images, parallel fuzzy logics. Maybe the culture wars were that way too.

It’s the gift of Andrew’s book that it allows us to see both the oppositional structures and the far more variegated and complex realities of the culture wars during the 1980s and 90s. Perhaps in this same spirit, we might also see how the culture wars he chronicles are indeed over and yet, because these terms of culture and war have so much to them conceptually, the culture wars also continue to shape the present. They are in the past and yet, as the past is want to do, they carry on, mutating into new forms. No history, no peace!


[1] Andrew Hartman, A War For the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[2] James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle To Control The Family, Art, Education, Law, And Politics In America (New York: Basic Books, 1991). Hunter’s sequel, Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War (New York: The Free Press, 1994) is an even more remarkable examination of these issues.

[3] Quoted in E. J. Dionne, Jr. and Michael Cromartie, “Introduction,” Is There a Culture War? A Dialogue on Values and American Public Life, eds. James Davison Hunter and Alan Wolfe (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution Press, 2006), 4.

[4] E. J. Dionne, Jr., Why Americans Hate Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), quoted in Dionne, Jr. and Cromartie, “Introduction,” Is There a Culture War?, 4.

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