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Thursday, October 27, 2016

WASHINGTON — The old culture-war politics is dying but new culture wars are gathering force. The transformation of the battlefield will change our public life.

The idea of a “culture war” was popularized by Pat Buchanan in his joyfully incendiary 1992 Republican National Convention speech, but it was introduced into the public argument a year earlier by James Davison Hunter, a thoughtful University of Virginia sociologist.

In his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, Hunter described a raging battle between the orthodox, committed to “an external, definable and transcendent authority,” and progressives, who could be “defined by the spirit of the modern age, a spirit of rationalism and subjectivism.”

It was a fight, in other words, between those whose deepest commitments were to God and the sacred, and those who believed that human beings evolved their own value systems through a process of steady enlightenment. The first group feared we were moving away from commitments that made us decent and human. The second welcomed more open attitudes on questions ranging from sexuality to racial equality to women’s rights.

This culture war created the religious right and also a backlash among more secular Americans — who happen to be one of the fastest growing groups in the country. Their skirmishes focused especially on the legality of abortion, society’s view of homosexuality and, more generally, the public role of religion.

That this culture war is receding is most obvious in our rapidly changing responses to gays and lesbians. The turnaround in public opinion on gay marriage is breathtaking. According to the Pew Research Center, only 27 percent of Americans favored gay marriage in 1996; by 2014, that proportion had doubled, to 54 percent.

Not for nothing did President Obama declare in his State of the Union address last week: “I’ve seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country.”

Abortion is a different matter because public opinion on the question has been quite stable. Over recent decades, Americans have generally supported abortion rights by margins of between 5-4 and 3-2. And many hold somewhat ambivalent views, resisting black-and-white certainty. Rachel Laser, a close student of the issue, has called these middle-grounders the “Abortion Grays.”

But the politics of abortion have become more complicated for its opponents. This was evidenced by the decision of House Republicans to pull a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks because the exception for rape victims — it required them to report the crime to the police — was seen as far too onerous. A group of House Republican women forced the bill off the floor.

Notice, however, that House Republicans were able to pass without much difficulty a remarkably restrictive bill that would overturn Obama’s executive actions on immigration. It was aimed not only at his measures to keep families together but also at a highly popular provision for the “DREAMers” brought to the United States as children.

This is the new culture war. It is about national identity rather than religion and “transcendent authority.” It focuses on which groups the United States will formally admit to residence and citizenship. It asks the same question as the old culture war: “Who are we?” But the earlier query was primarily about how we define ourselves morally. The new question is about how we define ourselves ethnically, racially and linguistically. It is, in truth, one of the oldest questions in our history, going back to our earliest immigration battles of the 1840s and 1850s.

The other issue gaining resonance is often cast as economic, but it is really about values and virtues: Why is the hard work of the many, those who labor primarily for wages and salaries, rewarded with increasingly less generosity than the activities of those who make money from investments and capital?

Politically, this could be explosive. What is at heart a moral battle could rip apart old coalitions, since many working-class and middle-class social conservatives are angry about our shifting structures of reward. If issues such as abortion and gay rights split the New Deal coalition, this emerging issue could divide the conservative coalition. The rise of Pope Francis could hasten the scrambling of the moral debate, since he links his opposition to abortion with powerful calls for economic justice and compassion toward immigrants.

Politicians, like generals, often fight the old wars. (So, by the way, do columnists.) Recognizing how the theater of combat is changing is the first step toward mastering it.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Speaker Boehner via Flickr

  • Dominick Vila

    Divinity, and the expectation of the Second Coming of the Lord, remain alive and well, but our “culture wars” have, indeed, shifted to other issues, far more perverse than those that prevailed 30 years ago.
    While the concept of welfare Queen and the government is the problem, not the solution, remain engraved in the gray mass of many Americans, especially the elderly, and abortion remains the same defining issue it has been for decades, the centerpiece of the 2016 strategy are inequality and illegal immigration.
    One side is pushing for a more inclusive society and equal opportunities for all, the other is focused, almost entirely, on the issue of illegal immigration, with shades of over racism.
    I doubt either side will achieve their goals, at least not entirely and, certainly, not within the next two years, but while progress in the pursuit of a more inclusive society, where all citizens share the bounty of economic wealth unmatched by the rest of the world, there is no doubt in my mind that a segment of our population is going to feel the effects of the ire of those who see their world changing forever, and the culture they held dear evaporate in front of their very eyes.

    • hicusdicus

      What exactly are you saying? Equal wealth no matter what your work ethic and unlimited immigration. Endless welfare and entitlements. I share no enthusiasm for either party agenda. I am not even sure what they are except to stay in power and keep voting themselves pay raises.

      • Dominick Vila

        The last thing I want is equal wealth for everyone. If nothing else, because that would become the new standard and would solve absolutely nothing. What many Democrats like me advocate is equal opportunity for all, a system that does not cater to the wealthiest members of our society, and equal justice for all. There are always going to be rich, poor and, hopefully, a middle class. The key is to ensure the middle class grows rather than shrink as has been the case since the 1980s. In my opinion, the demise of the middle class is influenced by issues that are well beyond the ability of the government to change or prevent, without resorting to tyrannical rule such as the one KennDeb insinuates in his efforts to demonize the man he hates. The problems afflicting our middle class began when the manufacturing jobs that made our middle class the envy of the world began to be outsourced to increase profits and take advantage of emerging economies overseas. The emergence of automation, robotics, and inadequate education to satisfy the skill requirement to aspire for the best paying jobs our economy has to offer did the rest.
        I don’t expect this administration, or any future administration, to solve this problem overnight. It is going to be a slow process that will depend, largely, on our ability to reinvent ourselves. That, however, does not mean the government cannot play a role in helping us achieve the conditions that would make most Americans benefit from a resurgent economy. The economic fundamentals for sustainable economic growth, and job creation are there, what remains to be done is to make sure everyone has the same opportunities to benefit from what is, ostensibly, the most affluent society on planet Earth.

        • highpckts

          You have a way with words Dominick and said it much better than me. Kudos but I think that much of it goes over the average Republican’s head!

      • johninPCFL

        Added to their internal agenda of granting their own pay raises is to set up tax rules for corporations that guarantee they will never have to issue pay raises.

      • highpckts

        Geezus did you not read what he said or is your comprehension level dropping? No one is advocating equal wealth for everyone! Just an equal chance! There will ALWAYS be the poor among us no matter what we do. endless welfare and “entitlements”, which the GOP calls SS, are not going away, but there is the hope that these welfare people will get a chance to get off assistance. None of us begrudge the wealthy their wealth due to hard work but when they cannot help support this nation because enough is never enough, then that has to be fixed.

  • Eleanore Whitaker

    The GOP tyrants won’t ever return those of us living in the most progressive states back. It’s just not going to happen. One reason is the demographics of foreign cultural diversity in the northeast.

    Once you see how insular the south and midwest really are, you see why they act like incestuous slow witted cultures. These are people who hate the idea that they can’t keep industries existing on tax revenues other more progressive states have to provide.

    So, they hang on for dear life to Big Oil, coal mining, gun running and all manner of fossil fuel energy.

    Their politicians have them believing that ANY changes to these centuries old industries might be the end of their days on earth. This is how ridiculous these people are.

    Yet, it’s the most progressive northeastern states who’ve had to cope with Terrorists and threats of terrorists far more often. It’s these states that require state-of-the-art rail and public bus transit. No one in Kalamazoo has to worry about getting from one state to another to get to their jobs. This is what people in NJ, CT, MA and PA go through EVERY day.

    So, why are these southern and midwestern states eating up so much of our taxes? Because in their pathetic minds, they are always living the Great Depression. That keeps every progressive state held hostage.

    Their attitudes toward religion and attempts to force others to their midwestern and southern Baptist religion is not going to happen.

    They like to pretend ONLY they are the fount of all US government. Oh really? Explain then why the Liberty Bell is in PA and not Oklahoma or why the Gettysburg Address wasn’t delivered from Macon GA. Or why the Revolutionary War wasn’t fought in Dallas? Oh yes…those were not states in those days…They would have been if these “states” weren’t so backward.

  • charleo1

    The Culture Wars I would guess, have been with us in some form or the other since mankind’s appearance on the Planet. And their greatest battles always coincide at times of great strife, and political upheaval. War, lean economies, conquest, plagues, chaos, and the opportunities provided by the uncertainty these events often bring to the forefront. The Black Plague shook the foundations of a staid Catholic Empire, that rejected humanism, and science. And was the catalyst for catapulting Europe from it’s fear filled, Dark Ages, into it’s age of Enlightenment, and Rationality. Who’s roots laid the groundwork for the philosophy that was to forge the World’s first truly secularist democracy in America. So case closed. Man was at last progressing from throwing virgins into volcanos, and burning suspected Witches at the stake? No, not be a long shot. We can observe today, the specter of an entire people being attempted to be held hostage, and dragged back into the ignorance, fear, and, religious zealotry, resembling Europe’s worst days of darkness. By would be Caliphate Conquistadors, now marauding throughout the Mid-East. At it’s essence, a Culture War for the heart of the Muslim World. And we hear here, in in our own Country. At a time of tremendous economic insecurity. Candidate Barack Obama lamented about America’s rural Conservatives. And how they, “clung to their God, and their guns.” Clearly laying out a political fault line between those who believe the answers can be found in the collective efforts of men, and government. And those who believe that a Higher Power will deliver us by faith, if we, The mighty Christian Army, but place our trust in, “Him.” And fight a Culture War, as candidate Newt Gingrich aptly laid out the case for the Right. “The most dangerous threat America faces today, is the rising tide of Social Secularism.” The idea on the Left, that America can remain America. And flourish as a Country of immigrants. Embracing multi-curturealism, in all it’s facets of inclusiveness, expanded opportunities, education, and assimilation. Is an anathema to the majority of the Conservative base. In their view, their own deteriorating economic situation, is the result of an irreversibly shrinking pie. Things are going to get worse. And what’s more, they are sure of it. And thus, they are only fighting for what is in their minds, their rightful share. Many seemingly unsure if the Tribulation come before the Second Coming, or after. But, however that comes about, allowing foreigners, even Christian ones, even the children of these Christian foreigners, a slice of the pie, must come with the most evil intent imaginable.

  • johninPCFL

    You’ll know the GOP is serious about immigration reform when they raise the issue of Cuba’s special status – the “wet foot dry foot” immigration policy. After all, Mexican and Canadian immigrants have been using the “dry foot” part of the policy that guarantees Cubans permanent residency as soon as they touch land.

    • Dominick Vila

      An example of “dry foot” policy involve the legislation signed by George W. Bush in 2006 offering Cuban medical professionals willing to leave Venezuela and come to the USA, good jobs, permanent residency, and a path to citizenship.
      Well, to their credit he, his Dad, and Reagan did the same for immigrants from Mexico and Central America. What is truly fascinating is the fact that Republican “discovered” this issue when illegal immigration is at its lowest level in decades and deportations are at record highs. In the absence of a record, or a vision, they got to do what they got to do to remain viable.

      • highpckts

        The shame is, most people don’t pay attention enough to politics to know those facts! They are governed by the most recent dust ups and then move on. It’s a shiny thing syndrome! Most people’s attentions span is very short indeed!

    • FireBaron

      Ironically, federal, state and local authorities can stop them before they reach the “High Tide” mark, bring them to detention centers and deport them. Many of these individuals come here with fewer skills than the average Mexican migrant farm worker, but we welcome them because they are escaping from the dreaded Castro brothers.

      • johninPCFL

        Exactly how are the Castro brothers different than the leaders of China, Tibet, Vietnam, Venezuela, North Korea or Russia (our other global trading partners who have normal relations with us?) Why do Cubans get to cut to the front of the line?
        Oh, yeah. They mostly vote GOP.

  • EaglesGlen

    Excellent article. However you have again forgotten that same-sex marriage is not supported by the United Nations, not supported by the United States and 47 of the 50 states in the 1948 United Nations “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. If same-sex marriage etc. is not changed at the United Nations level isn’t the United States in defiance of their own declarations?

    • Dominick Vila

      I am not sure the issue of same sex marriage is part of the United Nations charter, or within their authority to impose on any member nation. A more realistic comparison would be to compare where we are on this issue, to what exists in Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and other industrialized nations.

  • Lynda Groom

    The ‘culture wars’ are over and the the culture warriors have lost. The fact that they are going to recycle them yet again just proves they missed the memo. The country is moving on with or without these folks. The demographics of this ever changing country does no favor the continuation of this crusade. It will take a few more pollitical cycles, but in the end this period will come up short and folks will wonder what all the crying was about.

  • FireBaron

    Whenever I read about the culture wars, I cannot help but think that there was no “War on Christmas” until Bill O’Reilly declared there was. Given that he had no evidence to support this was not surprising, considering his journalistic history. But, it was also Faux news that claimed that Democrats said Republicans had declared “War on Women”. Try to find a reference to this by any Democratic source before the declamation by Faux and you will be hard pressed.

    • johninPCFL

      Bill “Oraly” has no journalistic history. When he is asked about his journalism credentials, he consistently claims he’s an entertainer, not a journalist.
      Also, by talking over and past his “guests”, he demonstrates that he’s not there to “get the story”. He’s there to make sure the story fits his pre-conceived idea of how the story SHOULD go. Facts are irrelevant.

  • Whatmeworry

    75% of Americans are opposed to any abortion over 20 weeks but the left relishes in their murder

    • Daniel Max Ketter

      No, a womans got a right to choose to abort a fetus, just like I have a right to abort a boil off my fat keyster.

    • Sand_Cat

      And you’re in a class all of your own.

      • Whatmeworry

        True, its no shame to be educated, going around dumb as you do in life is hardly an achievement

        • Whatmeworry

          True, its no shame to be uneducated, going around dumb as I do in life is hardly an achievement

          • Daniel Max Ketter


          • highpckts


        • Daniel Max Ketter

          My Union Steward status was my badge of education.

      • Whatmeworry

        True, its no shame to be educated, going around dumb as I do in life is hardly an achievement

  • Whatmeworry

    75% of Americans aren’t opposed to any abortion over 20 weeks but the right claims it their murder

    • Daniel Max Ketter

      Yeah the right fascists just wants to tell people what to do instead of mining their own busineess.

  • Sterling Harris

    People speak sometimes about the “bestial” cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to beasts, no animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.”