Cultural War or Boomer Politics?

David Sessions wonders if “cultural wars” is simply a slipping sideways by liberals, afraid of conflict.

I think most of us loosely think of culture warring as a special class of ressentiment, combat driven by a mentality of besiegement, symbolic struggle, and supposed existential threat to a cultural identity. But I’m not so sure we can make a clean separation between that and good old democratic disagreement. Democracy as we generally conceive it is a structure for managing and containing conflict, a framework for legitimate political struggle. There will always be factions, sides, particular interests, etc, and those imply we will have political friends and enemies. Deep down, I think describing serious political conflict as a “culture war” is part of the liberal allergy to vigorous debate


As received language or rhetoric, “cultural war” has a more specific, defined meaning. It’s not just simply politics, but the organized, political organization of (initially) conservative Protestant constituencies by para-political bodies. It begins with Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 80s, continues through Focus on the Family, and the more current iterations. We also know that this organization was not organic, rising from below, from the outrage of the people (the basic <i>ressentiment</i> you noted), but this was a planned mobilization by activists on the Right.

The hallmark of this mobilization was the shaping of a set of moral and cultural issues as a central motivator for voter behavior.  It quickly moved beyond the banks of the fundamentalists and the original nativist wing in the Republican right, to sweep up conservative Catholics and other traditionalists. Although its religious roots were plain, its breadth and scope ask for more — thus we now speak of “social conservatives” instead of the religious right.

And in practice, there was something stronger at work than the usual political horsetrading. In making moral issues a voting matter, the advocates created a more Manichean frame, one that easily leads to demonization of opponents and a kind of scorched earth partisan politics. And like other wars, there has been collateral damage, not least being the pushing away of young people. Not surprisingly, the introduction of such moral certitude has also produced a counterforce, now seen in a sort of vehement secular stance on the left, and to a lesser extent in the rise of gay politics.

So given the specificity of its origins, its backers, the distinct cluster of issues and its hard edged agenda-driven approach to politics, thinking of cultural wars as “good old democratic disagreement” seems limited. Tucked in Evans’ essay and noted elsewhere, this political phenomenon we term “cultural wars” is perhaps best understood generationally (as J A K Smith has noted elsewhere), the product of Boomers and our (I’m one) milennialism.


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