Can The Culture Wars Be Ended?

The right wing has been waging a culture war against the modern world for decades. Some date the culture war as beginning in the 1990’s with Pat Buchanan announcing the existence of the war at the 1992 Republican National Convention and with the Republicans taking control of Congress. I would consider the culture war as starting with the Nixon administration, where Buchanan also worked, but this is a conflict which as been waged at various levels throughout history.

Social conservatives share two traits: opposition to the modern world and a belief in using the power of the state to impose their views upon others. Therefore we have seen phenomenon such as the culture war whenever the culture has changed, such as in the Roaring 20’s as well as in the 60’s and today.

Ed Kilgore has a pair of posts speculating on whether the culture war can come to an end (here and here) with the discussion spreading to several other blogs. Two possible end points for the culture wars were discussed in some blogs: 1) left and right coming to an agreement over the issues and 2) social conservatism becoming such a rare viewpoint that the have essentially lost the war from the perspective of being able to influence public policy.

The term culture war has as many problems as the term war on terror. Neither is a true war and neither is likely to have a clear end point. The current culture war might seem to end at some point but whenever their is change in society there will be social conservatives who will once again wage war against modernity and who will try to impose the values of the past upon everyone else.

Besides societal change, the other factor which determines the prevalence of the culture war is the relative importance of other issues. When conditions are good, conservatives can get out the vote by raising hot button social issues. People were less likely to vote based upon such issues in 2008 as the economy was deteriorating. People wondering whether they will keep their job are less likely to worry about whether two men or two women can get married. If Obama can end the culture war it won’t necessarily be because he can reach out to the right and get everyone to agree, but possibly because people become more concerned with other issues when voting.

The culture war can  seem to end when the zeitgeist has shifted to the point where certain conservative views are no longer held by anyone beyond the extremes. While some views dominate the culture wars at present, other views are only argued by the extreme right and will no longer motivate a meaningful number of voters. For example, while feminism was once considered a major component of the culture wars, conservatives are far less likely to achieve electoral success by fighting for lower pay for women or other discriminatory measures.While there might be disagreement over specifics, and not all problems are yet solved, the basic ideas of feminism are no longer seen as controversial.

People do not necessarily need to abandon their personal views. What is necessary for the culture war to end is for enough people to abandon the idea that they can use the power of the state to impose their personal and religious views upon others. As

Unlike some liberals, I think people who feel differently deserve a certain amount of respect. But they don’t deserve to have a veto over other people’s rights. If that makes the religious right angry, well, that’s what happens in a liberal democracy.

While the culture war has encompassed additional issues in the past, the current discussion has been centered around three main issues: separation of church and state, gay and lesbian rights, and abortion.

While the goal of the Founding Fathers to form a secular government has been a major part of our national heritage, supported in numerous court decisions along with being clear in the writings of the Founding Fathers,  the religious right has been promoting a revisionist history which denies this. This is one aspect of the culture wars where Obama has the greatest chance at brokering a peace. As Obama pointed out in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, historically it was often religious leaders who were the strongest defenders of separation of church and state, realizing that this was the best way to ensure that they could practice their religious beliefs free of government intervention.

The acceptance of gay rights appears to be largely a matter of time as younger voters are far more tolerant. It still might take several years, but one day the idea of preventing gay marriage will seem as absurd as many racial ideas of the 1950’s seem today.

The most difficult issue is abortion. Damon Linker has an unexpected recommendation for liberals to end the culture war suggesting “supporting the reversal or significant narrowing of Roe.” The argument is based upon the belief that the primary objection by the religious right is not to abortion itself but to having the issue settled by a ruling of the Supreme Court as opposed to by the legislatures. He believes that if not for Row abortion would cease to be a major issue dividing the country.

I believe the opposite would happen. Without Roe v. Wade abortion would be on the table in a tremendous number of races both for state and national office. We’d have a constant battle as each side would seek to have a majority for their side to change the law, and abortion could become an issue in a tremendous number of races. At present a candidate’s views on abortion are not necessarily a deciding factor since Roe v. Wade prevents legislatures from denying the fundamental right of a woman to control her own body.

Linker makes a mistake in believing conservative rhetoric as to how they justify their positions. Conservatives work backwards from their ultimate goal and then latch upon concepts such as Federalism or opposition to what they see as judicial overreach only when it supports their viewpoint.

Conservatives support states’ rights only when it serves their ends. If state government can be used to impose their views upon others while the federal government backs a more tolerant policy, conservatives will defend states’ rights. If we had a federal government which was trying to restrict freedoms while state governments objected, conservatives would side with the federal government.

Conservatives sided with southern states to prevent integration. On the other hand, when the federal government raids those using medicinal marijuana in states where it is legal conservatives will argue that federal law trumps state law. Conservatives had no problem when the Supreme Court ignored Florida law and ignored basic principles of federalism as well as democracy in making George Bush president. Eliminate Roe v. Wade and the conservatives will lose one talking point, but will push just as hard to impose their views upon others.

If we are to end the culture wars, it will happen because too few people care about the issues of the social conservatives to vote based upon them. This might occur due to shifts in opinion over time, or it could occur because bigger issues dominate the elections. This will not necessarily mean a total end to the culture war as there will always be those who oppose the modern world and those who believe they have the right to impose their social views upon others.

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  1. 1
    Friar_Zero says:

    It seems to me this sort of absolutist cultural conservatism had a 100% failure rate.  Now obviously there are cultural conservatives who just believe that change should come slowly as opposed to rapidly but there are those who believe change shouldn’t come at all and that’s what I am referring to.  Change is inevitable and those who refuse to accept that fact are, as you said, eventually marginalized as the next generation grows up with these changes as a normal part of the world.

  2. 2
    DB says:

    Social conservatives are going to find themselves being taking a minor role in the GOP if they continue to lose elections. Their exclusion mentality is pushing everyone who isn’t white and Christian out of the party and it is starting to take its toll. Their stances on social issues will inevitably lose, as history has shown time and time again. Can Obama end the “war”? I don’t know if wars like this have endings. There will always be a battle to fight. Yesterday it was racial issues and prohibition, today it is gay rights and abortion, who knows what tomorrow will hold, but we know that it will come. New issues, same fight.

  3. 3
    JohnLogic1 says:

    Me view? What we call the culture wars, are just the battles.  The idea of perpetual war wasn’t Rumsfeld/Cheney idea, it goes back at least to the battle between good and evil. Abortion? Gay rights? Flag pins/patriotism?  Something these battles all have in commmon is a mass followers and a  ‘preacher figure’, a self proclaimed man of more righteousness than thou.  Frethinking people get caught up in the battles and try to argue each one on merit.  Forest and trees.  The war is the war against con men.

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