Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Four Theses on the Culture Wars

Mark Graber

1.  Culture wars do not end.  Culture wars in the United States broke out during the 1630s when Anne Hutchinson organized religious meetings and Roger Williams insisted on a complete separation of church and state.  They have not ended and will not end.  Sometimes the terrain shifts.  We no longer burn women accused of witchcraft, but we debate whether referring to women as witches is gender harassment.  Political and legal victories that settle some issues open up others.  Successes in the campaign for same-sex marriage intensified controversies over whether state anti-discrimination laws should cover bakers, photographers and others who refuse to offer their wedding services to same-sex couples.

2.  Progressives have the momentum in contemporary culture wars.  The terrain on which the culture wars are fought has been shifting in favor of progressives for more than a half century.  A regime in which historically disadvantaged persons complain of repeated microaggressions is better than a world in which historically disadvantaged persons complain of being enslaved, sent to concentration camps, deprived of all political rights and imprisoned for loving the wrong persons.  A regime in which citizens debate if and where government may display the Ten Commandments/Statements is better than a regime in which citizens debate whether persons who reject the first five commandments/statements ought to be murdered or merely deprived of most political rights. Progressives have achieved this better regime in part, one hopes, because their causes have been just and human beings have some capacity for justice, and in part, one recognizes, because most economic, social, and education elites in the United States are committed to some version of secularism and share liberal (not radical) conceptions of race, gender, religion, and sexuality.  Elites tend to win in democratic politics.  The culture wars are no exception to this rule.

3.  The culture wars have been a progressive political disaster and are likely to be for the foreseeable future.  The culture wars have diminished the Democratic Party's capacity to pursue economic justice. Progressive positions on the culture wars and economic justice are consistent if not complementary in theory, but the culture wars in practice have had the effect of decentering previous progressive commitments to improving the lot of less fortunate citizens.  Progressive legal theorists who during the 1960s explained why the Constitution guarantees poor persons basic necessities have been replaced by progressive legal theorists who explain why the Constitution entitles all persons to use the bathroom of their choice.  Progressives carefully scrutinize judicial nominees for their views on abortion, but rarely examine their positions on labor unions.  The end result is that the Democratic Party of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is a poorer vehicle for pursuing economic justice than the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.  Republicans have taken advantage of these changes in Democratic Party priorities. The party of Reagan/Trump often does little more than slow down progressive gains in the culture wars, but that is enough to attract crucial swing voters who no longer believe that Democrats have much to offer communities ravaged by globalization and new service economy.  Republicans may be a half step behind the general public on the culture wars, but too often Democrats are perceived as being two steps ahead. Compare the successes from 2000-2016 of the candidates who celebrated their commitment to same-sex marriage and the candidates who celebrated their opposition to same-sex marriage.

4. Who is winning the culture wars depends on the measure for success.  If the measure of success is policy change, progressives are sitting pretty with Trump more likely to stall further progress somewhat than reverse the clock to 1972 (the year before Roe v. Wade) or 1953 (the year before Brown).  If one focuses on trends in national elections, the result is a progressive slaughter.  The Clintonite strategy of appealing to secular moderates has enfeebled the Democratic Party as a vehicle for economic justice and moved crucial swing voters rightward to the party that shares their cultural values.

This is not a cry for progressives to call a truce in the culture wars as much as a call for progressives to recognize how the culture wars, while reshaping the United States for the better, have also reshaped progressivism and American electoral politics for the worse.  The challenge for progressives in the immediate future is to find ways to continue fighting for basic human dignity while moving the bread-and-butter issues that once mobilized Democratic Party voters back to the center of reform movements.

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