In 1991, with America gripped by a struggle between an increasingly liberal secular society that pushed for change and a conservative opposition that rooted its worldview in divine scripture, James Davison Hunter wrote a book and titled it with a phrase for what he saw playing out in America’s fights over abortion, gay rights, religion in public schools and the like: “Culture Wars.”
Hunter, a 30-something sociologist at the University of Virginia, didn’t invent the term, but his book vaulted it into the public conversation, and within a few years it was being used as shorthand for cultural flashpoints with political ramifications. He hoped that by calling attention to the dynamic, he’d help America “come to terms with the unfolding conflict” and, perhaps, defuse some of the tensions he saw bubbling.
Volstead Act and the Scopes trial, evangelical Protestants became a cognitive minority—a minority within intellectual realms—but remained a social and behavioral majority—they basically owned middle America. What we have seen since is a continuation of those structural changes. The Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment culture got carried by universities [and] other important cultural institutions, and these cultural institutions are dominated by supermajorities of progressives.
Conservatives see this as an existential threat. That’s an important phrase: They see it as an existential threat to their way of life, to the things that they hold sacred. So while the earlier culture war really was about secularization, and positions were tied to theologies and justified on the basis of theologies, that’s no longer the case. You rarely see people on the right rooting their positions within a biblical theology or ecclesiastical tradition. [Nowadays,] it is a position that is mainly rooted in fear of extinction.
Are the dividing lines of the “culture war” different now than they were, say, 30 years ago?
I would argue that what abortion was to [culture wars in] the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and maybe even beyond, when it was really the critical issue, I think that’s now being replaced by race. The earlier culture wars were a cultural conflict that took place primarily within the white middle class. It’s not that minorities didn’t have positions [on those issues] or weren’t divided themselves, but race was never a very prominent part of that conflict. And I think it has reemerged in part because just as the earlier manifestations of the culture war were ultimately a struggle to define the meaning of America, this is also. Latent within these struggles is a conflict over the meaning of America.
2008 was a really important year, insofar as the Great Recession accentuated an important distinction within the white middle class. It drove a wedge between the middle and lower-middle or working class and the highly trained, professionally educated managers, technocrats and intellectuals—basically, between the top 20 percent and the bottom 80 percent. And that meant [there] were now class differences that were overlaid upon some of these cultural differences. And in surveys that we’ve done here at the Institute [for Advanced Cultural Studies at University of Virginia], we’ve tracked that. In 2016, the single most important factor in determining a Trump vote was not having a college degree.
So now, instead of just culture wars, there’s now a kind of class-culture conflict. With a sense of being on the losing side of our global economy and its dynamics, I think that the resentments have just deepened. That became obvious, more and more, over the four years of Trump, and part of Trump’s own genius was understanding the resentments of coming out on the losing side of global capitalism.
And I think this is reflected, too, in the ways in which progressives speak about the downtrodden: Most of the time, it is in terms of race and ethnicity, immigration and the like; it is not about the poor, per se. I think that’s a pretty significant shift in the left’s self-understanding.
What do you think is behind that shift?
Well, if you became an advocate for the working class, you’d be an advocate for a lot of Trump voters. Again, I think there’s a class-culture divide: a class element that overlays the cultural divide. And they [white non-college-educated voters] voted en masse for Trump. And I think that’s an element of it. They’re also the carriers of what [some on the left] perceive to be racist and misogynist, sexist understandings and ways of life. That’s my guess.
Straightforward, materialist social science would say that people are voting their economic interests all the time. But they don’t. The seeming contradiction of people voting against their economic interests only highlights that point: That, in many respects, our self-understanding as individuals, as communities and as a nation trumps all of those things.
Along those lines, there can be a tendency, especially on the political left, to talk about “culture war” issues as being “distractions” that are raised in order to divide people who might otherwise find common cause around, say, shared economic interests. What do you make of that view?
We are constituted as human beings by the stories we tell about ourselves. The very nature of meaning and purpose in life are constituted by our individual and collective self-understandings. How that is a “distraction” is beyond me.
You know, people will fight to the death for an idea, for an ideal. I was criticized in the early ’90s for using the word “war” [in the term “culture war”]. But I was trained in phenomenology, in which you are taught to pay attention to the words that people themselves use. And in interviews I did [with those on the front lines of “culture war” fights], people would say, “you know, it feels like a war”—even on the left.
I talk about this sense of a struggle for one’s very existence, for a way of life; this is exactly the language that is also used on the left, but in a much more therapeutic way. When you hear people say that, for instance, conservatives’ very existence on this college campus is “a threat to my existence” as a trans person or gay person, the stakes — for them — seem ultimate.
The question is: What is it that animates our passions? I don’t know how one can imagine individual and collective identity—and the things that make life meaningful and purposeful—as somehow peripheral or as “distractions.”
There’s a passage you wrote 30 years ago that seems relevant to this point: “We subtly slip into thinking of the controversies debated as political rather than cultural in nature. On political matters, one can compromise; on matters of ultimate moral truth, one cannot. This is why the full range of issues today seems interminable.”
I kind of like that sentence. [Laughs] I would put it this way: Culture, by its very nature, is hegemonic. It seeks to colonize; it seeks to envelop in its totality. The root of the word “culture” is Latin: “cultus.” It’s about what is sacred to us. And what is sacred to us tends to be universalizing. The very nature of the sacred is that it is special; it can’t be broached.
Culture, in one respect, is about that which is pure and that which is polluted; it is about the boundaries that are often transgressed, and what we do about that. And part of the culture war—one way to see the culture war—is that each has an idea of what is transgressive, of what is a violation of the sacred, and the fears and resentments that go along with that.
Every culture has its view of sin. It’s an old-fashioned word, but it [refers to that which] is, ultimately, profane and cannot be permitted, must not be allowed. Understanding those things that underwrite politics helps us understand why this persists the way it does, why it inflames the passions that we see.
It feels like the universe of things that might be considered part of the “culture war” has grown considerably over the past 30 years, such that it seems to now envelop most of politics. In that situation, how does democracy work? Because when the stakes are existential, it would seem like compromise is impossible. Can you have a stable democracy without compromise?
No, I don’t think you can. Part of our problem is that we have politicized everything. And yet politics becomes a proxy for cultural positions that simply won’t brook any kind of dissent or argument.
You hear this all the time. The very idea of treating your opponents with civility is a betrayal. How can you be civil to people who threaten your very existence? It highlights the point that culture is hegemonic: You can compromise with politics and policy, but if politics and policy are a proxy for culture, there’s just no way.
In the original book, I had a short chapter about the technologies of communication and discourse, and the ways they’ve accentuated polarization. I argued that because of these technologies, our public culture is more polarized than we, as a people, are. And the technology I was talking about is just going to sound really funny nowadays: It was direct mail. This was , before social media.
So, take the role of some of the extraordinary advances in social media and the ways in which these multiply the anonymity, the extremism of rhetoric, the absence of any kind of accountability in our public speech. They take what is already a shallow discourse—you know, the trading of slogans, and the like—and make it even more difficult to find any kind of depth.
How do you compromise when that becomes the dominant form of discourse? I think that there are ways in which serious and substantive democratic discourse is made difficult, if not impossible, by the democratization and proliferation of free speech. That seems like a strange thing to say, but …
On that front, I think one of the difficulties is that there is sometimes a very clear calculation made on the part of people involved in politics that conflict leads to attention, and media attention leads to political power. That feels like a cycle difficult to break out of.
Democracy, in my view, is an agreement that we will not kill each other over our differences, but instead we’ll talk through those differences. And part of what’s troubling is that I’m beginning to see signs of the justification for violence on both sides. Obviously, on January 6, we not only saw an act of violence—I mean, talk about a transgression—but one that the people who were involved were capable of justifying. That’s an extraordinary thing.
If I could draw a parallel, it’s not unlike the Civil War. There was a culture war for 30 years prior to the Civil War. The Civil War was—without question—about slavery and the status of Black men and women, and, yes, the good guys won [the Civil War]—at the cost of 4 out of 10 Southern males dying and 1 out of 10 Northern males dying. But think about what happened: Dred Scott was an attempt to impose a consensus by law; it took the Civil War and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to overturn Dred Scott. And yet that was also an imposition of solidarity by law and by force. The failures of Reconstruction and the emergence of Jim Crow and “Black Codes” and all of that was proof that politics couldn’t solve culture; it couldn’t solve the cultural tensions, and so what you end up with is a struggle for civil rights.
My view is that the reason why we’re continuing to see this press toward racial reckoning is because it’s never been addressed culturally.
In other words, racial justice failed by succeeding. The international slave trade ended in 1808. And it created this sense of complacency: “Oh, we’ve dealt with that.” Yet the slave trade and number of slaves grew astronomically over the next 50 years. Then the Civil War was fought and won: “Oh, we’ve dealt with that. Now we can move on.” It created complacency. I think that’s what happened after the civil rights movement and [the Rev. Martin Luther] King’s martyrdom: It was a tremendous success at one level, but created complacency, especially among whites—“We’ve dealt with that. We don’t need to deal with this anymore”—when, in fact, ongoing discrimination is still happening. It represents, again, the attempt to generate a kind of cultural consensus through political means. And that doesn’t seem to work.
What would it look like to actually reckon with that issue, culturally?
Well, I’m going to sound really old-fashioned here, but I think that this work takes a long time and it’s hard. I think you talk through the conflicts. Don’t ignore them; don’t pretend that they don’t exist. And whatever you do, don’t just simply impose your view on anyone else. You have to talk them through. It’s the long, hard work of education.
The whole point of civil society, at a sociological level, is to provide mediating institutions to stand between the individual and the state, or the individual and the economy. They’re at their best when they are doing just that: They are mediating, they are educating. I know that argument is part of the “old” liberal consensus view, the “old” rules of public discourse. But the alternatives are violence. And I think we are getting to that point.
The book that I followed “Culture Wars” with was called “Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War.” And the argument I made was that culture wars always precede shooting wars. They don’t necessarily lead to a shooting war, but you never have a shooting war without a culture war prior to it, because culture provides the justifications for violence. And I think that’s where we are. The climatological indications are pretty worrisome.
Given that, do you feel optimistic about the outlook for things in the United States in this era of constant “culture war,” with so much of it being fed by the Internet?
Look: Not to hope—to give in to despair—is never an option, in my opinion. That’s an ethical position I think one has to take. But I also don’t think that you tell a patient that they have a bad cold when, in fact, they have a life-threatening disease.
In this tangle between very powerful institutions and very powerful cultural logics, there are serious problems that are deeply rooted. The great democratic revolutions of Western Europe and North America were rooted in the intellectual and cultural revolution of Enlightenment; the Enlightenment underwrote those political transformations. If America’s hybrid Enlightenment underwrote the birth of liberal democracy in the United States, what underwrites it now?
What is going to underwrite liberal democracy in the 21st century? To me, it’s not obvious. That’s the big puzzle I’m working through right now. But it bears on this issue of culture wars, because if there’s nothing that we share in common—if there is no hybrid enlightenment that we share—then what are the sources we can draw upon to come together and find any kind of solidarity?
It’s as though there are no unifying national myths. And those that once occupied that place in American life are now subject to debate and the culture war.
That’s exactly right. And the myths that do seem to exist are mainly technocratic and dystopian. So … I think we’re in trouble. But I’m not sure you should end with that.
Well, I’ll end with this, then: Is there something unique about America that makes it especially prone to culture war, or is this kind of par for the course?
Part of what has made it especially acute in the United States is the proliferation of nonprofit special-interest groups. You don’t find that in Europe; you don’t find it in England or Germany. Those are more statist regimes, and have much greater control over the nonprofit space. [Whereas, in the U.S.] you have the proliferation of special-interest groups that take sides. And a lot of our charitable money—which is a massive amount compared to other countries—gets channeled through these charitable organizations that exist with a take-no-prisoners policy; that define the enemy, that define a devil, that define transgressions in certain ways.
They’re all in battle. And it’s, again, part of what you described earlier: It’s just more expansive. The range of the culture war seems to be all-encompassing.
I have this old-fashioned view that what we’re supposed to do is to understand before we take action, and that wisdom depends upon understanding. That basically makes me a conservative today—but it also makes me a progressive by conservative standards.