Andrew Hartman (Illinois State University) responds to Russell Johnson’s (University of Chicago) essay, “The Struggle Is Real: Understanding the American ‘Culture War,’ ” which is featured in the July issue of the Forum. Three recent books all claim the culture war is over, though they come to different conclusions about why. Their different points, this essay argues, illustrate not why the culture war is over, but rather why it is so endlessly fascinating. In response to these books, this essay clarifies what exactly the culture war is, and how to understand in what sense it is still a part of American life. The culture war brings together a diverse array of political, religious, and cultural ideas into a neat dichotomy that has managed to persist through decades of social change.
Over the next few weeks, scholars will offer responses to Johnson’s essay. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.
Culture Wars and Other Subterranean Historical Forces
by Andrew Hartman
Russell Johnson’s essay on the culture wars is smart, and I am honored that he included an interpretation of my book in it. Johnson is particularly astute in arguing against those scholars who rely on demographics and polling data to contend that Americans are more diverse in their beliefs than the culture wars narrative suggests. Perhaps it is true that the worldviews of many Americans cannot be reduced to one of two labels—“progressive” or “orthodox” in James Davison Hunter’s lexicon, “social justice” or “traditional values” in Johnson’s. But our winner-take-call electoral system, in which only two political parties can succeed, indeed translates into culture wars polarization.
There might not be anything inherently logical about an alliance between an anti-abortion activist and someone opposed to feminism—even though both align with the conservative side of the culture wars. But as Johnson makes clear, such activists frame their arguments in the language of the culture wars because this helps build alliances. In other words, for Johnson, relations are more important than ideas. This is a compelling point, and helps us understand some of the seemingly strange alliances that formed against the grain of more typical culture wars polarizations, such as when some liberal intellectuals like Todd Gitlin joined forces with right-wing traditionalists in opposing multicultural challenges to the Western Canon, or when some radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin joined the Christian Right in opposing pornography. These alliances only seem strange because people normally identified with the left aligned with people normally identified with the right. But since left and right are opposite poles due to political alliances—not philosophical first positions, as Johnson claims—and since alliances are subject to change, it should seem like normal political behavior.
Johnson somewhat overstates the case about the overriding importance of alliances, since there is in fact often (not always) an internal logic to the ideas behind why people align across single issues. Take for example the biggest single issue, abortion, the “third rail” in American politics. Historian Daniel Williams argues in his excellent recent book, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade, that taking a strong stand against abortion is not an inherently conservative position. This is made evident by the many progressive defenders of human rights who staked such a claim prior to the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, when polarization was strictly policed, which decimated the ranks of progressive pro-lifers. And yet, the abortion dispute is also a proxy for larger philosophical debates about the meaning of life and personhood—debates that inform and are informed by the culture wars.
Liberals maintain life has meaning when it is conscious and rational. Conservatives contend God gives life meaning from inception. Feminists maintain that women, as self-determining persons, should decide for themselves whether to carry a pregnancy to term. Antifeminists contend that women, bound by God to be dutiful wives and mothers, should bear the burdens of pregnancy. Feminists see the anti-abortion movement as indicative of anti-feminist backlash. Anti-abortion activists deem women who have abortions sinners three times over: they sin when they have non-reproductive, often extra-marital sex; they sin when they reject their predetermined role as mothers; and they sin when they kill their babies.
In short, although Johnson’s argument about alliances is important in understanding how the culture wars powerfully shape our political culture, ideas—philosophical first positions—are also crucial in this regard. But more to the point here, Johnson and I agree that the culture wars matter. A lot.
But are the culture wars history? This, it seems, is where Johnson takes issue with my book. He is not alone. The most common criticism of my book is that my short conclusion, where I make the intentionally provocative claim that the culture wars are over, is dead wrong. My critics might be right. In my defense, I wrote the conclusion to this book in 2014, well before Donald Trump’s long, strange trip to the White House swallowed up American political culture. But instead of conceding to Johnson and my other critics entirely, I will offer one qualified defense and one semi-concession.
First, my defense. In arguing that the culture wars are history, I am not contending that cultural conflict is dead, far from it. Arguments about American identity, and even about human nature, are always present in American political life. A nation founded on capacious and contradictory ideas like “liberty,” and “the pursuit of happiness,” is bound to have such debates—especially a nation as religiously, racially, and ethnically diverse as the United States. What I am arguing is that the 1980s and 1990s were a particularly hot time in the never-ending American culture wars. The culture wars defined that era in recent American history, a period that should perhaps be known as the “Era of Culture Wars,” proper.
This is not to say that capitalism was inconsequential in the 1980s and 1990s. That would be a weird argument for me to make, especially since I consider myself a Marxist of sorts. Capitalism is always a force in American life, often a much stronger force than cultural conflict. But how we think about such historical forces shifts alongside how we think about historical time. In discussing the longer period in American history from the Civil War to the present, capitalism sits atop any hierarchy of important forces shaping historical change. This is not to say that cultural conflict—the ongoing argument about what it means to be an American—is absent from that long period in American history, far from it. Rather, the best way to understand how we got from here to there is to understand the history of capitalism. Cultural conflict—i.e., the culture wars—is a more subterranean historical force. Alas, sometimes subterranean historical forces come to the surface—sometimes with a bang!
When we shorten our historical span of time to the era bracketed by the 1960s and the 1990s, a new hierarchy of historical forces comes into view. The best way to understand how we got from the 1960s to the 1990s—from Woodstock to Monica Lewinsky—is to understand the history of the culture wars. Of that I am quite certain. But I am not sure the historical forces of the culture wars are the best way to understand the present.
The best way to get at the different historical registers between the 1980s/90s and now is a close analysis of the humanities in higher education. As I have argued at length elsewhere, in the 1980s the heated debate about the Western Canon dominated discourse about higher education. Left and right had very different views of the purpose of the humanities during this period. The left saw the humanities as a method for critiquing traditional ways of thinking. The right saw the humanities as a celebration of the best that has been thought and said in Western Civilization. This was a quintessential battle in the culture wars. But at base, both left and right agreed that the humanities were a bedrock component of the higher education curriculum. Now, in a climate of austerity, it seems more and more people, especially those on the right, see no value in the humanities. Capitalism has come to the surface with a force, and the culture wars have gone subterranean once again.
Now to my concession. To those with a working knowledge of the history of the culture wars, Trump is very familiar. As Johnson correctly points out, there are many ways to interpret Trump’s memorable slogan “Make America Great Again.” The best way to interpret it, as I have argued, is through the lens of the culture wars. “Great again” refers to America prior to the sixties. Trump and many of those who voted for him wish to take America back to the decades before the sixties when social movements shook up normative American identity. Trump’s war on “political correctness” is a war on the values that animated those movements for liberation, especially Black Power, feminism, and gay rights.
Trump is evidence that the culture wars still matter—certainly as history, perhaps as future. As an historian, I am on terra firma when analyzing this history. But since I am no prophet, my predictions about the future are no better than anyone else’s. ♦
Andrew Hartman is Professor of History at Illinois State University. He is the author of two books: Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and A War for the Soul Of America: A History of the Culture Wars (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Hartman is currently at work on a third monograph, Karl Marx in America, which will also be published with the University of Chicago Press. Hartman was the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark for the 2013-14 academic year, and was the founding president of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH).
* Feature image: “The Soiling of Old Glory” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken by Stanley Forman during the Boston busing crisis in 1976. It depicts a white teenager, Joseph Rakes, assaulting a black man, lawyer and civil rights activist Ted Landsmark, with a flagpole bearing the American flag. The image was taken for the Boston Herald American in Boston on April 5, 1976, during one in a series of protests against court-ordered desegregation busing. It ran on the front page of the Herald American the next day and also appeared in several newspapers across the country. It won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for Spot Photography.