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Hey, Liberals: You Haven’t Won The Culture War

120 million voters united only by the belief that the other side’s candidate was a nightmare, was only the most recent illustration of a profound cultural divide in American life.

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I can’t speak to the intentions of the people who made the video, but on the Internet it became a source of ribaldry, an opportunity to mock the clueless rubes for their half-formed delusions, poor fashion sense and infelicity at crafting sound bites. I laughed too, and then I felt awful. Some of those people may be dumb, and others may be evil; you’ll find that in every cohort. But they’ve suffered from downward mobility for most of the last 40 years. While the educated elite in New York and San Francisco have sneered at their backward tastes and appetites, the captains of capital have crapped on their gimme caps and told them to like it. Because: America! Is it really surprising that they’ve anchored themselves to some sense of shared cultural identity, incoherent as it may be?

I was a young reporter on the floor of the Houston Astrodome during the Republican National Convention of 1992 when Pat Buchanan made his legendary speech about the “culture war” in America. As terrifying as that was to witness in person, surrounded by the bull-necked, crewcut-wearing young men of the Texas A&M cheering squad, I thought he was right at the time, and I still think so now. I don’t mean he was right on the issues (although let’s give him credit for opposing NAFTA way back when). I mean that he correctly observed that he and I were on different sides of a long-running conflict over what kind of country America was and how its citizens were to think about themselves.

Buchanan didn’t start that war. It goes clear back through the history of America, from Vietnam to the Red Scare to the Civil War to the Revolutionary War and the witch-hunting Puritans, and it has its origins, at least arguably, in the social revolutions of early modern Europe. He doesn’t have the power to end it, although his recent work tends toward elegiac pronouncements about “dying Christian America” and the end of Western culture, swamped by lesbians and Muslims and free government marijuana. (Bill O’Reilly’s election-night outburst about the death of “traditional America” and the eclipse of the “white establishment” was nothing more than warmed-over Buchananism.)

Maybe the fact that the Christian-Caucasian-libertarian-capitalist-nationalist cultural faction has absorbed another bitter political defeat will spark some new dynamic in American life. But I wouldn’t bet on it. An angry, declining minority that believes itself oppressed can be an unstable and dangerous phenomenon. The worst sin of the secular-multicultural-communitarian-internationalist-environmentalist faction (other than all that oaky California chardonnay) is its smugness and superiority, its sense of historical mission and its confidence that it has nothing to learn from its diminished opponents and bears no responsibility for their plight. Pride goeth before the fall, as a text prized by both sides for different reasons puts it. If we can’t find a way to address the American cultural divide, beyond insults and quadrennial beauty contests, it is sure to destroy us.

 

Andrew O'Hehir is a senior writer for Salon.