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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.

Photo Credit: Krzeslak


This may come as news to you, but our country is severely divided. Seriously, though: Tuesday’s election, in which 120 million voters were 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 that goes back at least 50 or 60 years (and arguably much longer). It’s a major talking point on cable news shows and in opinion columns of all stripes – yes, duh, mea culpa – one that has sparked the careers of numerous pundits and commentators.

David Brooks and Thomas Frank, to cite the obvious examples, have dined out for a decade or more on their purported ability to diagnose the worsening antagonism reflected in the 2012 election, when multicultural metropolitan elite groups on both coasts overwhelmingly voted for one candidate and lower-status white people in the middle of the country overwhelmingly voted for the other. Brooks has long specialized in boiling this down to pithy phrases: Volvos vs. F-150 pickups, Walmart shoppers vs. Whole Foods shoppers, and so on. (As my wife recently observed, in today’s economy it could more accurately be put this way: The people who shop at Target vs. the other people who shop at Target.)

But if we think we can understand this division better by using cute demographic shorthand or by trying to claim that it’s fundamentally about religion or abortion or sexual morality or the role of government or whatever other hobby horse we choose to ride, we’re kidding ourselves. Those are significant issues that provoke strong feelings on both sides, to be sure, but I believe they are symbols or symptoms of division rather than its underlying causes. Anytime we get fixated on the centrality of any one of those factors, we risk being left behind by the rushing river of history.

I recently came upon a column Pat Buchanan wrote back in April in which he argued that same-sex marriage would be the defining issue of the 2012 campaign and that election day was “shaping up as the Antietam of the culture war.” We’ll get back to Buchanan later — he is a central figure in the history of cultural warfare — but as is so often the case, he was right in an upside-down Bizarro World fashion. Gay marriage was a total non-issue in the campaign, and as every month passes, it becomes an ever-more-ordinary part of American life, roughly as exciting as the other kind of marriage. That in itself suggests that his turning-point analogy may be accurate but also that his side didn’t even show up to fight the battle. (If you need to go Google “Antietam” right now, I will join Buchanan in lamenting the failures of our educational system.)

It’s my premise that the division in America is indeed cultural in nature, using the Lévi-Strauss anthropological sense of that word, although other senses come into it, too. (The people who watch HBO, for example, or who saw “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in theaters fall overwhelmingly on one side.) Defining it as libertarian vs. communitarian, for instance, or as a religious view of society set against a more secular one always simplifies or overlooks some aspect of the problem. It involves values or mores that people hold on a primordial or unconscious level, which are not easily expressed in language and not readily subjected to rational inquiry. Translated into the political realm, these fundamental cultural mores become entrenched ideological positions, modes of expressing the unshakable conviction that my side is right and yours is wrong. It’s easy from there, when you’re convinced of your own righteousness, to tip over into paranoia or caricature: Obama’s a Muslim traitor, born in a Taliban test tube; the Republicans are gaming the voting machines, en route to a 1,000-year Fourth Reich.