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How the Right Has Turned Everything Into a Culture War -- And Why That's Terrible for Our Democracy

It's tough to find common ground in a divided country, but it's almost impossible when the emotional heat of the culture wars is added to the mix.

The political press takes it as a given that there is a sharp dividing line between the “social issues” propelling the culture wars (abortion, school prayer, gay rights) and matters of substance (the economy, foreign policy, immigration and safety-net programs like unemployment benefits). But as the American conservative movement has veered sharply rightward over the past 30 years, that line is no longer so clean. Today, conservatives have a social argument for every subject of debate – everything has become part of the culture wars.

Viewing tangible matters through a cultural lens is not new. In the 19th century, dime novelist Horatio Alger wrote a series of formulaic books about poor, young, street urchins meeting some wealthy benefactor who teaches them the value of hard work and living a clean life. Once the urchins get on a properly Protestant, chaste path, their fortunes grow and they end up rising to the middle-class. It's a narrative that resonates with the right today. 

But the intermingling of social and concrete issues has accelerated in the age of Obama. Many on the right consider Barack Obama alien – consider birtherism, or Dinesh D'Souza's claim that the president is influenced by “Kenyan anti-colonial behavior.” Whereas social issues once served as a distraction from matters of substance, today cultural narratives dominate conservatives' arguments.    

This is not just a matter of academic interest. It's helping to fuel the growing reality-gap between conservatives and liberals – and not just because we continue to see these issues as matters of substantive policy while increasingly they see them as cultural. It's also because people tend to be more defensive about social issues, and less likely to be open to counter-arguments or new information.

In his new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don't Believe in Science, Chris Mooney explores years of research into the cognitive and neurobiological features associated with our ideologies. “The way the mind works,” Mooney writes, “suggests that good arguments only win the day when people don't have strong emotional commitments that contradict them.” Scientists, he writes, have long noted that “ cold reasoning (rational, unemotional) is very different from hot reasoning (emotional, motivated).”

We are better able to have a cool, unemotional debate about the merits of, say, higher or lower corporate taxes. But cultural beliefs resonate more deeply, especially with conservatives; these beliefs become integrated into their identities, and once fixed, are difficult to dislodge with factual arguments. One area where conservatives and liberal tend to differ, according to Mooney, is “in their need to defend their beliefs, their internal desire to have unwavering convictions that do not and cannot change.” The culture wars are ultimately tribal, and as Mooney notes, conservatives are more likely to “be sure that their group is right, and the other group is wrong – in short, their need for group solidarity and unity, or for having a strong in-group/out-group way of looking at the world.”

So, having turned substantial issues into cultural debates, the right is more deeply invested in their outcomes, and less likely to be swayed by the reality we see around us. That “facts have a liberal bias” has become more than just a quip, and this is part of the reason why.

That is not to say that conservatives have stopped deploying non-cultural arguments – many still do. But consider some of the specific ways that what we think of as debates over concrete matters of public policy have been “culturalized” by the right.

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