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

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.

The Economy and the Role of Government

Many conservative policy experts and politicians still make the same substantive arguments they have for years about corporate taxes sending jobs overseas or “entitlements” breaking the budget, but this is the area where the culturalization of formerly non-social issues is most apparent.

Consider one of the most enduring and pernicious untruths in our political economy. As I wrote last summer, most conservatives have come to embrace the view that poverty and inequality don't actually result from tangible economic factors.

Rather, the poor are where they find themselves as a consequence of some deep-seated cultural flaws that keep them from achieving success. They're held back, the story goes, by what is known alternatively as a “culture of poverty,” or a “culture of dependence.” It's a popular fable for the right, as it absolves the political establishment for public policies that harm the working class and the poor.

It's also thoroughly and demonstrably untrue, flying in the face of decades of serious research findings. Yet it reinforces the in-group/out-group dynamic at the center of the culture wars and raises conservative defenses to factual information.

An excellent example of this is the simple fact that there are now 4.5 unemployed people for every full-time job opening (and 7.5 people looking for a full-time gig if you include those stuck “involuntarily” working part-time jobs), yet it remains a core belief on the right today that the unemployed are simply lazy – a cultural flaw -- and therefore unemployment benefits (which are extremely modest in the United States relative to other wealthy countries) contribute to the problem.

The hottest book in conservative circles right now is Charles Murray's Losing Ground, which calls for dismantling the social safety net based on a cultural analysis of inequality and has been touted by everyone on the right, from raging social-con Rick Santorum to David Brooks, the New York Times' Upper West Side-friendly “center-right” columnist.

As far as taxation, the stand-by claim that taxing the wealthy leads to lower business investment has been overtaken by another cultural narrative – the Randian view of a world made up of a few virile, virtuous “producers,” and the many “parasites” who feed off their labors. It’s the producers who create wealth and make a better world, and they do so by pursuing their own dreams of success. In Ayn Rand’s books, though, moochers and petty, visionless bureaucrats persistently bite at the ankles of her capitalist “supermen,” which has the effect -- unintended, but pernicious nonetheless-- of harming all of society. Therefore, freeing the wealthy from their obligations, freeing the elite from their social contract with the rest of us, is the apex of morality. Rand may have been a staunch atheist, but this argument resembles a religious viewpoint more than it does a matter of simple economics.


Last week, Newt Gingrich claimed that “you can't put a gun-rack in a Volt” – drawing a cultural line between gun-owning “real Americans” and granola-eating hippies who want to drive electric cars. (As is so often the case, Newt happened to be wrong.)

A few weeks ago, Talking-Points Memo covered a panel on dating at the Conservative Political Action Conference. At one point, participants were asked what one might do on a good right-wing date, and one of them replied, “A gun club works really well for that thing... It’s conservative, it’s fun, most women haven’t done that before…you get to look like you know what you’re doing.”

Gun control is an issue that has always cleaved more neatly along rural-urban lines, a gap that's both substantive and cultural, than the left-right ideological divide. A lot of otherwise conservative mayors and police chiefs in densely packed cities have long favored stricter gun controls, and otherwise liberal politicians representing wide-open rural expanses have not.

But at this moment in our history, the substantive debates over guns are virtually nonexistent. In 2010, the Supreme Court issued a decisive ruling in favor of those who oppose restrictions on gun ownership. It was the last in a string of moves by the courts that have made Americans’ right to own firearms as secure today as they have ever been. The 5-4 decision established that all Americans have a fundamental, individual right to bear arms that constrains not only the actions of the federal government, but states and municipalities as well. It was a long-sought victory for gun rights advocates and a resounding defeat for those who favor stricter controls. In the words of conservative legal scholar Glenn Reynolds, the ruling meant that the Second Amendment “is now a full-fledged part of the Bill of Rights.”

In the wake of the ruling, gun control advocates now dedicate themselves to objectives with which the vast majority of gun owners agree – closing the so-called “gun show loophole” and keeping guns out of the hands of felons and potential terrorists. A 2009 poll by conservative messaging-guru Frank Luntz found that “NRA members and gun owners support sensible new measures to combat illegal guns, including closing the terror gap (82 percent NRA members support, 86 percent non-NRA gun owners support), closing the gun show loophole (69 percent / 85 percent), and requiring gun owners to report lost and stolen guns (78 percent / 88 percent).” Luntz, in an op-ed, characterized what remains of the issue as a social one, writing, “The culture war over the right to bear arms isn't much of a war after all. As it turns out, there is a lot everyone agrees on.”

But the gun lobby hasn't allowed the bitter debate over the scope of the Second Amendment to be settled. Guns are too critical to the culture wars; they represent what Karl Rove called an “anger point” that stokes the passions of the conservative base.

It's worth adding that, among the more paranoid elements of the conservative movement, the idea that gun owners are not secure with their firearms springs from a fringe conspiracy theory about Barack Obama supporting a UN treaty that amounts to a “back-door” attempt to disarm America. This, again, reinforces the “othering” – the in-group/out-group dichotomy – at the heart of the culture wars, framing the issue as a conflict between (“real”) Americans and foreigners.

Foreign Policy

After killing Osama Bin Laden, escalating the war in Afghanistan and drawing down troops in Iraq, polls show that President Obama has evaporated Republicans' traditional advantage on “national security.” Aside from portraying cuts in the defense budget as apocalyptic, if you watch the right's current discourse on foreign policy, it's now almost entirely cultural in nature.

Consider the conservative charges against Obama in the realm of foreign policy. As a factual matter, Robert Schlesinger noted that Obama had, as of last January, mentioned “American exceptionalism” far more frequently than his predecessor, George W Bush. But that didn't keep Kathleen Parker from writing at the time that exceptionalism is a “word that isn't much heard from this president but that tumbles so easily -- and adamantly -- from the lips of Republican[s],” and it hasn't prevented the right from obsessing on the supposed failure.

Or consider Mitt Romney's frequent and wholly erroneous claim that Barack Obama "went around the world and apologized for America." Or consider the words of Franklin Graham, a prominent figure on the religious right, who questioned Obama's religion based in large part because, “[Under] President Obama, the Muslims of the world, he seems to be more concerned about them than the Christians that are being murdered in the Muslim countries.” These words belong squarely in the category of the culture wars.

Even before Obama was elected, a great deal of the right's views of foreign policy were culturally informed. With his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington had an enormous impact on Republican foreign policy rhetoric, helping to inform George W Bush's "war on terror." Huntington was explicit in his social analysis of geopolitics, writing:

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural... The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.


Here is where this hypothesis is on its shakiest ground, not because immigration isn't a cultural issue, but because one can argue that it has always been so. We talk about competing policies – “enforcement only” versus a more comprehensive approach – and those are certainly matters of substance. But the degree to which immigration has become a top-tier, litmus-test issue for the right, the degree to which it's become polarized, has everything to do with the culture wars, and this is apparent in the symbolic issues that come up in the debate. Think about the brouhaha over displaying Mexican flags, or the fight to keep states from printing government forms in multiple languages.

In 1986, the father of the modern anti-immigration movement, John Tanton, wrote a memo laying out what he saw as the potential problems with our immigration system. He discussed a range of issues, including the economic and political impacts of large numbers of immigrants arriving in the United States, but much of his concerns centered around cultural issues. “Will Latin American migrants bring with them the tradition of the mordida (bribe), the lack of involvement in public affairs, etc.?” he asked. “What in fact are the characteristics of Latin American culture, versus that of the United States?” Arguing that Hispanics are inherently harder to educate than other groups, he wrote: “We’re building in a deadly disunity. All great empires disintegrate, we want stability.”

Twenty-five years later, the same social fears continue to inform conservative arguments about immigration. Lamenting the push for comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly claimed that advocates of the bill, "hate America, and they hate it because it's run primarily by white Christian men. Let me repeat that. America is run primarily by white Christian men, and there is a segment of our population who hates that, despises that power structure."

Samuel Huntington's follow-up to The Clash of Civilizations, the influential book Who We Are, stems from the same premise, but covered with a more academic veneer. Reviewing the book for Foreign Affairs, Alan Wolf wrote that it's riddled with “ moralistic passion -- at times bordering on hysteria.”

He eschews realistic treatment of American history in favor of romantic nostalgia for Anglo-Protestant culture. And then there is the book's fatalism: Huntington tells his readers that he is a "patriot ... deeply concerned about the unity and strength of my country based on liberty, equality, law and individual rights," but he portrays the United States as haplessly without resources in its struggle with immigration, as if the country's identity were too fragile for the challenges it faces. Although Huntington was deeply troubled by the 1960s and their aftermath, he managed to maintain his cool in subsequent books. Immigration has touched his nerves in a way that flower children and protesters never did. Who Are We? is Patrick Buchanan with footnotes.

It was also, at heart, a social argument for limiting immigration.

Everything Has an Element of Culture Wars

Those are but a few examples of once-concrete debates over public policy having been tainted by the culture wars. There are others: The right's obsession with light-bulbs and scorn for Priuses; justifying voting restrictions based on unfounded fears of undocumented immigrants voting; and conservatives' blind insistence that because we supposedly “have the greatest healthcare in the world,” we can turn our backs on the data that belie that claim and ignore the plight of the uninsured. As the Policy Shop's Mijin Cha wrote this week, “climate change has been slowly entering into culture war territory for a while now.”

We have entered into an era of public discourse where issues like solar energy are being framed as issues of liberty and freedom. Not to mention the backlash against seemingly innocuous policies, like bike lanes and smart growth. To see the somewhat dry issues of renewable energy and sustainable development discussed in the same vein as reproductive choice and marriage equality is strange, to say the least.

All of this does not serve our democracy well. While it may be difficult to find common ground on matters of public policy in a closely divided country, it's all but impossible when the emotional heat of the culture wars – the tribal affinities – is added to the mix. It makes the right guard its positions more closely, and causes conservatives to defend themselves from any inconvenient facts that conflict with their positions.


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