Some Notes on the Culture Wars

From some perspectives, things are looking bleak for progressive causes. Trump’s presidency, the Brexit campaign, and the various populist right-wing movements across Europe can easily look like an unholy trinity of isolationist nationalism. It seems that politics has taken a sharp turn to the right, however precisely you want to label these changes (the rise of anti-globalism, tribalism, racism, etc.).

I am not going to downplay the importance of these political transformations. There’s little reason to think that these political forces will vanish soon. Indeed, let’s be pessimistic about Trump et al. – assume that various Western democracies will slide into a dysfunctional twilight of continual populist rage for the foreseeable future, and that the political atmosphere will be poisoned by nativist prejudices for perhaps longer than that. Assume that the various “open-minded” political projects – multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, the European Union – are in for a very rough ride, if not totally finished.

Even if this is your outlook for the near political future, I think progressives also have reason for optimism. If you zoom out, historically and socially, I think you will find that while right-wing causes might win various political battles at the moment, the progressives are winning the cultural war – by which I mean the larger social contest for determining the social conventions and evaluative rules by which we’re assessing our society.

On this interpretation, much of what we’re seeing on the Right – its intolerant nationalism, its increasingly loud and paranoid rhetoric – does not show the strength of a party in the ascendancy, but rather the desperate rear-guard action of a losing cultural force. Let’s take gay marriage in the United States as an example. A number of American states banned, or tried to ban, gay marriage by amendment to their state constitutions. (These amendments have now become obsolete due to Obergefell v. Hodges, of course.)

In some sense, this is a clear set-back for progressive causes. However, it’s the timing of these amendments which is interesting, most of which came in the mid-2000s. If you look at data on support for gay marriage in the United States, you’ll find that the mid-2000s still have a clear advantage for opponents over supporters (55% to 35% in 2006). This advantage, however, has now almost precisely inverted, with supporters of gay marriage outweighing opponents (55% to 37% in 2016). Acceptance of homosexuality across various religious denominations is also slowly, but consistently rising.

These are tremendous social changes, but they were not unforeseeable. Conservatives could feel the grounds shifting, and so I think we should see the flurry of legislative anti-gay activity in the mid-2000s as the pre-emptive attempts by conservative forces to constitutionally enshrine their beliefs in view of the culture wars they seem to be heavily losing. (As a sidenote, I remember watching a lot of Glenn Beck in the late 2000s, and him putting a lot of emphasis on the Overton window. A fear that Obama had shifted, or would shift, the window irrevocably in the Left’s favour was one of the recurring themes.)

There are many other cases like this (though much variety in detail, of course). In many battles, it is the Left which defines the political terrain on which the Right are forced to take their stand. It is noteworthy, for example, that Republicans insist on repealing and replacing Obamacare. This implicitly acknowledges that a return to purely private healthcare is no longer an option, and it puts them in the awkward if not impossible position of having to deliver some of the promises of Obamacare (like covering pre-existing conditions) while also sticking to the small-government creed.

The broader forces behind these changes are partially demographic. Both the Trump election and the Brexit vote were characterized by huge differences in voting patterns between the young and old, and the more and less educated. For example, 73% of adults in the 18-24 year range voted Remain, while 60% in the 65+ group opted for Leave. The future, of course, belongs to the young and to the educated, with college graduation rates constantly rising, and blue-collar jobs disappearing. As another telling indicator, the median age of FOX News viewers is 68.

Conservatism, of course, also has a wing that tries to rejuvenate itself. The “alt-right”, identitarians, men’s rights activists, Gamergaters, and the_donald redditors represent younger, often very loud and experimental attempts to find an answer to the shifting cultural grounds. What’s telling, however, is that these various groups (which are by no means homogenous or represent all conservative developments) have little to offer in terms of genuine, independent content. Rather, they define themselves through opposition to liberals and other bugbears. So even these newer conservative movements are a reaction to the content of the dominant social force of progressivism, but they do not have the clout to set the parameters of the debate themselves. (It’s also telling, I think, that many of these groups try to copy the style of progressivism.)

One might reply that this has always been part of the very nature of conservatism. (Here I should recommend Corey Robin’s very readable book The Reactionary Mind, who sees this as the crucial feature of conservatism.) After all, one might say, conservatism has no ideology, no principles – it’s simply the defence of the status quo. So naturally it will be a shifting, flexible ideology, shaped by answering whichever progressive forces attempt to change the status quo.

There’s a grain of truth in this claim. Still, it strikes me that contemporary conservatism has particularly little to offer in terms of independent vision, which it often had in the past – whether it be a vision of individualist “no such thing as society” capitalism, or a pastoral nostalgia of small-scale community, or a neo-con view of America as the defender and exemplar of freedom, or a puritan utopia of a society based on merit earned through (men’s) work. If these visions seem positively outdated, then that’s perhaps again because the progressives have won.

What does all this mean for the Left? It’s of little comfort in the every-day nastiness that is Trumpism, of course. But even in the long run, progressives shouldn’t rest their heads too easily. Winning can also be a curse. I think the history of the German Green Party is instructive here in some respects. The Green Party rose to prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s, and it managed to transform Germany’s older 2½ party system into a more genuine multi-party system. The established parties noticed, and cleverly adopted more mainstream versions of Green causes into their party programmes.

Mainstream political discourse in Germany is now generally favourable to Green causes. In this sense, the Green movement has achieved an enormous success. At the same time, it presents the Green party with a difficult dilemma: its causes are no longer sufficiently unique to allow it to increase its voter base; it can shift further to the “left” – or into the green, as it is – but that is likely to only appeal to a small amount of voters, and might scare away moderates.

I suspect – though admittedly this is based on lots of armchair speculation – that this dilemma is one of the reasons behind the relative electoral stagnation of the Green party, which has failed to win significantly beyond 10% of voters. If the narrative I’ve described above is true in its broad outlines, then progressive forces might soon face this dilemma in a more general fashion as well. What we should then also expect – and I would say this is already happening – is a degree of internal splintering between those on the Left who wish to ride on the popular wave of success without further experimenting, and those who wish to push the political window of opportunity further to the left. (Think of Clinton vs Sanders, or Blairites vs Corbynites – though much else is happening in these contrasts as well.)

Some caveats are in order. Much of the developments I sketched are very broad-brush. There are other social, cultural and economic forces at work which will interact with (and sometimes counteract) them. And of course, the cultural tides might also genuinely shift. It might still be that cultural discourse takes a sharp right turn, not just momentarily but also in the long run. What I’ve written might look terribly naïve in a few decades’ time.

Still, it’s useful to think about the greater social forces at work, and what I’ve sketched strikes me as a plausible version of events over the last two decades or so. The message here is that the political and cultural contests which we’re currently experiencing, as well as their increasing volume and heatedness, far from being dangerous signs of decline, can also be read as the signs of desperate regressive forces on the retreat.

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