The phrase culture wars refers to the conflicts between individuals or groups who see themselves as either preserving or, in some measure, changing fundamental cultural understandings and practices. These conflicts play out in the political arena and in the battle for public opinion. The earliest use of the term culture war, or cultural struggle, was in the context of Otto von Bismarck’s unification of modern Germany in the late 19th century. At that time, Kulturkampf was deployed approvingly by liberal, largely Protestant forces to describe a variety of legal efforts aimed at separating church and state and limiting Roman Catholic clerical power. The phrase is now most often associated with U.S. cultural controversies, gaining popular currency in the United States in the 1990s. It is, however, occasionally applied to such controversies in other developed countries. In the United States and elsewhere, the culture wars are a main locus of social and political tension.
The issues implicated in the U.S. culture wars are many, including abortion, artistic and personal expression, crime and punishment, education, ethnicity, family relations, gun ownership, immigration, language, media bias or objectivity, medical ethics, national identity, popular culture, race, religion, and sexuality. Both sides in the culture wars tend to identify the mid- to late 20th century as the time of important changes in popular attitudes, legislative constraints, and political consensus on each of these issues. The preservationists generally see this as change for the worse. In this sense, they seek to retrieve and preserve what they claim to be an earlier U.S. cultural consensus, which they often see as rooted in unchanging moral, theological, and political truths. Meanwhile, advocates of change tend to argue for continuous evolutionary progress toward new understandings that they claim are more consonant with contemporary mores.
The currency of the phrase culture wars in the United States is largely traceable to sociologist James Davison Hunter and media personality and political candidate Patrick J. Buchanan. Hunter argued, in 1991, that significant fault lines in U.S. society no longer correspond with old cleavages such as class, or religious or partisan affiliation, but with new divisions over cultural questions that transcend the old cleavages. He contended that the United States is polarizing into two hostile camps, defined by their orthodoxy or progressivism on these questions. To members of these camps, the old divisions are less salient than the new. Moral and political allegiances and alliances are therefore subject to reconfiguration, and new social solidarities and political movements emerge. Groups united by these new identities and common purposes define themselves according to their answers to cultural questions and their tactical responses to cultural controversies.
At the Republican National Convention in 1992, Buchanan gave a widely noted speech in which he claimed the culture wars are, at root, religious in character and that only by stopping or reversing a host of cultural shifts that had occurred since the mid-20th century could the United States follow God’s will. For many on the left, such rhetoric amounted to hate speech; for many on the right, it was a symbolic call to arms for a nation in crisis. Indeed, the terms left and right, or liberal and conservative, are increasingly used in the United States to define opposing factions in the culture wars, in contrast to their earlier application to different philosophical and policy orientations on economic or foreign affairs questions.
The new fault lines manifest themselves in various ways. In religious terms, preservationists understand themselves to be orthodox or traditional rather than modernist. If Christian, they tend to be evangelical rather than mainstream. Advocates of cultural change are more likely to identify themselves as non-orthodox or secularist. The culture wars also have distinct political implications in the United States. Preservationists are more likely to support the Republican Party, whereas advocates of cultural change gravitate toward the Democratic Party. Preservationists are more likely to defend and ally with popular or common opinion, whereas advocates of change find more common ground with elite opinion. Institutionally, preservationists tend to be suspicious of the judicial branch of government, which they see as pushing the culture too far too fast in the direction of unconstitutional and indeed immoral change. By contrast, advocates of cultural change are more likely to be sympathetic to judicial alterations of the cultural landscape. Indeed, particular judicial decisions are rallying points for those engaged in the culture wars. For many preservationists, cases identified as fundamentally altering a cultural status quo, such as the abortion decision Roe v. Wade, are abominations; for many advocates of cultural change, they mark out sacred ground not to be ceded.
The Culture Wars Internationally
In Australia and Canada, some issues associated with the U.S. culture wars, and occasionally the phrase itself, enjoy currency. In Canada, a variety of scholarly and populist organizations have emerged since the 1980s to combat what they see as cultural drift and decadence, including the perceived liberal activism of the Supreme Court of Canada. In European nations too, cultural issues have gained increasing traction, particularly in relation to Muslim immigration into Europe. With this immigration has come the threat, from the point of view of preservationists, to European national identities that is posed by the injection of Islam into largely secularized polities. France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Denmark, among other countries, have all seen explosive cultural controversies in recent years, sometimes spurred by actual violence or the threat of violence by Islamist forces fundamentally hostile to the dominant culture. These forces themselves cannot be considered to be engaging in the culture wars, however, because of their willingness to move from the arena of ideological and political struggle to the arena of actual warfare.
Whether one is preserving or changing culture depends on how one defines it. Complex questions of political and social theory as well as historical interpretation are bound to arise. The nature of the struggle, as well as the relative strengths of the parties, are therefore controversial. In the United States, those who understand themselves to be preserving the culture often claim they are on the defensive against the hegemony of elite forces hostile to older but worthy understandings and practices, which forces they claim dominate many or most media and educational institutions. By contrast, those who understand themselves as changing U.S. culture often claim they are persecuted minorities who are simply reflecting newer but more legitimate interpretations of understandings and practices, or bringing out what has always been latent in the society.
The culture wars arguably have the potential to be more divisive than previous social conflicts in U.S. history. Partisans in the culture wars tend to concentrate on particular issues and the reorientation of public opinion and policy on those issues, rather than seeking broad-based accommodations and compromises. The relative lack of attention to compromise stems from the fact that these issues are linked to the very origins and sense of identity of the partisans. To them, they are issues of the highest possible salience because they speak to the question of ultimate moral standards and authority.
On the other hand, some political scientists argue that members of the U.S. political classes, including party activists, may be polarized, but average Americans are not. These experts contend that most Americans do not embrace the extremes of either cultural conservatism or liberalism, and their opinions continue to be relatively stable on a variety of issues, including abortion and homosexuality. Furthermore, at the mass as opposed to the elite level, these opinions tend to converge in the center. Thus consensus rather than conflict may best describe contemporary U.S. attitudes on cultural questions.
What can be said for certain is that forces of preservation and change have routinely vied with each other for the ability to define authoritatively the mores of virtually all societies throughout history. It is highly likely that the contemporary culture wars will, for many years to come, result in seesaw battles waged in and for legislative chambers, courtrooms, and public opinion.
- Fiorina, Morris P. 2005. Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. New York: Pearson Longman.
- Fonte, John. 2005. “Is the Purpose of Civic Education to Transmit or Transform the American Regime?” Pp. 73-111 in Civic Education and Culture, edited by B. C. S. Watson. Wilmington, DE: ISI.
- Graff, Gerald. 1992. Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education. New York: Norton.
- Hunter, James Davison. 1991. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: Basic Books.
- Watson, Bradley C. S., ed. 2002. Courts and the Culture Wars. Lanham, MD: Lexington.
- Wolfe, Alan. 1998. One Nation, after All: What Middle Class Americans Really Think about God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, the Right, the Left, and Each Other. New York: Viking.
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