The culture wars are over

Why liberals have won the battles on gay and abortion rights, immigration and drug legalization.

  • Photograph: Tim Klein

  • Photograph: Erika DuFour

  • Photograph: Lisa Predko

  • Photograph: Dave Rentauskas

Photograph: Tim Klein

There’s an image that comes to mind when America thinks, Victory! You know the one. It’s black and white. A sailor—a male sailor, of course, because this was 1945—has one arm wrapped around the midsection of a pretty nurse. She’s wearing a white skirt and white tights and white shoes, one of which is kicked up behind her. They’re kissing in the middle of a street that’s crowded but not too crowded. Clean.

It’s a joyous scene. On V-J day, photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captured everything we believed America was about, everything we thought we’d fought for. A beautiful young white couple, with her locked in his protective embrace, presumably on the cusp of peaceful lives together. From this single photo, it’s almost possible to glimpse their future as a Life magazine spread: The modest but comfortable tract home in the suburbs, the 2.5 kids and the dog, the stable white-collar job for him, the shiny new appliances for her. Church on Sundays. Vacations to Disneyland.

A few weeks after Barack Obama was elected to another four years in the White House, Seattle photojournalist Meryl Schenker snapped a photo of a different blissful couple: two graying lumberjack types getting their marriage certificate in Washington state. They’re both men’s men, with big bushy beards, forming a family together. No pretty nurses in sight.

While it wasn’t widely hailed as such, there was no mistaking this picture as a visual end to the so-called culture wars. Victory belonged to all of us who didn’t see ourselves reflected in the postwar picture from nearly 70 years ago.

Since the 1960s, America had been locked in a battle between progress and tradition, a broad disagreement about fundamental values that was distilled to just a handful of issues, like whether it was okay to do drugs, whether anyone should be able to own an assault rifle, whether it was legal for women to choose an abortion, whether gay relationships were as valid as straight ones, and whether we would continue to be a nation of immigrants.

According to Thomas Frank’s 2004 best-seller, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, the battle lines looked like this: on one side, old, white, rural or suburban, working-class people. On the other, everyone else. Young people. Urban people. Gay people. Brown people. You know that goose-bump-inducing section of Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention? The part where he points out that “we worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states”? One of the reasons we liked this part of the speech so much is that it was aspirational; we knew it wasn’t quite true. Sure, there are gay couples in Idaho and churchgoers in Manhattan. But there is and was a deep cultural divide in America, and Obama pointing out the exceptions served to prove the rule.

Even if you don’t routinely dig into demographic and polling data, you’re familiar with the two camps. Two and a Half Men America vs. Mad Men America. Dell PC America vs. MacBook America. Church America vs. brunch America. Multiracial homosexual abortionist stoner America vs. white sober churchgoing breeder America. And one of those Americas is growing much faster than the other.

Republicans began exploiting this divide in earnest during the Nixon era. Facing what they saw as a political disadvantage on economic issues, they decided to try a cultural approach. Increasing inequality and a crumbling middle class weren’t the problem, they explained. The real issue was an erosion of “traditional family values.” The culprits? Casual sex (enabled by women’s access to abortion and contraception). Gays and lesbians. More access to drugs and less access to guns. Immigrants who failed to share American values. The GOP stoked a fear that everything America had long held dear was disappearing, and this proved to be a powerful distraction to denizens of economically depressed conservative areas, as Frank pointed out in Kansas. A whole political apparatus was built to fight the war on both sides.

“The culture war is rooted in an ongoing realignment of American public culture and has become institutionalized chiefly through special-purpose organizations, denominations, political parties and the branches of government,” wrote academic James Davison Hunter in his 1991 book Culture Wars.

But even the charismatic pastors and racist fearmongers who served as loyal culture warriors on the right were no match for demographics. The problem with a political strategy based on fear and nostalgia is that the base of supporters who remembers and wants to return to the good ol’ days will eventually start to die off. Over time, the country has become less white. Women have become more educated, gotten married later and had fewer children. America is also becoming more urban: Between now and 2040, two-thirds of our population growth is expected to occur in 23 megapolitan regions—areas radiating from major cities like Chicago, New York, Denver and Phoenix. Religion has become less and less important to Americans’ lives. Almost 20 percent of Americans now call themselves religiously “unaffiliated,” a number that has gone up five percentage points in the past five years. And according to the Census Bureau, as of July 2011, 50.4 percent of America’s population under age 1 were minorities. The standard prediction now is that the United States will be officially majority-minority by 2043.

“We’re reaching a tipping point on issues like gay marriage, where they’re just not viable issues between the parties,” says Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank who cowrote The Emerging Democratic Majority with John Judis in 2002. Back then, in the post-9/11 Bush years, the argument that the country was gradually but inevitably becoming more progressive seemed like little more than wishful thinking.

After Obama’s election, it became clear that the tide was starting to turn. “Looking back on Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008, culture wars issues not only had a very low profile in the campaign, but where conservatives did attempt to raise them, these issues did them little good,” Teixeira wrote in a 2009 report published by the Center for American Progress. “Indeed, conservatives were probably more hurt than helped by such attempts—witness the effect of the Sarah Palin nomination.”

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