Culture Wars Update: Who’s Winning?

Is the sky falling for progressives like me? In The Atlantic, journalist Molly Ball argues that liberals are losing the culture wars. The same topic just came up in our recent panel of educational historians. Is Ball right?

Four horsemen?

Four horsemen?

She looked at the results of the recent mid-term elections. In Ohio, voters rejected recreational marijuana. In Houston, they voted against gender-neutral bathrooms. In San Francisco, they booted an immigration-friendly sheriff. In Virginia, gun control struggled. In Kentucky, Kim Davis’s brand of in-your-face culture-war bluster helped win the governor’s office.

Ball’s conclusion?

taken together these results ought to inspire caution among liberals who believe their cultural views are widely shared and a recipe for electoral victory.

Fair enough. But not surprisingly, our all-star panel of historians came to different conclusions. To historians, these electoral losses don’t seem so cataclysmic. After all, consider the historical context: people are voting about making pot legal. Can you really deny Andrew Hartman’s argument that the echoes of the 1960s are dominated by the accents of hippies?

And yes, Houston lost its push for bathrooms that recognize the fluidity of gender. But look again: Who lost? The city in Texas with the openly gay mayor, that’s who.

We can make the same case for the other elections as well. Yes, conservatives here and there will have some successes in blocking the progressive changes that continue to roll through our society. Such blocking maneuvers, however, are a rearguard action.

Voting against gender-neutral bathrooms does not change the fact that we are now considering gender-neutral bathrooms. Thirty years ago—heck, even five years ago—that would not have been up for debate.

I think we need a more nuanced answer to the question of winning and losing when it comes to our culture wars. In my recent book, I looked at the educational activism of conservatives during the twentieth century. A lot of the time, they won. But just as with these recent cases, conservatives tended to succeed only in blocking or delaying certain limited sections of progressive change. Progressives still set the cultural agenda.

Here’s my two cents: first of all, I agree with our dean of educational historians, Jon Zimmerman. Jon argued this week that it is mostly meaningless to talk about winning or losing in this context. As does this Atlantic article, talk about winning or losing is usually a tactic to rally the faithful of each side, not a clear-headed analysis of shifting cultural trends.

Having said that, I think we can discern a century-long trend with these sorts of fights. In every case, conservatives might win or lose the specific battle. They do not win the war. What they do win, time after time, is the right to be listened to, the right to be considered part of the conversation about these issues.

For progressives like me and most of my friends, progressive change seems like an obviously good idea. Of course people should be able to smoke pot if they want. Of course transgender people should be able to use appropriate bathrooms. Of course guns should be controlled, immigrants welcomed, and same-sex marriage rights should be honored.

When we see election results like this one, though, we are reminded that not everyone agrees with us. When we see how strongly people disagree, we should not tear our hair and gnash our teeth. We should not lament the narrow-mindedness of our fellow citizens.

Rather, we should recognize the vast differences between Americans when it comes to these issues. As we do here at ILYBYGTH, we should do our best to understand and even sympathize with those voters who disagree with us.

After all, the only real victory in our bitter culture wars will come when we can respect those with whom we disagree.

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  1. I’d like to toss my opinion in here regarding the pot initiative failing in Ohio. I believe it was’t defeated on the merits of the argument. I believe it failed because of the anger by voters at what they perceived as cronyism. Only 10 pot farms were going to be permitted to grow the stuff.

  2. @Adam – It sounds like your magnanimity is based on the idea your side has always been winning cultural hegemony and will continue to win, almost inevitably. If that is what you really think, then none of your seemingly generous prescriptions that follow make sense to me. They do not seem like they could possibly be sincere beyond a desire for your opponents to be good losers when you have had your fill of listening to them.

    Can you really “listen” — and is it worth anything to those you’re listening to — if they’re the predestined losers?

    Why should narrow-mindedness not be lamented but celebrated as difference?

    What is the basis for the inevitability of your idea of “progress,” and couldn’t it be removed or changed?

    My feeling is your entire way of framing the situation and our history is more conservative or neoliberal than progressive. You seem to focus on winning power and contested policy issues rather than achieving greater cohesion and consensus, or a particular idea of justice or the good. Progress in your thinking seems to emphasize sexual and intellectual freedoms in the cultural arena while all but ignoring the economic.

    There is a longstanding tradition of critique from both the radical right and left that capitalism (or the form of it we have) drives this type of “progress” or emancipation at the cost of community, custom, and tradition. In this view we end up with alienated selves who use identity politics as therapy and are (at their worst) little more than a bundle of consumptive desires directed toward personally-packaged self gratification. If this is so and produces a net loss then “progressives” are actually “regressives” cutting away at many of the values and virtues they wish to conserve and cultivate.

    The Atlantic’s coverage of the odd Yale student debacle over Halloween costumes is being interpreted as a case in point: has the therapeutic secular self “progressed” to a point where its demands for personal gratification and liberating rights revert to a form of fundamentalism that wants you to “listen” to it tell you to F–k off and fire yourself? And by “listen” you are to understand you are meant to remain silent and obey.


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