Culture war

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Trump supporters are a grim reminder that millions of voters view the government as a hammer that can be wielded to smash opposing values or groups and force their beliefs on others. Educating the electorate about libertarian ideas misses the fact that they have no real incentive to learn; most don’t care about the relationship between man and state and likely never will, as long as the state continues to provide the stability they have come to expect.
—Jason Farrell[1]

In the United States and Canada, "culture wars" (or, occasionally Kulturkampf,[2] lit. "culture struggle") is the term used to refer to the political discourse surrounding issues that are ostensibly rooted in tightly held values but generally excluding issues that are informed by values associated with business, commerce, and the accumulation of wealth and power. Although the issues of the culture war are guided by emotionally-charged values, some may still have significant economic impact.

The term became popular in reference to U.S. politics after Patrick Buchanan made it the theme of his speech in the 1992 Republican convention, although the endless debates over social issues of secularization vs. religious conservatism go back much earlier in the U.S. For example, the German word Kulturkampf dates from the late-1800s. Since the late 2010s the term has become more common in British public discourse, particularly in debates over national identity, race, and Empire.


Most of these battles are over things like gay rights, abortion, feminism, pornography, the sexual revolution, drugs, multiculturalism, the role of religion in American society, school prayer, gun control, and the teaching of evolution. Other battles come and go depending on what moral panic is currently in vogue. These debates have been going on for decades long before Buchanan popularized the current term for them. During the 1960s and 1970s, the culture wars were often framed as a "generation gap" between rebellious youth and their more conventional parents and included debates over long hair on men, rock music, conscription, and the hippie movement. During the early 20th century, it took the form of endless debates over alcohol prohibition, fundamentalism versus modernism in religion, a perceived threat to American cultural hegemony from Roman Catholic immigrants, Bolsheviks and labor radicals, birth control, Germanophobia during World War I, and the old standby, evolution, which seems to be a constant.

Strategies and tactics[edit]

Social issues associated with a culture war are often employed by those who are not actually vested in the culture war – those who hold the pursuit of wealth and power as their primary value. They use the culture war as a means to get people to act against their own economic self-interest and to distract voters' attention. An example would be a candidate who opposes raising the minimum wage, but instead emphasizes race or immigration issues to court the support of minimum wage workers, who may feel strongly about those issues. Another example would be a candidate who wants to raise taxes. The candidate may avoid discussing higher taxes and instead talk about gun rights or freedom of religion in order to gain support from those who may otherwise oppose the candidate's position on raising taxes. The reciprocal is also the case – those whose causes are part of the culture war may recruit support from power-players to form a symbiotic relationship.

Why the culture war persists[edit]

Most political observers will tell you they are sick of these wars, yet they will never give up their own side.

The truth is that the culture wars threaten every individual's ideals at the deepest levels, making them intensely personal. Even though the wars are often just over symbols, they strike so deep that we feel the need to respond, in a way pocketbook issues just can't. Furthermore, despite frivolous issues like the War on Christmas being lumped onto the broad label of culture wars, some fronts are literally a matter of life and death for the people involved.

Also, the idea of there being separate political spheres for economic and cultural political conflict tends to result from the limited perceptions of members of more privileged groups. For example, when considering issues such as the receipt of spousal benefits by same-sex couples, the economic and social aspects are intertwined indivisibly, as these issues concern the disparate economic statuses held by members of different social demographics. Indeed, these intersections between economic, social, and cultural issues are why the term "socioeconomic" has seen widespread use by political commentators and policymakers.

In the United Kingdom[edit]

A similar culture war has been stoked up by British politicians certainly since 2015, with much of it initially focused on issues of national identity around Brexit. More recently Black Lives Matter led to a wider reappraisal of Britain's colonial history, with many public bodies and historians elucidating the role of slavery and colonialist exploitation in Britain's past, only to receive a volley of abuse from the Conservative Party and right-wing media.[3] Boris Johnson, who had form as a jingoistic journalist at The Spectator and elsewhere, has been accused of deliberately stirring up arguments over race in order to provoke a wider culture war, such as with the government's 2021 report on racism in Britain; this can be seen as an attempt to outflank populists such as Nigel Farage and Laurence Fox.[4]

Russia and Ukraine[edit]

Russia's invasion of Ukraine became a theater of the culture wars in 2022 as, according to some conservatives politicians and pundits, the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin represents traditional values while Ukraine, despite being a mostly Christian nation, is a "degenerate" country for not presecuting LGBT people so much. According to Steve Bannon on a podcast, “Putin ain’t woke. He’s anti-woke.” On the same podcast, Erik Prince replied that "The Russian people still know which bathroom to use" and that "They don’t have the flags, they don’t have the Pride flags outside of their."[5] The former American representative Madison Cawthorn said that "the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt, and it is incredibly evil, and it has been pushing woke ideologies”[6] After his sycophantic interview with Putin, Tucker Carlson also tried to paint Russia as some sort of utopia, claiming that Moscow is "so much cleaner, and prettier aesthetically — its architecture, its food, its service — than any city in the United States",[7] while ignoring the fact that Russia is a kleptocracy of oligarchs and that the income per capita in Russia is less than half of the American income.[8]

See also[edit]