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Culture Wars:
The Struggle to Define America

by James Davison Hunter
Basic Books, 416 pages, $25

On first reading of Culture Wars, James Hunter’s study of America’s social divisions, I was greatly impressed. On reading it again, I am still impressed, but there are points at which I wanted Hunter to go a bit further, to push home his central theme with a bit more fervor, and to conclude his enormously informative cultural ethnography on a somewhat less agnostic note. 

Hunter claims that “the contemporary culture war touches virtually all Americans; nearly everyone has stories to tell.” In his prologue, he lifts up the stories of several characters who are poised as protagonists in the current cultural wars. For example: one of Hunter’s prototypical cultural combatants sees Jesus of Nazareth as a radical personalist and goes on to collapse any form of authority into unacceptable social control. Another insists that authority, in the most stodgy traditional sense, must prevail. Like the authors of Habits of the Heart, Hunter uses the stories people tell to demonstrate that our culture war is not simply the preoccupation of the chattering classes but, in fact, a morality play being enacted on the battleground of everyday life. “The voices heard here,” Hunter writes, “as well as those that make up the larger forum of public debate and discussion in America, cannot easily be caricatured; in the details each point of view is novel, indeed, incomparable.” The by-now ingrained tendency to categorize the views of opponents with bitterness and pronounce anathema on all they stand for distorts the public debate. Hunter claims, inviting extremism and demagogic action and reaction. Softening the harshness of current options and opening space for dialogue and compromise is one of Hunter’s central aims. At issue is nothing less than “how we as Americans will older our lives together.” 

The culture wars are being played for big stakes, in other words, and Hunter positions himself in a kind of discursive No Man’s Land, a zone separating bitter opponents who are armed to the teeth and determined to take no prisoners. Unlike Western culture’s old cultural wars-war—over religious tolerance and sexual tolerance of a rather basic sort—the current fault lines of cultural conflict are not so easily sorted out into the “tolerant” and the “intolerant.” Such smooth and certain sifting was probably never the case, save in the textual fantasies of determined Whiggish propagandists (but that’s another story). Rather, America’s cultural conflict is “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding.” A strength of Hunter’s analysis is that he eschews the namby-pamby reductionism of emotivism and positivism in its vulgar forms, a world in which everyone has an “opinion” and no one a “truth.” He appreciates the fact that the conflicts he exposes and elaborates are not mere clashes of “bias” but, rather, consist of fundamental commitments and beliefs tangled up with, and constitutive of, the identity, purpose, and “togetherness” of individuals and whole communities.

 Those involved in cultural conflict are both passionate and interested on a whole range of issues—“abortion, child care, funding for the arts, affirmative action quotas, gay rights, values in public education, or multiculturalism”—matters tethered to what a culture transmits to its next generation and on whose authority that transmission occurs. Is it experts? Academics? Parents? Managers? Citizens? Volunteer groups? The market? The state? When Martin Luther was at work on his great translation of the Bible into German, he thundered in typical Lutheran fashion that, rather than consulting the experts of his day (“these asses”), one must instead “ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace about this, and look them in the mouth to see how they speak, and afterwards do our translating . . . .” The fight between the experts and the ordinary folks goes back a long, long way.

 Those who suggest that the cultural issues enumerated above are somehow not “real” issues but a kind of foaming froth beneath which is the solid ground of authentic substance miss the boat altogether. Sexual morality, for example, matters to people. It matters because it has to do with how children are reared. It matters because it speaks to notions of responsibility and respect. It matters because it points to competing ontologies. It matters because it signifies who gets listened to and authorized to instruct the young and who does not. Hunter is on to the deep and abiding importance of issues that cannot be aggregated, measured, and crunched. He appreciates that cultural symbols are, in the words of Clifford Geertz, “vehicles of enshrined meaning.” 

Our public culture is more, much more, than procedural norms and codes. We are talking, finally and inexorably, about our identities, private as well as public, about who we are as a nation. Insisting that the forces arrayed on either side of a whole slew of volatile issues can “only talk past one another,” that the views cast as volleys in each and every round of cultural combat are “indeed incomparable,” Hunter maps a moral and political deadlock. The “cultural conservatives tend to define freedom economically (as individual initiative) and justice socially (as righteous living),” whereas “progressives tend to define freedom socially (as individual rights) and justice economically (as equity).” The combatants pledge allegiance “to different formulations and sources of moral authority,” with cultural conservatives placing great faith in the wisdom of the past and cultural progressives seeing in the past little but ignorance and unenlightened intolerance. The conflict between the two sides takes place within just about every arena available—“family, education, popular media, and law.” If you are an American, you can run but you cannot hide—you may not be interested in the culture war but it is definitely interested in you. 

So much for the territory. What about the conceptual map Hunter offers? Hunter could use a guide or two in deepening and enriching his theoretical framework. Why not, for example, turn to Vaclav Havel, who insists that the old right-left divide leaves one with a sense of “emerging from the depths of the last century.” Thus I found it with Hunter’s categories of “orthodox” versus “progressive.” To write at this late date about “impulses toward orthodoxy” and “towards progressivism” is to skew the debate and to commit oneself to a teleology that is, by Hunter’s own reckoning, deeply suspect. I refer, of course, to the progressivist Weltanschauung that poses “orthodoxy” as that which must always be jettisoned in favor of some presumably more enlightened alternative. The categories “orthodox” and “progressive” are not conceptually neutral—they trail in their wake a whole set of presumptions geared against one side to the dispute. For ours is a culture in which to be progressive is to be American: is not progress our most important product? Counterposing orthodoxy to progressivism in America is rather like matching popery against parliamentarianism in Cromwell’s England. 

A related problem is that Hunter delays until near the end of his book making explicit his recognition that the culture wars are not being conducted on an even playing field. The “progressive alliance” is disproportionately upper-middle-class while the “orthodox alliance” tends to be drawn from the “lower, middle, and working classes.” Here, too, things are skewed in favor of one side: surely the educated views of the educated are to be preferred to the blinkered views of the less educated. Hunter suggests an equivalence of warring armies that does not exist. Much of the position Hunter calls “progressive” has been institutionalized in universities and the knowledge industry in a way the “orthodox” position cannot possibly match. At one point, Hunter places the president of Yale, the president of ABC News, the ACLU, Americans for Democratic Action, and People for the American Way against Jimmy Swaggart and a fundamentalist newspaper from Decatur, Georgia. 

What’s wrong with this picture? Denouncing extremists on both sides is well and good. But considering that one side can bring to bear the great authority of media and educational institutions while the other side can muster no such array of forces, a reader of Hunter’s book might well conclude that the war is pretty much over and that what we are now living through, and with, is a mopping-up operation by the “progressive side” with its backing from the state-provisioned “financial, personnel, and administrative infrastructure for the knowledge industry.” Why, one wonders, doesn’t Hunter make more of this disparity and sooner? He acknowledges (on p. 298) that the “institutional resources and power behind the progressivist vision are at least as strong, or probably much stronger, than those favoring the orthodox.” This is what is known as an understatement. 

A third problem is Hunter’s definition of cultural conflict as “ultimately about the struggle for domination.” At another point he claims that the “struggle for power (which is the essence of politics) is in large part a struggle between competing truth claims.” Why throw in the towel and line up with those who claim that beneath every well-argued perspective lurks a complainant hell-bent on hegemony? Power as dominion and force is one chief form power has taken in the West. But this does not and must not exhaust our understanding of power, or we are in deep trouble indeed. Hannah Arendt went so far as to refuse to accept hegemony and imposition as legitimate expressions of power. For her, such compulsion was anti-power, anti-politics. Power, she suggested, is the ability to act in common, deriving more from the Latin potentia than from potestas. Power in this view is relational, contextual, shifting. To reduce power to domination and go on to insist that this is the very “essence” of politics is to move in directions that undercut the moral claims Hunter hopes not only to understand but to sustain. 

Finally, Hunter’s solutions trail off into abstraction. He, along with many of us, calls for a revivification of public discourse in order that we might “sustain a genuine and peaceable pluralism.” He believes we must, as a people, reclaim the center. He fears our liberal democracy is in a danger zone, having lost its ability to make “equitable public policy.” But his “practical steps” to create “democratic possibilities” are themselves the democratic verities to which the “steps” are meant to lead. Hunter wants a changed environment for public discourse, a rejection of the impulse of a public quiescence, and a recognition “of the sacred within different moral communities and the weaknesses and dangers in one’s own moral commitments.” 

Here he has happened on a central conundrum articulated explicitly by Rousseau in The Social Contract: “In order for an emerging people to appreciate the healthy maxims of politics, and follow the fundamental rules of statecraft, the effect would have to become the cause; the social spirit, which should be the result of the institution, would have to preside over the founding of the institution itself; and men would have to be prior to laws what they ought to become by means of laws.” Rousseau’s classic dilemma holds that a people must adopt the principles that sustain life in “the ethical polity” in a manner that gives rise to the very ends from which such principles ought properly to derive. 

Put more simply, Hunter’s “practical steps” as the means to achieve democratic possibility are, instead, the substantive ends of a robust, pluralist democracy. The committed yet ironic democracy Hunter calls for and cherishes (as do I) awaits its new and no doubt rather different Reinhold Niebuhr. That paragon, should he or she arise in our midst, will find Culture Wars—its weaknesses notwithstanding—an indispensable guide to our current discontents.

Jean Bethke Elshtaina member of the Editorial Advisory Board of First Things, is Centennial Professor of Political Science and Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.