The ongoing uproar after the election of Donald Trump led the sociologist
James Davison Hunter to reflect in a fresh way on the engines driving
political conflict and social division. Back in the early 1990s, he
popularized the phrase “culture war,” the now-indispensable term to
describe the struggle for the political and cultural power to define the
future of the United States. In the second decade of the twenty-first
century, he sees that this struggle has “evolved and metastasized into a
class war.” Of course, the culture war has always been a class war. Thirty
years ago, when Hunter first began studying it, the culture war was a fight
within the broad American middle class, a contest over which of its wings
would prevail over the other. Then as now, it pitted a new, economically
ascendant class of professionals and “creative industry” managers against a
downwardly mobile bloc of “old economy” elites and the middle and working
classes tied to them. Our politics are enflamed because this struggle is
ongoing, and the stakes are high. It is a battle not just for prestige but
for supremacy and rule in every domain of social life—culture, economy,
Sociologists have long recognized that culture is a means of exercising power and is therefore a basic component of social class. Pierre Bourdieu defined social class as the interplay between “material systems” and “symbolic systems.” From Bourdieu’s perspective, both material goods and cultural goods structure society. The ownership of property or membership in the 1 percent gives one power, to be sure. But status also plays a role, and this kind of power arises from the possession of what Bourdieu called “cultural capital” taking the form of objects (like art), social practices (like language), and social institutions (like the university). The president of an elite university may have far less wealth than an investment banker or entrepreneur, but in many circumstances, he has far more influence.
Bourdieu’s most famous work, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, is a study of how classes use culture to classify, taking symbolic acts to define their status, differentiate themselves from others, and legitimate their exercise of power. In Distinction Bourdieu studied the French class system of the post–World War II era. He measured significant differences in judgments of taste across the social classes in art, music, literature, home decor, food, and the like. He went on to demonstrate how these aesthetic practices serve as signs of normative distinction, ranking people as “higher” and “lower,” or “refined” and “coarse.” This has political significance. The distinctions of taste do not simply differentiate society into parts. They organize it into a hierarchy and legitimate that hierarchy. In Bourdieu’s words, “all the forms of benediction and malediction, eulogy, praise, congratulations, compliments, or insults, reproaches, criticisms, accusations, slanders, etc.” have the effect of distinguishing people, putting them into both social and moral categories that translate into political ones. Those who are “higher” constitute the elite, while those who are “lower” are the masses.
This correlation between cultural status and political power can be seen in the history of the United States. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, alcohol consumption was a prominent sign of distinction in American society. One did not simply have a personal view on temperance. One was a “Wet” or a “Dry.” These identities encompassed far more than just attitudes toward drinking. For nearly a century, abstinence was a marker of membership in the native, white, Protestant, preindustrial middle class and expressed a commitment to its values. Consumption of alcohol distinguished one as a Catholic, an immigrant, a city-dweller, a ne’er-do-well. From the Second Great Awakening to the Civil War, conservative Protestants dominated the country’s institutions. Their morality was taught in the public schools. Their churches were central institutions of socialization. Their clergy played prominent roles in the moral life of the country. Nearly all debate took place within the contours of conservative Protestant sensibilities.
Beginning in the 1870s, however, the influence of this Protestant establishment began to wane. A new secular university model emerged, supported by the rising titans of industrial capitalism. The academy focused increasingly on research rather than on character formation. New professions such as psychiatry and social work arose, sometimes under the sponsorship of Protestant seminaries eager to draw upon the new prestige of science and academic training, but soon wholly separate from, and usually rival to, churches and their ministers. In the cultural categories then ascendant, conservative Protestants became “fundamentalists.” The famous 1925 Scopes trial over the teaching of evolution in public schools was their ultimate pyrrhic victory. By the Great Depression, conservative Protestants had been driven from the halls of power by liberal Protestants and their allies. The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 was the final symbol of their rout. The rural and small-town Protestant middle class was marginalized in its own society.
Liberal Protestants became the core of a new elite. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the mainline of American Protestantism preached critical theology and an earnest ethic of social responsibility. It supplied the country with its leading hospitals, social service organizations, civic groups, national youth organizations, architectural touchstones, and political elites. Mainline Protestant institutions commanded tremendous prestige. In 1930 John D. Rockefeller Jr. built Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan for the prominent anti-fundamentalist Baptist minister Harry Emerson Fosdick so the latter could preach modernist theology to a self-consciously interdenominational congregation. Rockefeller’s money later enabled the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical Christian organization born from the social gospel movement, to construct its famous Interchurch Center across the street. In 1958 President Dwight Eisenhower laid the building’s cornerstone in a ceremony attended by the president of the United Nations General Assembly.
In this era, the Catholic Church emerged as liberals’ primary antagonist. Whether in religion, language, ethnicity, region, political party, or social class, the liberal Protestant elite differed greatly from what looked like not simply the new immigrant masses but a rival power structure. Contraception became a powerful sign of distinction. Small, planned families had long been a hallmark of mainline Protestant life. The Episcopal Church endorsed birth control in 1930, followed quickly by the Federal Council of Churches (predecessor to the National Council of Churches) in 1931. After World War II, American elites were rallying behind contraception as both a liberal cause for freedom at home and a technological fix for rapid population growth abroad. Association with contraception, sterilization, and eventually abortion signaled respectability and elite status. Former presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman co-chaired a national Planned Parenthood fundraising committee. John Kennedy, America’s only Catholic president, endorsed family planning as a component of U.S. development assistance. In his popular anti-Catholic book American Freedom and Catholic Power, published in a second edition in 1958, Paul Blanshard noted that “birth control has won both acceptance and respectability in the United States. Almost all well-to-do people in the country practice it.” He also noted that respectable people had come to support “eugenic sterilization” of those who are “diseased, feebleminded, and a menace to normal community life.”
Over time the class distinction of contraception disappeared. The moral acceptability of birth control became nearly universal, while Catholic and Protestant fertility rates equalized. Elite campaigns to liberalize abortion laws, culminating in the Roe decision, reoriented social debate without producing a definitive pro-choice class culture. Attitudes toward contraception, fertility, and family size receded as clear indicators of class status.
Liberal Protestants’ post-sixties demographic and institutional free fall added to the blurring of the older social divide of elite Protestant versus striving Catholic. Yet even as mainline institutions rapidly declined from their midcentury zenith, the ethos of liberal Protestantism conquered the larger culture. Today the twin ideals of the authority of individual experience and a commitment to social criticism are dominant, the former a secularized version of Protestant modernism’s emphasis on experience over dogma, the latter a descendant of the social gospel movement and liberal Protestantism’s missionary cosmopolitanism. By conquering society’s leading cultural institutions, liberal Protestantism essentially made its own churches and congregations redundant.
Yet the liberal Protestant engines of class distinction were not destroyed in the process. They were merely moved out of the churches and reinstalled in the old-line WASP colleges and universities. Those who would have been Episcopalians and Congregationalists in a prior era were now post-Protestants, less ethnically homogeneous and increasingly religiously unaffiliated, but still in charge. If anything, elite power has increased. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are far wealthier than they were during the decades of liberal Protestant dominance, and they exercise greater power. As Bourdieu recognized, however, status is buttressed by superiority in “taste.” As the old cultural markers of class distinctions receded, the post-Protestant elite needed new ways with which to legitimate their authority and condemn their rivals. By the 1990s, contraception’s cultural charge had all but run out, and the country even became somewhat more conservative on abortion. The time was ripe for a new elite to cultivate a new sign of distinction.
As early as 2005, polls showed a plurality of Americans with advanced degrees supported same-sex marriage. College graduates overall tilted to supporting marriage for same-sex couples around 2008. Not until 2011 did a majority of the country overall support legal recognition. Since consistent opinion polling on homosexuality began in the 1970s, higher professionals—engineers, computer scientists, accountants, professors, lawyers, physicians—have always been the most supportive class. Higher managers began to catch up in the 1990s. Throughout the past four decades, there has existed a clear relationship between social class and views on homosexuality. The more economic and cultural capital one has, the more likely one is to support gay and lesbian identities and sexual practices.
Changes in elite family practices help explain the symbolic resonance of same-sex marriage. A model of the ideal family is central to class culture. It defines proper expression of sexual desire and the proper relationship between the sexes, and in this way defines the meaning of homosexuality. In their 2010 book Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, Naomi Cahn and June Carbone identify a “blue family” model characteristic of America’s contemporary elites. In this model, marriage is ordered primarily toward companionship. The equality of partners is the normative core of the family. Gender roles are weakly differentiated and inherently suspect. Fertility is optional, intentional, and comparatively low in practice. Religion plays little role in regulating sexual behavior. This model is not only perfectly compatible with same-sex marriage. To some, same-sex (usually professional, usually lesbian) couples are a social ideal precisely because they so faithfully live out the blue family model.
There is another factor at work: the ideology of diversity. Diversity is not only the reigning social and political ideal of our age. It is also a class ideology. According to diversity ideology, when properly managed, pluralism cultivates creativity, productivity, profitability, work satisfaction, cognitive skills, personal character, individual career success, and social harmony. Homosexuality occupies a favorable symbolic location in this ideology. Not only has the gay rights movement literally wrapped itself in the rainbow flag of diversity; gays and lesbians also symbolize the individualist and success-oriented values of diversity. Understanding homosexuality as a powerful brew of authenticity and prestige helps make sense of the level of enthusiasm in “creative class” support for same-sex marriage. It doesn’t hurt that gay men and lesbians pose no challenge to elites. In fact, they are often elites themselves. Partnered gay men and partnered lesbians are overrepresented in the highest professional and managerial ranks, which means the imperative of inclusion ends up legitimating efforts to hire and promote people who, like other elites, have often graduated from prestigious universities, come from well-off families, and bring the same standards of upper-class “taste” to companies and firms. Privileging the normalization of homosexuality rather than, say, racial integration allows elites to have their diversity cake and eat it, too.
Support for the normalization of homosexuality and same-sex marriage has thus proven itself a valuable mark of distinction in the class culture wars. Active proponents of “traditional” marriage are regularly discouraged from practicing or purged from professions such as psychiatry, psychology, social work, law, and higher education. The perceived incompatibility of professional status with cultural conservatism is so accepted that the former chair of the American Psychological Association’s Policy and Planning Board recommends that dissenters from “the demands of multiculturally informed, ethical practice . . . should probably find a different line of work.” In 2014, Reuters reviewed more than one hundred court filings on the subject of same-sex marriage and found that thirty of the country’s two hundred largest law firms represented challengers to state Defense of Marriage Acts, while not a single Am Law 200 firm was representing state DOMA supporters. Judicial refusal to conduct same-sex marriages is considered a violation of professional ethics in nearly all states, and judges in Washington, Oregon, Alabama, Ohio, and Wyoming have been subjected to disciplinary procedures. A 2007 survey found that Evangelicals and Mormons are the least liked religious groups among American university faculty by a wide margin. A 2008 survey revealed that Christian fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and Mormons were the most likely of twenty-seven social groups to experience discrimination in academic hiring. Across nine different fields in the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences, even transgender and communist applicants faced better job prospects.
Elites use their support of homosexuality to elevate themselves, according themselves distinction in a moral sense. The “contact hypothesis”—a sociological claim that one’s views of marginalized groups grow more positive through greater personal contact with them—is a favorite among elites, despite having rather mixed empirical support. This empathetic theory of the normalization of homosexuality does, however, contain a strong moral undertone that flatters precisely those who have changed their opinions through contact with gay men and lesbians, or who believe as much about themselves. Consider Martha Nussbaum’s 2010 book From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law. Nussbaum depicts America’s public debate over homosexuality and same-sex marriage as a Manichean clash. In her view, the “forces of imagination and humanity” contest with a rogue’s gallery of high-caste Indians, Southern white supremacists, German Nazis, and their fellow travelers who practice a “politics of disgust” reflecting “some deeper sort of anxiety or aversion.” One need not guess which side Nussbaum is on.
Or recall Hillary Clinton’s infamous condemnation of Donald Trump’s “basket of deplorables” in September 2016. This remark was made at the “LGBT for Hillary Gala” held at the Cipriani restaurant on Wall Street. Amy Chozick reported in the New York Times that Clinton had been using this line throughout the campaign in private settings. It had “always got a laugh over living-room chats in the Hamptons, at dinner parties under the stars on Martha’s Vineyard, over passed hors d’oeuvres in Beverly Hills, and during sunset cocktails in Silicon Valley.” Unfortunately for Clinton and her presidential prospects, on this occasion a few deplorables were listening in. Nussbaum’s hope that the courts would continue to advance the cause of imagination and humanity (because “democratic majorities can’t yet be trusted”) was ultimately realized in 2015. If only the forces of darkness had had their ability to vote for president likewise restricted, the 2016 election could have brought a similar triumph.
The stakes in any cultural clash are high. All the combatants know as much. No wonder they fight so hard. The class that succeeds in consolidating its own culture and making it mandatory for anyone who wants to gain entry into the elite gets to sit at the top of the social hierarchy. Its class ethos becomes society’s ethic, defining what is elevated versus what is base, what is natural versus what is abnormal, what is unquestioned versus what is questioned, what is rational versus what is irrational or even insane. The fight is over nothing less than who has the power to define reality. To lose such a fight is not just to be consigned to the wrong side of history or become the point of reference for “that’s not who we are.” It is to have the weight of the dominant culture pressed firmly against you, peeling away members of your side and undermining the ability and willingness of the remainder to resist. It is to be denied access to elite institutions and networks, and to all the material and social benefits they confer. It is even to have the force of law and thus ultimately the power of the state used against you.
Those who dissent from the new affirmation of homosexuality, and now transgenderism, have sought to avoid more serious legal sanctions by means of state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. When they originated in the 1990s, RFRAs were uncontroversial, bipartisan, and widely popular. The ACLU dwelled with the Christian Legal Society, and the National Association of Evangelicals lay down with the American Humanist Association. By 2015 they were being condemned by progressives as a “sword of discrimination.” In the face of remarkably united elite opposition, these laws have proven to be of limited use. Where elites are most plentiful and powerful, namely the Northeast and the Pacific coast, meaningful state-level RFRAs don’t exist at all. Even in conservative states with moderate numbers of elites, such as Arizona, Georgia, and Indiana, RFRAs have been either defeated or stripped of any power to protect traditionalists. Only in elite deserts such as Mississippi and Louisiana have such laws passed in strong forms.
Demonstrating their ever-growing commitment to the distinction of LGBT rights, in 2016 elites marshaled a full-scale economic and legal assault on the state of North Carolina. In March of that year, the state legislature passed and the governor signed the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, better known as the “North Carolina bathroom bill.” This law overturned a Charlotte ordinance granting transgender persons free access to sex-segregated facilities of their choice and instead required all persons to use sex-segregated facilities in a manner consistent with the sex recorded on their birth certificate. Within a week of passage, the LGBT rights organization Human Rights Campaign organized more than eighty top executives from major firms including Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Apple, and United Airlines. They signed a letter urging the governor to work toward a repeal of the law. PayPal publicly cancelled its plans to open a new global operations center in the state. Over the summer and fall, the state’s movie and television industries dried up; the National Basketball Association pulled its planned 2017 all-star game out of Charlotte; the NCAA removed seven championship tournaments from the state, including the first and second rounds of 2017 “March Madness” basketball; and the real estate research firm CoStar Group announced it had chosen Virginia over North Carolina for its new research operations center. Forbes magazine estimated that the bathroom bill had cost the state economy more than $600 million in lost investment and revenue in only seven months.
The strategy proved effective. Although Donald Trump comfortably won the state’s presidential ballot by nearly 175,000 votes, the Republican governor lost by 10,000 and became North Carolina’s first sitting governor in nearly 170 years to lose reelection. While Trump’s victory ended the federal government’s pressure on the state, the capital strike against North Carolina continued. In order to get out from under the boot of big business—what former Forbes 400 entrepreneur Tim Gill calls a “punish the wicked” strategy—the Republican-led state legislature repealed the bathroom bill in March 2017.
Back when Massachusetts was the only state in the country to recognize same-sex marriage, Chai Feldblum, who later served as commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under both Presidents Obama and Trump, observed that religious liberty and LGBT rights were trapped in a “zero-sum game.” In her view, any pretense to mutually beneficial compromise between the two is impossible, and state neutrality between them a charade. As long as religious conservatives hold same-sex sexual behavior to be morally suspect while cultural liberals hold it to be natural and moral, every action and inaction of the state is a choice to recognize one side against the other. While classical liberals may want to wish this conflict away, it cannot be done. Appeals to First Amendment rights to religious liberty run immediately into Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection. And as the great theorist of class struggle Karl Marx himself observed, “between equal rights force decides.”
Culture wars are never strictly cultural. They are always economic and political struggles as well. Elites rule through an interlocking political-economic-cultural system. The mainstream media certifies whose political ideas are respectable and whose are extremist. Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, academia, and white-shoe professional firms are all part of the postindustrial “knowledge economy” that allocates economic rewards. As American elites become increasingly integrated and culturally homogenous, they begin to treat their cultural rivals as subordinate classes. The same thing happened nearly a century ago to the rural and small-town Protestants whom H. L. Mencken derided as the “booboisie.” Many would like to see it happen again, this time to anyone who challenges the dogmas of diversity and progressivism that have become suspiciously universal among the richest and most powerful Americans, dominating the elite institutions they control. If cultural traditionalists want to survive, they must not only acknowledge but embrace the class dimensions of the culture war.
Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College and author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage.
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