It’s Tough Finding Something New to Fight About

Have Our Culture Wars Ever Really Changed?


Ever since the founding of the United States, Americans have disagreed about what direction the country should take. While the immediate questions have changed, many of the deeper ones have stayed the same. So how different, really, are our conflicts today?  In advance of Colin Woodard’s visit to Zócalo to discuss the geography of America’s ideological divisions, several historians offer their opinions on what, if anything, has changed about the country’s culture wars.

The Wars Keep Changing–and That’s a Good Thing

No, we are not always fighting the same culture wars.

Certainly, some questions fundamental to human society will always remain in the process of being answered: Should government work to create equality? Should it ensure more liberty or exert more control? And who should decide? But history also reveals how defining cultural questions change.

Consider the Civil War Era. Between 1845 and 1848, the United States doubled in area, annexing the Oregon Territory and the Republic of Texas and conquering the vast lands of Mexico above the Rio Grande. This vast new western expanse was coveted by advocates of the nation’s three regions: pro-slavery southerners, who wished to expand their share of the economy and garner more political power; free-labor northerners, who desired the exact opposite; and western leaders, who thought a transcontinental railroad, built as soon as possible, would allow the American West to control the nation’s culture, politics, and economics and make the slavery debate irrelevant.

By 1877, the transcontinental railroad was built, the bloody Civil War was over, and the ambitious equalization efforts of Reconstruction were mostly abandoned. The United States had resolved the culture war over slavery, but not over civil rights; it had incorporated the West, but not resolved its land hunger. In the 1870s, elite Americans held explicit racial, gender, and religious preferences for everything from the President to professors to laundry workers. They debated how to improve the climate of the Great Basin, and they welcomed immigrants from around the world–as long as they were willing to fill predefined roles.

In as vigorous and diverse a society as the United States, we will always have issues that divide us; such disagreements are healthy. But we shouldn’t think these arguments never change.

Adam Arenson is the author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, and assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso.


Same Themes, New Context

The issues that generate intense debate among Americans clearly change over time. Our forebears were not arguing about same-sex marriage, abortion rights, multiculturalism, or family values. But how different were 19th-century disputes about temperance, Sabbath laws, and the abolition of slavery? The themes that frame such debates in American society may well be enduring.

The contemporary “culture wars” seem to pit duty and morality against individualism and self-expression. Yet if survey data are accurate, Americans have long maintained a strong belief in God and religion, conservative family values, and absolute moral standards as well as individualism, individual rights, and self-expression. Americans show greater respect for religion than citizens of most advanced industrial societies do, but remain uncertain about its public role. Strict separation of church and state vies with the idea that the public sphere is enhanced by religious discourse. Is individualism a paramount good or must its excesses be curbed in the name of the public good? Is there one mainstream American culture or should cultural pluralism prevail?

But if contemporary culture wars recapitulate the themes of earlier ones, they are different in their context. We now recognize that culture itself is fluid and malleable. If culture is not fixed, not a matter of beliefs internalized in childhood, then self-conscious efforts to shape cultural ideas become considerably more significant. The zeal of culture warriors derives from this intuition. And if our disputes about sexual behavior and family life, feminism and gay rights appear muted now as attitudes have converged to some extent, our efforts to redefine the appropriate balance between individualism and the public good are noisily playing out in the battles between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

Irene Taviss Thomson is professor emeritus of sociology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She is the author of Culture Wars and Enduring American Dilemmas.


Not Enough Has Changed

On the centennial of women’s suffrage in California, it’s easy to conclude that much has changed. The political battle between suffragists and the “antis,” as opponents were called, was a culture war over equal rights, women’s citizenship, and modernity. Women suffragists, first in California, then in other states, and finally nationally, won, in part, because they claimed women’s citizenship as they innovated mass-culture strategies like posters, movies, advertising, and public relations. To oppose suffrage was to oppose progress. Victorious, suffragists transformed future battles over women’s rights. Men voted for women’s suffrage after decades of women’s political activism. Thereafter, women, too, voted for (and against) reforms expanding women’s rights, and during the feminist movement revived public political protest, ultimately creating a gender gap no politician can safely ignore.

Charting the progress of the suffrage movement across the United States in 1919 shows how region shaped American women’s political power and legal status. Only women in the western states, on the west coast, and in the Midwest exercised full suffrage. In other regions, they voted only in certain types of elections or not at all. The vote was the first of many crucial political battles in the cause of women’s rights. In the 1960s and 1970s, some states’ laws still discouraged women from serving on juries, leaving women without access to a true jury of their peers. These days, abortion access is regionally determined. Whether a woman experiences a mandatory waiting period before an abortion depends on where she lives. Abortion providers are scarce in the South and the Midwest, more plentiful in the West and the East. Measured in pay, infant mortality, or representation in Congress, women’s equality is neither achieved, nor secure, nor equally distributed around the nation. That hasn’t changed.

Jessica Weiss is a professor of U.S. and U.S. Women’s History at the California State University, East Bay. She is co-editing an anthology of California women’s history and at work on a book on women’s responses to domesticity, work, and feminism in postwar America. She is the author of To Have and To Hold: Marriage, the Baby Boom, and Social Change.

*Photo courtesy of Ame Otoko