Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Who’s Actually Responsible for the “Culture War”?

Is it really the liberals?
July 12, 2021
Who’s Actually Responsible for the “Culture War”?
(Photos: GettyImages /Shutterstock)

There is a poll that’s been going around for the past week or so that is providing some comforting affirmation of priors for the crowd of elite Republicans who secretly hate Trump but are just scared shitless about “Kamala’s America.” The Edmund Burke write-in set, if you will.

The data was first compiled by the liberal blogger Kevin Drum in a post titled, “If you hate the culture wars, blame liberals.” Drum looked at a series of metrics to demonstrate that Democratic voters have moved further left than Republicans have moved right in recent years. You can read the whole thing here.

Peggy Noonan essentially turned over her entire WSJ column last week to Drum (a nice gig if you can get it), quoting him at great length before asking “Why, then, is it still conventional wisdom on the left and in the mainstream media that it is conservatives who are culture warmongers?”

When I got to that rhetorical query I was taken back to fourth-grade social studies class when I still felt an earnest jolt of joy knowing I had the answer. Pick me! Pick me! I know!

And well, the TL;DR is this: that data is addressing the views of voters, while the “conventional wisdom” is responding to the actions of politicians and political media personalities.

Look again at Drum’s polls:

First, a couple nitpicks.

  1. Some of these issues don’t really have anything to do with the “culture war” as we popularly understand it. For instance: Democrats becoming more “partisan” on taxes is definitely a policy shift, but isn’t a cultural issue.
  1. The cultural issue with the biggest movement is same-sex marriage—but here we see a huge leftward shift among all voters. And also, I would fundamentally reject the notion that the emergence of broad and widespread agreement that gay people should have equal marriage rights is evidence of “liberal warmongering.” Isn’t that just an example of Democratic voters going from hit-or-miss to being uniformly in support of equality and Republicans kinda sorta deciding to just go along with it?

Nitpicks aside, it is undeniable that Democratic base voters have moved left and become more uniformly partisan on a series of issues. And there’s no doubt that schools and corporations and other institutions have shifted left alongside them.

Drum writes that if this shift is “not done with empathy and tact it risks outrunning the vast middle part of the country, which progressive activists seem completely uninterested in talking to.”

This is valid political analysis. There are political ramifications to swift leftward shifts on various cultural issues that the Democrats should reckon with as David Shor and others have argued. There are also real social and cultural ramifications. It can create social strife for culturally conservative Americans to feel uncomfortable expressing their views at home or in the workplace for fear of being chastised—or worse—over issues they have little familiarity with.

All of this is absolutely correct.

But when it comes to the actions of politicians, the aggressive, top down Culture War is being driven overwhelmingly from the right. And the shift rightward among Republican politicians on culture war issues is as dramatic—if not more so—than the leftward shift among Democratic voters on policy.

Consider the Ohio Senate race as just one representative example. Rob Portman was the first Republican senator to come out for gay marriage and he even beat quite a few of his Democratic colleagues to the punch. You would no more catch him feigning outrage over the latest culture war nontroversy du jour than you would see him taking down Herschel Walker in an MMA fight.

Well, Portman is yesterday’s man. He’s exiting stage right and any other such Republicans with accommodating dispositions are being either actively expelled from party politics or are self-deporting.

Meanwhile, the race to replace Portman is a culture war parody so ludicrously mockable that the dialogue would make Christopher Guest roll his eyes and ask that the volume be turned back down to a 9.

In the past week, J.D. Vance has:

  • Tweeted about how he’s scared to go to New York because it might be dirty.
  • Defended a Nazi from being kicked off of twitter.
  • Shared a thread defending election fraud conspiracies.
  • Fantastically claimed Google was “hiding” his website.
  • Mocked reporters for saying they were traumatized by the Capitol riot.

His opponent, Josh Mandel, uses a pinned tweet atop his Twitter timeline in which he robotically burns a mask like a high-school pyromaniac.

Mandel has tweeted about many of the same “issues” as J.D.—while adding a dollop of Islamophobia and a broadside at the gay pride parade as well, going so far as to suggest Biden’s preference for it over the Mt. Rushmore fireworks might reveal his “real agenda.” (Don’t tell Josh, but here’s a preview of what the gays have planned. It’s going to be lit!)

Now look across the aisle at what the Democrat running for the that Ohio Senate seat—Rep. Tim Ryan—is doing with his social media feed. It is entirely made up of pablum about jobs for working families and pictures of him visiting union workers. His most recent issue-related post endorsed voting rights, infrastructure, and bringing down health care costs. He’s not running on reparations, or a program to take away the tax exempt status of churches or mandating Ibram X. Kendi books in middle-school curricula.

Tim Ryan won’t even engage in culture war battles when his opponents bait him with a Fight Me About Drag Queen Story Hour I Dare You dunce cap. I tried to find the last example of Ryan sending a tweet that could be described as liberal culture war fodder but got bored around mid-June and gave up.

The story is basically the same in competitive races all across the country, where you see Democrats focusing on bread-and-butter issues while their Republican counterparts get big mad about Dr. Seuss’s self-cancellation.

And this is a replica of last year’s general election during which Biden leaned into the “Sleepy Joe” nickname with the most soporific presidential campaign rhetoric in memory, while Trump was drunk-driving from outrage to outrage looking to pick any fight he could. Caravans! All Lives Matter! CNN and Fredo! Flag Burning! Murder Antifa! Kneeling NFL Players!

Meanwhile here in 2021, Republican bigwigs spent the weekend participating in an anti-vaccine, election truthing freak show in Texas that could best be described as All Culture; No Cattle. And the entire party unified last week around the fabricated and deadly culture war that vilifies public servants who are simply trying to offer people a life-saving vaccine in the comfort of their own home.

Back to Peggy Noonan for a moment. In her column she concluded that “the cultural provocations that are currently tearing us apart do, certainly and obviously, come from progressives.”

Are the provocateurs she refers to the politicians in power, or the double masking Average Janes (She/Her) who annoy her at her Upper East Side zumba class?

That’s kind of an important distinction.

Take this for example: Last year around this time George Floyd was brutally killed by a police officer in Minnesota, which set off a nationwide protest movement calling for police reform. This was a leftward shift! A bipartisan group of politicians has tried to address the issue by debating a wide range of policy options. Progressive activists agitated for more aggressive change (ACAB). And the Republican president gassed the protesters and threatened to shoot them. In the political context, who is the provocateur? The killer cop? The protesters? The anarchists? Or the president who used this moment of strife to divide rather than to heal? I know my answer.

The thing about Drum’s analysis is that it’s undeniably true that the political Overton window has shifted left on some issues. But the voter support for that shift isn’t the only determining factor in trying to understand what—and who—is tearing this country apart.

Social change is constant.

Civil rights, technology, advancements in science, new religions and philosophical concepts, demographic shifts—these specific changes are always new, but change itself is constant. Whether it’s people moving from farms to cities, computers remaking the workplace, or gay folks wanting the right to marry.

This country is a living organism, not a display in a museum.

And while social changes are inevitable, they’re also flammable. Throughout history demagogues of all political persuasions have used these changes to try to create resentment as a tool to amass power.

It’s the inflamers, the arsonists who are responsible for the “war” part of the culture war.

Yes, the scores of millions of people who create cultural change in the daily comings and goings of their lives should be more forbearing with everyone else. That would be awesome. #Endorse #LiveTheChange

But that’s not where the “culture war” comes from. The culture war is the creation of specific, powerful people—whose names we all know—who cynically and intentionally view conflict as a means to increase their power.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.