Obama Won't End the Culture Wars

Obama Won't End the Culture Wars

By Rod Dreher - February 16, 2009

Will Barack Obama end the culture wars? He couldn't if he wanted. In America, the culture war will never die, only wax and wane across multiple battlefields. When you live in a large, diverse, pluralistic democracy, it comes with the territory.

To be sure, Obama is a liberal many conservatives can love. He is not a natural-born culture warrior. In fact, his natural sunniness tends to make conservatives who vehemently complain about him look like cranks. (Ronald Reagan had the same effect on liberals.) Many conservatives disagree with Obama; they're just not angry about it.Besides, Obama has a talent for avoiding culture-war skirmishes by eliding controversies and negotiating his way around conflicts. He is a conciliator by nature and takes the edge off cultural clashes by showing personal respect to his antagonists. He treats them like opponents, not enemies. This is a rare and welcome thing in contemporary American politics.


Obama's conciliation is largely a matter of style. Substantively, he's solidly on the cultural left. As writer Ross Douthat astutely observed, "In reality, what makes Obama promising to liberals isn't his potential to 'end' culture-war battles; it's his potential ability to win them, by dressing up the policies that Planned Parenthood or the Human Rights Campaign of the ACLU or whomever would like to see in the kind of religious language and fuzzy talk about consensus that swing voters like to hear."

In other words, Obama has learned that the smarter way to pursue liberal cultural ends is to refrain from rubbing conservatives' collective nose in what he's doing. He's winning the culture war by diplomatically disarming the opposition.

As Beinart correctly notes, Obama has been helped by the economic crisis, which has pushed cultural issues to the margins, at least temporarily. But these issues won't go away and, in fact, may come roaring back ferociously if the economic situation deteriorates significantly. Financial distress often exacerbates cultural fault lines.

Besides, Beinart suffers from a common delusion among liberals: that the culture war is a fraudulent enterprise ginned up by cynical Republican operatives to manipulate the credulous. Similarly, liberals also tend to take a partial truth - that economic anxiety sometimes manifests as cultural antagonism - and assume it explains cultural conservatives. Remember candidate Obama, explaining "bitter" rural voters by saying that "they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations"?

The idea here is that once their economic needs are met, these conservative voters' cultural concerns will evaporate. What such unimaginative liberals - especially those in the media, where their astigmatic vision utterly dominates - fail to grasp is that their way of seeing the world is not normative outside their circles.

Shocking though it may seem, there really are people who believe that unborn children deserve constitutional protection. There really are people who believe that marriage is rightly limited to one man and one woman. There really are people who believe that there is nothing affirmative in discriminating against someone because of the color of their skin.

And there really are people who believe these things are important enough to fight for.

The thing is, cultural liberals believe these issues are important, too. If they weren't equally committed to the culture war, they'd give ground on gay rights, race and gender quotas and abortion policy.

A Democratic Party that gave cultural conservatives a meaningful place at the table would be the natural majority party, as Democrats were for decades - until the cultural left seized control at the 1972 convention and used the party as a vehicle to politicize cultural change.

Liberals won't give ground, though, because they understand that what's at stake in these cultural conflicts is not mere preference, but principle.

The source of our culture war is conflicting visions of what it means to be free and what it means to be an American - and even what it means to be fully human. More concretely, as Princeton's Robert George has written, they have to do mainly "with sexuality, the transmitting and taking of human life, and the place of religion and religiously informed moral judgment in public life."

Because the cultural left and cultural right hold to irreconcilable orthodoxies on these questions, we find scant cultural consensus. That's life in America. Unless we become a homogenous country, we will continue to struggle to live together, staying true to our deepest beliefs while respecting the liberty of others to stay true to their own.

But we do not live in a libertarian Utopia. We can't have it all. If, for example, courts constitutionalized same-sex marriage, as gay activists seek, that would have a ground-shaking effect on religious liberty, public schooling and other aspects of American life. Without question, it would intensify the culture war, as partisans of the left and right fight for what each considers a sacred principle.

What irritates conservatives is the liberals' groundless conceit that they fight from a values-neutral position, while the right seeks to impose its norms on others. Nonsense. Marriage was a settled issue until liberals began using courts to impose their moral vision on (so far) an unwilling majority. Who fired the first shot there?

Culture war is inevitable, because it's in the nature of democratic, pluralistic society. It only ends when one side wins, by force or force of reason. As all drill sergeants know, you prepare your troops to move in for the kill by first dehumanizing the enemy.

If we keep the humanity of our opponents squarely in front of us - as Obama, to his great credit, seems determined to do - we can keep the culture-war casualty count low. That's about the best we can hope for.

Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His e-mail address is

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