Stephen Prothero has a new book out called Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): The Battles That Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage, from which he adapted a new Washington Post column about the entire history of culture wars in America and why they’re always started by conservatives (those defending the status quo) but won by liberals (those pushing for change).
As I investigated America’s culture wars from Jefferson to Obama, I found that they follow a predictable pattern. They tend to start on the right, with conservatives anxious about some cultural change. Yet conservatives almost always lose, because they lash themselves to lost causes. That’s how this latest round in our culture wars is likely to conclude, too. If you fear (as I do) what a President Trump might do, remember that the promise to build a Mexico-financed border wall or to ban Muslims from entering the country are as lost as causes can be…
In almost every case, these culture wars have been conservative projects, instigated and waged by people anxious about the loss of old orders and the emergence of new ones. Their anxiety finds expression first as a complaint about a particular policy, and second as a broader lament about how far the nation has fallen from its founding glory and how desperately we need to restore whatever is passing away. Or, to put it in Trumpian terms: The nation has been schlonged, but it will be great again.
Anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism were right-wing reactions to 19th-century Catholic immigration and Mormon migration, and to the moral, theological, social and economic threats those communities posed to Protestant power. Similarly, the culture wars of the 1920s and 1930s were conservative responses to the rise of the saloon and the speakeasy — and to the cultural pluralism brought on by rapid urbanization and immigration waves. In the contemporary culture wars, conservatives give voice to their anxieties about the loss of the traditional family and a homogeneous society. Cultural politics are always a politics of nostalgia, driven by those who are determined to return to what they remember (rightly or wrongly) as a better way of life.
Conservatives often blame liberals for the losses they are experiencing and for threatening the health and welfare of the nation. They say liberals started the culture wars by banning prayer from schools or agitating for feminism or black power. But conservative anxiety usually has little to do with liberal activism. It can be triggered by demographic trends. Or a Supreme Court ruling. Or a reality-television star…Even though conservatives tend to start the culture wars, liberals almost always win them. The “infidel” Jefferson and “papist” John Kennedy become president. Prohibition is repealed. Marijuana becomes legal. Gays and lesbians get marriage rights. Conservatives manage an occasional victory — on guns, for example. But in almost every arena where the contemporary culture wars have been fought, liberals now control the agenda.
Liberals may win our culture wars for philosophical reasons (because the constitutional principle of liberty is on their side) or for practical ones (because the nation is becoming more Catholic or more brown). But the most important reason they win is because their opponents fixate on lost causes. Conservatives instigated the Philadelphia “Bible wars” of 1844 when the Catholic population there was growing too quickly to remain on the margins. They attacked same-sex marriage most fiercely when attitudes toward gays were gravitating toward acceptance.
It’s also not an accident that the conservative side in all these wars, the one trying to prevent change, is nearly always made up of the wealthy and powerful. It’s the loss of their privilege and power that they fear most and they have no shortage of scapegoats on whom to blame their losses. And it must be noted, as I have many times, the amnesia that conservatives have, or at least pretend to have, every time a new culture war begins.
The old culture war ends, traditions are destroyed and new ideals become dominant in society quickly. And when the next culture war begins, the right wing pretends that they were on the right side of those previous battles all along and all that talk about how the last major change — the end of slavery, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights Act — would destroy the country and make the baby Jesus cry is forgotten. And then they repeat the same arguments all over again.
We see this pattern again and again. Oh, all that stuff we said about how interracial marriage was a violation of God’s will and would bring his wrath upon us for defying him, and how it was all about liberal judicial activists subverting the Constitution? We didn’t mean that. We were on the side of equality all along! Now gay marriage, on the other hand, that really is against God’s will and he’s going to destroy us all if we don’t stop this new change from taking place. And it really is going to destroy the Constitution.
Work themselves into a lather, rinse, repeat.