The culture war and politics

The Pew Forum convened a panel of experts and journalists to explore the question of how the culture wars may or may not affect the presidential election in November.

For much of the presidential campaign, it has appeared that moral values issues would play only a small role in the November election. Indeed, at various points both Barack Obama and John McCain shied away from talking about abortion, same-sex marriage and other “culture war” issues. But the selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican Party’s vice presidential candidate and Catholic bishops’ criticism of Joe Biden’s comments on when life begins have increased the attention paid to culture war issues. If the candidates focus more on these issues, will it help or hurt them with voters? Will the national and global economic difficulties introduce new definitions of the culture war? Just a few weeks before Election Day, the Pew Forum invited two culture war experts and a group of leading journalists to explore these questions in depth.

Yuval Levin and Todd Gitlin explore the idea that there is always a cultural war behind US politics. Although with slightly different descriptions of the “war” both see it as longstanding and foundational in the US.

Todd Gitlin

The culture wars matter in American politics because it’s the norm for them to matter. They always matter. They don’t always matter decisively, and the sides don’t always line up in the same way. In fact, the outcome of politics frequently hinges on who succeeds in defining what will be the sides this time. But the culture wars always matter because Americans vote not simply, and not even necessarily first, for what they want but for whom they want.


But again, the structure, the body if you will, remains the same even as the issues which are the cells change. Culture war is a fixture. So, to the question of how the culture wars will matter this time. Well, we have all the usual dimensions: abortion, gay marriage. We have, I think, an accentuation of the city versus country theme, which is a perennial. We have Barack Obama, of Honolulu, New York, Cambridge and Chicago versus John McCain of Sedona and Sarah Palin of Wasilla. Obviously, the impact of all of these will be muted by the financial and economic crisis to the great benefit of Sen. Obama and the chagrin of Sen. McCain.


So I agree that the culture war on our politics is really a – a set of opposing attitudes and dispositions. But I don’t quite – I wouldn’t describe it in the same way that Todd did. It seems to me that the culture war actually takes place within what Todd described as the party of resentment. I think that both parties in our politics, both sides in our politics, actually want to be the party of resentment. And you know, no one wants to be the elite in American politics; they just have two very different ways of understanding what elite means and what there is to resent. And the culture war is a war of two populisms, what we might call in very broad terms, cultural populism and economic populism. For that reason, I think that this election is definitely, and has been and will be, a culture war election – because in fact, in this particular election more than most, we see the war of cultural populism defining the two candidates

Following their presentations a variety of journalists continue the conversation and the discussion of how the culture wars are more than the current representation of them.

Read the transcript here.

Todd Gitlin is Professor of Journalism and Sociology, Columbia University

Yuval Levin is Hertog Fellow and Director of the Bioethics and American Democracy Program, Ethics and Public Policy Center

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