How progressives won the culture war — but lost the battle for economic justice

Over the past half century, both Democrats and Republicans have lost what they care most about. Yet one group has won everything...

More than two decades have passed since Pat Buchanan gave his (in)famous "culture war" speech at the 1992 Republican convention:

This election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe, and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.

Buchanan went on to list most of the major battlefields in that war, including abortion, pornography, legal tolerance of same-sex relationships (at that time gay marriage was considered an extreme position, not supported by any mainstream politician), school prayer, and "radical feminism."

The speech ended with an enthusiastically authoritarian and racially charged peroration on how elements of the National Guard's 18th Cavalry had taken back the streets of Los Angeles, "block by block," during the riots that followed outrage over the verdict in the Rodney King police brutality trial.

Buchanan's speech, which elicited a rapturous reception from the convention delegates, and unmitigated horror among liberals, illustrated the accuracy of the argument put forth in a book published a year earlier by University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, entitled, aptly enough, Culture Wars.

Hunter argued that, beginning in the 1960s, American culture had polarized into two relatively coherent ideological camps, which he labeled "progressivism" and "orthodoxy," and that these camps now transcended religious, ethnic, class, and even to some extent political party affiliations. The culture war flared most intensely around issues of sexuality, gender equality, the role of religion in public life, and the role of government in regard to what the orthodox thought of as the protection of traditional values, and progressives thought of as reactionary intolerance toward cultural pluralism.

It's fair to say that war is now largely over, and that Buchanan's side has been routed. On almost every major issue the progressives have either won or are clearly winning, to the point where this week a prominent conservative columnist admitted that, for example, gay marriage would soon be legal everywhere in America, and that the only real question remaining in the culture war is what will be the precise terms of the conservatives' surrender.

But Buchanan's speech also contained a paragraph that, when read today, reminds us of the rest of the political story of the last generation:

There were those workers at the James River Paper Mill, in Northern New Hampshire in a town called Groveton — tough, hearty men. None of them would say a word to me as I came down the line, shaking their hands one by one. They were under a threat of losing their jobs at Christmas. And as I moved down the line, one tough fellow about my age just looked up and said to me, "Save our jobs." Then there was the legal secretary that I met at the Manchester airport on Christmas Day who came running up to me and said, "Mr. Buchanan, I'm going to vote for you." And then she broke down weeping, and she said, "I've lost my job; I don't have any money, and they're going to take away my little girl. What am I going to do?"

This is a reminder that, before it became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the financial class, the Republican party still included voices that could raise concerns about the effects of unrestrained capitalism on ordinary people. (Today, a similar paragraph would be extirpated from the draft of a GOP presidential candidate's speech, just as surely as a passage containing any ambivalence about legalized abortion would be redacted from the pronouncements of a Democratic counterpart.)

And it is a reminder that progressives' victory in the post-1960s culture wars has been matched by an equally resounding defeat on economic matters. The last 45 years have been a catastrophe for anyone who believes that economic justice requires a less radically unequal distribution of wealth, and a relative improvement of the condition of the poor relative to that of the rich.

The numbers are staggering: Since 1969 America's GDP has more than tripled in real terms, and more than doubled when accounting for population growth. Essentially none of these trillions of dollars in new wealth have made their way to the 60 million Americans who live in households with annual incomes of less than $20,000. (The proportion of the population that lives on less than $20,000 per year, accounting for inflation, is almost exactly the same today as when Richard Nixon was president.)

Meanwhile, welfare "reform" has resulted in a shredding of the social safety net. The minimum wage has declined by 25 percent in real terms, and tens of millions of Americans work full time, yet live in poverty. In 2010, six million Americans reported living in households with no income of any kind other than food stamps. (The average monthly food stamp benefit is $133).

Wealth inequality has reached pre-New Deal levels, creating a second Gilded Age, whose ever-growing extremes of wealth and poverty would have shocked politicians of both parties a generation ago, but which now even many liberals accept as normal.

The irony is that, on the issues that large portions of the Republican and Democratic voting bases have traditionally cared most about, each side is losing. Defeated in the culture war, conservatives are supposed to take solace in lower marginal tax rates for the rich. Meanwhile progressives have won a string of battles over identity politics, while continually losing the fundamental fight for economic justice that, historically speaking, has been at the core of liberal and left-wing political movements in America. (None of this is meant to deny, of course, that cultural conservatives care about economic justice as they envision it, or that many liberals and leftists care passionately about culture war issues.)

That this state of affairs reflects the actual preferences of our economic and cultural elites is not exactly a coincidence. Elites are more than comfortable with tolerance (or, from a cultural conservative perspective, permissiveness) in regard to cultural and political pluralism, as long as it’s the sort of pluralism that doesn’t seem likely to interfere with drawing one’s dividends.


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