The End of the Culture Wars

Forget Iraq and the economy. Barack Obama’s greatest feat may be ending the ruinous, decades-long battle over race and religion that has plagued the Democratic Party.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

For several decades now, analysts have divided American politics into three categories: economics, foreign policy, and culture. About categories one and two, Obama is voluble. On economics, he wants to stimulate short-term economic recovery while laying the foundation for greater long-term stability and equity. On foreign policy, he wants to restore America’s diplomatic capacity so we don’t have to rely so heavily on the military, and restore our good name, so we can help solve common global problems like climate change. But on culture? Here Obama goes mute. When was the last time you heard him speak unprompted about abortion or gay rights or gun control? He has positions on those issues, to be sure. But he’s determined not to be too publicly associated with them. That’s why he chose Rick Warren, who disagrees with him on abortion and gay marriage, to give the invocation at his inauguration. It’s why he chose not to repeal the Bush administration’s ban on U.S. aid to international organizations that provide abortions on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. He did so the day after instead, so his decision would garner less attention. “It’s time,” he declared, “that we end the politicization of this issue.”

When it comes to culture, Obama doesn’t have a public agenda; he has a public anti-agenda. He wants to remove culture from the political debate.

When it comes to culture, Obama doesn’t have a public agenda; he has a public anti-agenda. He wants to remove culture from the political debate. He wants to cut our three-sided political game back down to two.

As recently as the early 1990s, the idea that a black man could end the culture war would have been unthinkable, because the culture war was—more than anything—about black versus white. From busing to crime to welfare to affirmative action, race saturated the politics of the 1970s and 1980s, making it extraordinarily difficult for candidates to appeal to black voters and white working-class voters at the same time. In the mid-1980s, when Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg went to Macomb County, Michigan, to interview Democrats who had defected to vote for Ronald Reagan, he found that they saw government in almost wholly racial terms. Every time Democrats talked about fairness or equality, they interpreted it as an effort to redistribute wealth from white to black. In the 1980s, Barack Obama—for all his political brilliance—could never have dreamed of ending the culture war. As a liberal black Democrat, he would have been the culture war, like it or not.

In the 1990s, things began to change. Crime declined, welfare was radically scaled back, and affirmative action receded from the political stage, in part because of the deep support it enjoyed from such conservative bastions as corporate America and the military. But the culture war didn’t end: It simply morphed from a struggle primarily about race to a struggle primarily about religion. In the 1990s, as the affirmative action, crime, and welfare debates subsided, the void was partly filled by gay marriage, an issue that pits not black against white, but secular against religiously orthodox. The impeachment of Bill Clinton was not a racial battle, but a battle over what standard of public morality would govern political behavior. Bill Clinton’s legacy, noted political scientists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck, was to relieve some of the racial anxiety that white working-class voters felt about the Democratic Party but substitute for it a new moral anxiety, felt most acutely by whites who regularly attended church.

For Barack Obama, this shift has been useful. A black politician running in the midst of a racial culture war is virtually doomed. But amidst a religious culture war, being black is less of a handicap since blacks are the least secular element of the Democratic coalition. Barack Obama was more successful than John Kerry in reaching out to moderate white evangelicals in part because he struck them as more authentically Christian.

That’s the foundation on which Obama now seeks to build. He seems to think there are large numbers of conservative white Protestants and Catholics who will look beyond culture when they enter the voting booth as long as he and other Democrats don’t ram cultural liberalism down their throats. In this effort, Obama has two big advantages. The first is the economic crisis, a trauma of such historic magnitude that it makes issues like guns and gays seem trivial. The second is a generational shift taking place among evangelical Christians, in which younger leaders like Warren are broadening their agendas to include issues like poverty and the environment, thus signaling at least a partial willingness to look beyond the culture war.

Obama’s effort could fail. After all, he’s not offering to split the difference with cultural conservatives, only to make his cultural liberalism less conspicuous. And while gay marriage may gradually fade as an issue as public attitudes shift, immigration may well gain in salience, perhaps igniting a whole new kind of culture war, pitting not white against black or secular against religious but immigrant against native-born.

Still, culture wars do end. In the 1920s, immigration, Darwinism, and the Ku Klux Klan dominated political debate, but in the 1930s, they receded as Washington turned its attention to the Depression and the specter of war. It is no surprise that the end of the last culture war coincided with a shift from conservative to liberal dominance. If Obama can end this one, liberals may be in power for a very long time.

Peter Beinart is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations