December 5, 2016
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The Coming End of the Culture Wars

 

 

The culture wars, far from coming back, are likely coming to an end as a defining aspect of our politics.

By Ruy Teixeira

Read the full report (pdf)

Download the executive summary (pdf)

Interactive Map: Progressive Studies Map Update, including new data on metropolitan areas

Read also: America's Progressive Metros

The term “culture wars” dates back to a 1991 book by academic James Davison Hunter who argued that cultural issues touching on family and religious values, feminism, gay rights, race, guns, and abortion had redefined American politics. Conservatives especially seemed happy to take a culture wars approach, reasoning that political debate around these issues would both mobilize their base and make it more difficult for progressives to benefit from their edge on domestic policy issues such as the economy and health care. This approach played an important role in conservative gains during the early part of the Clinton administration and in the impeachment drama of the late 1990s, which undercut progressive legislative strategies. And the culture wars certainly contributed to conservative George W. Bush’s presidential victories in 2000 and 2004. Yet these issues have lately been conspicuous by their absence. Looking back on Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008, culture wars issues not only had a very low profile in the campaign, but where conservatives did attempt to raise them, these issues did them little good. Indeed, conservatives were probably more hurt than helped by such attempts—witness the effect of the Sarah Palin nomination.

Is this just a temporary breathing spell in the culture wars due to the sudden spike in concern about other issues—first Iraq, then the economy—or is a fundamental shift in our politics taking place? I believe the latter is the case since, as this report establishes, ongoing demographic shifts have seriously eroded the mass base for culture wars politics and will continue to erode this base in the future. That means that the advantage conservatives can gain from culture wars politics will steadily diminish and, consequently, so will conservatives’ incentive to engage in such politics.

These demographic trends are having their greatest effects in America’s metropolitan areas, especially the largest ones, and it is here that the culture wars are dying down the fastest. Residents in metro areas that have a population greater than 1 million, which contain 54 percent of the U.S. population, scored 53.6 on the Progressive Studies Program’s cultural index, while residents in metro areas with between 250,000 and 1 million in population—another 20 percent of the population—scored 51 on the index. In contrast, small town rural residents scored 45.4, and deep rural residents scored just 44.6. These cultural leanings are one important reason why America’s populous metros have been moving so heavily toward progressives. For full details on this shift, see the Progressive Studies Program’s updated New Progressive America map, which provides trend data on America’s top 175 metros, and my companion report, “America's Progressive Metros.”

The culture wars, far from coming back, are likely coming to an end as a defining aspect of our politics. This is good news for progressives, both because tolerance and equal rights will increasingly be the ethos of the country and because progressives will increasingly be able to make their case on critical policy issues without significant interference from “hot-button” social issues promoted by conservatives.

Read the full report (pdf)

Download the executive summary (pdf)

Interactive Map: Progressive Studies Map Update, including new data on metropolitan areas

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The Center for American Progress is a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to promoting a strong, just and free America that ensures opportunity for all. We believe that Americans are bound together by a common commitment to these values and we aspire to ensure that our national policies reflect these values. We work to find progressive and pragmatic solutions to significant domestic and international problems and develop policy proposals that foster a government that is "of the people, by the people, and for the people."




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