Commentary Magazine


Culture Warrior in Chief

The introduction of the term culture war into the political debate is usually ascribed to Patrick J. Buchanan, whose incendiary 1992 opening-night address at the Republican National Convention came to be known as the “culture war speech”—although Buchanan never actually used the term. As a result of his association with it, we usually think of “culture warriors” as creatures of the right.

Liberals and the left reacted with horror to Buchanan’s “culture war” talk, and used it to suggest that conservatives had been driven mad, indeed to warlike violence, by their irrational anger at social progress. That idea has resurfaced time and again in the decades since. The 1994 election, in which Republicans routed Democrats, was portrayed as an outpouring of white rage later supposedly made manifest by the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, which President Bill Clinton explicitly laid at the feet of Rush Limbaugh. Sixteen years later, the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 would be similarly blamed on Sarah Palin and Tea Partiers who put liberals in the “crosshairs.”

Every now and then, liberals have moments when they discuss, in a chin-scratchery fashion, why it should be that conservatives are so…so angry. Inevitably they conclude that conservatives are the American people time has passed by and that they are being cynically led by demagogues who wish to exploit the votes of those people.

In 2008, Barack Obama offered the perfect encapsulation of this pseudo-academic, pseudo-sociological, pseudo-psychological interpretation with his famous moment of musing at a high-dollar fundraising event in San Francisco: “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them….And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

So that’s why, in the view of the left, the right is engaged in a culture war—it’s lost the future, both economically and culturally, feels impotent, and is staging rearguard actions doomed to failure. The latest version of this argument is the so-called war on women the right is staging against “reproductive freedom,” the details of which Alana Goodman explores in her article this month. The philosophical background for the war on women is similar to Obama’s musings: The progressive obsolescence of the male-dominated society is causing men such as Limbaugh and Rick Santorum, terror-stricken by female power, to launch a last-ditch effort to force women into unwanted pregnancies by making birth control too expensive for them to afford—and then (how fiendishly clever) making it illegal for them to abort.

The liberal dismissal of the “culture war” as the outgrowth of a psychological deformity is itself an act of culture war—part of the weaponry the left uses against the right. Rather than consider and acknowledge the complexities and unintended consequences of the social change they champion, they alternately dismiss and rage against those who do. The mindless progressivism of the media, which assumes all change is for the good, is one of the deadliest arrows in the liberal culture-war quiver. 

It has long been said that the right cynically resorts to the culture war to win votes because it has nothing to say about the long-term economic problems of the middle class. The “war on women” indicates that 2012 is going to prove the opposite. To help him win a second term—to rally his own troops with the fear of a conservative onslaught against their “rights” and to have a case to make if his dream of running during a strong economic recovery is dashed—Barack Obama needs, wants, and has already begun a culture war of his own.

About the Author

John Podhoretz is editor of COMMENTARY.




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