America’s current culture war emerged clearly into the light of day about twenty years ago, with the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Five years later, in 1992, James Davison Hunter’s book, Culture Wars, cemented the phenomenon’s name. Then, beginning about a decade ago, we began to hear claims that the culture war was over and/or an illusion. As far as I can tell, however, we are still intensely polarized–if anything more so every year.
The conservative web has, for years now, enabled a kind of end-run around the liberal mainstream media. This dynamic has never been more evident than today. Without the conservative web, the immigration bill would likely have passed–probably in a rushed vote before Memorial Day. As the Supreme Court has moved right (thanks to the conservative media apparatus), MSM coverage has become ever more openly and unashamedly biased. Linda Greenhouse has become an open advocate for left-leaning jurisprudence–in her journalism, and in her extra-journalistic activities. Today’s NYT piece by Adam Liptak on the latest Supreme Court decision literally reads like a piece of opinion journalism. Time Magazine has an openly pro-amnesty cover story. MSM is now almost unashamedly liberalism’s megaphone, while the conservative web, allied with think tanks, cable TV, and talk radio has matured into a full-blown opposition. In the case of immigration, and the Miers-Alito nominations, that opposition has sufficed to get the job done.
So our politics–which is very much the politics of culture, even on the war–is and remains deeply polarized. I don’t care how many surveys you point to that show less polarization than meets the eye. Those surveys are misleading. Americans may spread out over a spectrum on immigration policy. But the folks who really care about immigration, on both sides of the spectrum, are utterly opposed, and feel their convictions with enormous intensity. The same goes for the war, and many other issues. And now this intense polarization has given rise to two radically different media bases.
So a decade’s worth of predictions that Americans were moving to the middle and would put the culture wars behind them have come to nothing. Supposedly, the ascent of McCain and Giuliani as presidential candidates points to the end of the culture war. Yet McCain has already likely been killed off because of it. And even if Giuliani wins, the fight will go on. As we’ve seen, presidents themselves can get burned by our cultural conflicts when they try to ignore them. Besides, Giuliani may not even win the nomination. And if he doesn’t it will be because the culture wars did him in.
If all those predictions of the end of our supposedly bogus polarization are ever proven right, it will only be on the principle of the broken clock. As the key to American politics for at least two decades (and arguably right back to the sixties), cultural polarization deserves serious thought and study, not perpetual denial.