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Whither the Culture War?

05/09/2014 03:05 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2014

  • Is America still locked in mortal conflict on cultural issues like abortion and homosexuality?

  • What are the regional dynamics of the national values debate?
  • Who's winning the culture war?
  • It is hard to remember when America's "culture war" broke out. It seems that we have been fighting forever about divisive social, moral and religious issues.

    Now, a prominent political scientist suggests that the politics of values may have settled into a state of lessened conflict and volatility. The debate runs on; but terms like "acceptance" and "stability" figure centrally in his depiction of cultural struggle in this country.

    Ted G. Jelen, a political scientist from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, presented his thesis and research at the recent Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics in Charleston, SC. His analysis, focusing on abortion and homosexuality, was based on public opinion data from the General Social Surveys for 1980-2010.

    Continuity and Change

    Dr. Jelen reported that, currently, the culture war exhibits both continuity and change on historically divisive issues. "In the aggregate, attitudes toward abortion are quite stable, while general acceptance of homosexuality and specific approval of same-sex marriage are increasing."

    He also reported that the South is still a distinctive region of interacting religious values, personal morality and partisan struggle. "On issues relating to abortion, southerners remain consistently more conservative than Americans residing outside the South, and Republicans are consistently more conservative than Democrats."

    Aside from these general findings, Jelen elaborated on the interesting role that age differences and rights rhetoric play in the changing cultural struggle.

    The generational pattern, he said, is important but mixed. Younger Americans are more supportive of gay rights; but they are less supportive of access to legal abortion.

    Also informative was his discussion about how the cultural narrative increasingly is framed around the issue of rights. The "right to choose" and the "right to life" lend balance to the competing sides of the abortion debate; however, thus far, the forces of traditional values have not articulated a plausible rights argument against gay/lesbian/bisexual/transsexual prerogatives.

    The Likely Winner?

    Jelen never told us who he thinks is winning the decades-long culture war. He noted that both sides can cite advantages and trending data; and he projected that the values struggle will continue to roil American politics.

    For example, he re-iterated that both sides of the abortion debate have successfully framed their arguments in rights language; and "rights talk is an important rhetorical advantage in American political discourse."

    On the issue of homosexuality, he posited that the rhetorical advantage of a one-sided rights debate favors the liberal side, making "full equality for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals seem virtually inevitable." However, he also speculated that conservative groups are making some headway with their argument over the right of religious free exercise; and he said that "a rhetorical strategy involving the assertion of religious freedom might well attract a large public following."

    Finally, Jelen identified an important development in how mass attitudes relate to elite and partisan politics. Apparently, public attitudes toward abortion are stable and there is increasing acceptance of homosexuality; however, the Democratic and Republican parties are becoming more polarized. "Thus, even as most Americans are becoming more accepting of citizens of alternative lifestyle, the parties are diverging."

    Conclusions

    Jelen seems to think that the culture war has lost some of its anger and volatility; but it is far from settled.

    Despite the four decades that have elapsed since Roe v. Wade, the issue of abortion still often occupies a prominent place on the American political agenda. Conversely, despite the trend toward increased acceptance of the legality and moral acceptability of homosexuality, holders of more traditional values on these issues are not without political resources.

    He also thinks that linking such issues as abortion, contraception, health care and GLBT rights within the free exercise argument could prove especially effective in the South.

    Therefore, he concludes, "The 'culture wars" seem likely to characterize U.S. electoral politics for the immediate future."

    Commentary

    It was strange hearing a talk about the "culture war" at this sedate conference in laid-back Charleston. We are a rather sober bunch of academic scholars; and I imagine many of us have been numbed by the art of war as practiced by interest groups, media, politicians and parties.

    Nevertheless, this presentation was stimulating and useful. It helps us sort out the confusing clamor of hot-button issues and over-heated commercials; and it forces us to update what we're teaching about the current course of American democracy.

    AUTHOR NOTE: This column is part of a series of posts about Southern politics. These posts derive from the 2014 Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, a gathering of regional specialists in historic Charleston, SC. This Symposium has been held every other year since 1978; and it has become a main event for serious South-watchers from around the country. A hundred specialists -- representing scholars from about 50 academic institutions -- participated in the most recent conference, March 6-7, 2014. In this series, I will attempt to incorporate pertinent aspects of the presented papers and some of my own comments into various themes.