Indiana and the Politics of Backlash

04/03/2015 02:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

The controversy in Indiana over religious freedom bill is part of a much larger cultural struggle that dates back to the 1960s. Until the 1960s there was a clear cultural hierarchy in America. That hierarchy, reinforced by law and custom, placed white, heterosexual men at the top of the pyramid. They ruled in the workplace, they governed in politics, and their power was uncontested at home.

All of that began to change in the years after World War II. African Americans, who fought to defend freedom abroad, refused to accept second-class citizenship at home. Women, given new economic opportunities during the war, were reluctant to return to traditional roles. Perhaps most important, many children born after the war -- the "baby boom" generation -- absorbed the new ethos of change.

The cultural challenge to the older order exploded in the 1960s. African-Americans organized freedom rides and sit-in demonstrations to confront the white power structure in the South. They found allies in young baby boomers who flooded into the South and who later returned home to protest against the Vietnam War. Women, emboldened by the African American freedom struggle, began challenging laws that limited opportunities in the public sphere and confined them to traditional roles in the private sphere.

The first wave of civil rights leaders and feminists focused on changing laws; later they turned their attention to confronting more informal forms of discrimination. Their goal was to change attitudes about race and gender. They were joined by gay rights activists in the 1980s who called into question basic questions of gender identity. At the same time, the millions of immigrants who flooded the nation in the years after the passage of the Immigration act of 1965 demanded a broader definition of American identity.

Needless to say, it has not been a good time to be a white, straight man. Taken together these social movements threatened the legal and cultural hierarchy that sustained their privileged position in society. White men now faced competition in the workplace from African-Americans and women. At home, their authority was eroded by feminist calls for equal marriage. Gay-rights activist called into question basic assumptions about gender roles in society. New Immigrants have championed a broader multi-cultural vision of America that celebrates racial differences.

What is really at stake is power: new groups demanding a seat at the table, claiming a right to redefine what it means to be an American. Many of the hot button social issues that dominate debate today -- affirmative action, abortion, gay marriage, immigration reform -- became part of the public dialogue only after decades of social struggle. They underscore the important power shift taking place in modern America.

Inevitably, this frontal assault on an older cultural order produced a backlash --- and a powerful one. Threatened from so many different directions, white, heterosexual men fought back. Many turned to religion. Religious fundamentalism gained traction in the 1970s and 1980s in the wake of the cultural challenges of the 1960s. Fundamentalism promised to reestablish traditional gender roles, sending women back to the kitchen and gays back into the closet. In 1980, Ronald Reagan forged a marriage between the Republican Party and the values of religious fundamentalism. The new Republican Party has become the party of cultural nostalgia -- the party that promises to reestablish older verities. Not surprisingly, the demographic backbone of the party in presidential elections consists of white men.

Over time, the Democratic Party absorbed the agenda of the new groups threatening the older order. Ironically, the turning point came with the 1992 election of Bill Clinton. Although he viewed himself as a political moderate trying to push his party back into the mainstream, Clinton staked out a very different position in the culture wars. For millions of conservatives, the president was representative of a generation of self-indulgent baby boomers - a pot-smoking, draft-dodging, truth-parsing, womanizer. In impeaching him, conservatives tired to put on trial an entire generation and the cosmopolitan culture that it represented.

Now conservatives have directed their animus toward President Obama. They hate him for the same reason they detested Clinton: because he embodies the cosmopolitan values of those groups -- women, African-Americans, and gays -- who have for 50 years been assaulting the old cultural elite. Conservatives don't hate Obama because he's black, but race intensifies the anger because it highlights his role as the leader of the opposing cultural army.

It should not be surprising that male-dominated state legislatures are now passing so-called "religious freedom" bills. They have little to do with religion and everything to do with power. They represent the latest skirmish in a 50 year social and cultural struggle to define American identity. If demographic trends and polling data on young people are to be believed, it is a struggle that conservatives are destined to lose.