The Old Culture War and the New Culture War

Those who want to understand the American Right need to learn the difference between the Old Culture War and the New Culture War.

To elaborate, the Old Culture War was the battle by the Religious Right and other traditionalists to defend what they saw as traditional American values from the scourges of modernity and obscenity. For example, the Parents Television Council’s battle against raunchy content on television and pro wrestling in the 1990s.

In contrast, the New Culture War is the battle by White Nationalists; and some Christian Nationalists to defend what they consider the real America from a corrupt elite. Hence, former President Donald J. Trump’s (R-Florida) legal crusade against Big Tech defines the New Culture War.

The New Culture War is a Class War

Yes, some of the culture warriors are the same but the war is different. In particular, the New Culture War is a class war.

The New Culture War is a reaction by working-class America against an increasingly elite driven culture. For example, the hysteria about Critical Race Theory, an obscure academic and legal theory about American history. New Culture Warriors hate Critical Race Theory because it comes from the Ivy League, not because they understand it.

Trump is the leader of the New Culture War because of his willingness to fight, or pretend fight the elite.  The former President is suing the CEOs of Silicon Valley giants that removed him from social media platforms after January 6. Trump specifically targets some of the richest men in America; including Facebook (FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in a questionable class action lawsuit.

The War on Higher Education  

In addition, hostility to higher education is a driving force of the New Class War.  One motivation for the New Culture War is the growing political divide between college educated and non-college educated Americans

For example, Trump won 41% of the votes of Latinos without college degrees but only 30% of Hispanics with college degrees in the 2020 presidential election, NBC News estimates.

Moreover, Trump won 60% of white voters without a college a degree in 2020. In contrast, 57% of white voters with a four-year college degree supported Joseph R. Biden (R-Delaware) in 2020.

Working Class Resentment

Hence, politics is one motivation of the New Culture War. Republicans are becoming increasingly hostile to education to attract voters without college degrees.

Some Republicans and conservative pundits even attacked the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark Milley for defending the study of Critical Race Theory and Marxism. Both Fox News star Tucker Carlson and Trump himself attacked Milley.

Republican attacks on a four-star general would have been unthinkable just five years ago. Today, such attacks are acceptable as long as they are part of broader attack on higher education.

One reason for the growing hostility to higher education is that a college degree is often a prerequisite for a decent-paying job in modern America. Notably, many clerical, office, managerial, and administrative positions that high-school graduates could perform now require four-year degrees. Most working-class people know, and sometimes work for, total imbeciles, who have positions of power over them only because of college degrees.

In addition, some companies such as Amazon (AMZN) reputedly refuse to promote people without college degrees. Some media reports claim Amazon tries to confine non-college educated employees to menial roles such as warehouse labor.

Predictably working-class resentment against people with college degrees and higher education is growing. Strangely, Trump is one of the few politicians to have noticed this development.

Culture War as Class War

Consequently, we can view the New Culture War as working-class frustration with the college-educated elite.

Trump crudely capitalizes on this frustration with stunts such as eating McDonald’s hamburgers on his private jet and attendance at NASCAR races. Similarly, Trump adopted the baseball cap, the modern uniform of working-class America, as a symbol of his campaign. Yes, the Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat is a symbol of class warfare.

Even in religion Trump reaches out to less-educated evangelicals and fringe working-class religious movements. Thus, Trump’s culture war is symbolic, but it is having an effect.

Notably, Trump does not promote more constructive strategies such as taxing the endowments of Ivy League schools for example Harvard. Nor does Trump mimic US Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) who backs unionization at Amazon.

In a 12 March 2021 USA Today editorial Rubio wrote: “When the conflict is between working Americans and a company whose leadership has decided to wage culture war against working-class values, the choice is easy — I support the workers.”

Hence, Rubio clearly understands what Trump suspects. The New Culture War is a class war. The New Culture War is a battle between “working-class class values;” which Rubio conveniently fails to define, and management.

The Economic Culture War

Like all class wars, the New Culture War is is an economic conflict. In fact, we can view the New Culture War as a revolt against the economy of the 1980s and 1990s.

Notably, many of the people arrested at the 6 January 2021 US Capitol Riot left a “trail of bankruptcies, tax problems and bad debts,” The Washington Post observes. Many of those rioters were extreme culture warriors and rabid followers of Donald J. Trump Sr.

In fact, almost 60% of those facing charges had money troubles, The WashPost estimates. In addition, the group’s bankruptcy rate was 18% or twice the national average, The Post claims.

Hence, the New Culture War attracts those whom the neoliberal economy fails. Notably, Trump’s main grievances are economic ones. Trump’s two most visible issues in 2016 were trade and immigration.

The trade debate which is rooted in complaints about the lack of “good jobs,” is economic. Immigration is also economic because one of the principal arguments against it is that immigrants drive down wages and reduce the earning power of the working class.

Thus, the New Culture War is a rejection of Reaganism. Consequently, I think the New Cultural Warriors are on a collision course with the Republican Party which venerates Reagan’s memory.

Old and New Culture Wars

In contrast, the Old Culture War was a revolt against the cultural and societal changes of the mid to late 20th Century. Observers often simplify the Old Culture War as a “reaction to the excesses of the 1960s.”

The Old Culture Warriors ignored economics and discussed only culture. Indeed, many of them were free traders and libertarians. Moreover, the Old Culture War was strongly religious. Its adherents talked openly of Christian American and Judeo-Christian Values, a phrase I have not heard in years.

The New Culture War pays lip service to religion and devotes its discussion to nationalism, race, or economic grievances. Indeed, I suspect the recent talk of “Critical Race Theory” among Republican leaders is an attempt to distract working-class warriors from economics. I predict it will fail.

The obsession with economics brings us to a critical difference between the Old and New Culture Wars. The Old Culture War was a revolt of traditionalist elements of the middle-and-upper classes against the cultural changes after World War II.

The Old Culture Warriors made common cause with libertarians and Big Business because they were comfortable with the existing economy. Most of the Old Culture Warriors had good jobs, homes, and retirement accounts or pensions. Many of the New Culture Warriors do not.

The Regional Culture War

There is a regional element to the New Culture War the Old Culture War lacked. The Old Culture War was a nationwide movement rooted in religion, an odd mix of Conservative Catholics and Evangelicals.

The New Culture War is a regional movement rooted in the working and lower-middle classes of the Rustbelt and the South. The New Culture War’s center is in the Old Industrial Heartland of the Midwest although it has a powerful attraction to minorities in the Appalachian and Western mining regions, and the Sunbelt.

The New Culture War features a strong racial dimension the Old Culture War lacked. The Old Culture Warriors played down the racism of their followers and tried to portray their movement as a post-racial crusade. One reason for this was that the Old Culture War’s issues such as school prayer and abortion were not racial.

The New Culture War is racist because it originates in the grievances of the white working class. In particular, the disappearance of good jobs, the lack of cultural power, falling incomes, lack of economic opportunity, and the decline of traditional communities.

The Politics of Working Class Resentment

Many working-class working whites blame their problems on the rise of nonwhites, particularly blacks.

Moreover, many working-class whites resent the disproportionate cultural African Americans have in the United States. For example, ABC showing the corny film Black Panther as a tribute to the life of a black character actor.

Hollywood and the movie industry often cater to blacks. This pandering contrasts with the absence of working class themes from much of our popular culture.

Some Hispanics have a similar complaint. Which explains Trump’s growing appeal to Latino voters.

Another cause of the resentment is the fact that the two terms of the first African American US president, Barack Obama (D-Illinois) coincided with the Great Economic Meltdown of 2008. That catastrophe destroyed the lifestyle of many working and middle-class whites.

Obama, himself contributed to the resentment by promising Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) style reforms but delivering a second Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas) administration. Something America’s elites forget is that the last two Democratic administrations were disastrous for working-class whites.

Clinton delivered welfare cuts, free trade, a booming stock market, and empty promises of single-payer healthcare while jobs vanished and working-class incomes stagnated. Obama delivered more of the same with greater job loss, vanishing pensions, collapsing home values, and falling incomes.

Thus one way to view the New Culture War is as an effort by Republican leaders to appeal to a resentful working class. The effort is partially successful because Republicans are experts at articulating grievances.

Grievances and Economics

 Unfortunately, Republicans have no answers to those grievances. The Grand Old Party’s (GOP) economic program is still that of Ronald Reagan (R-California) and Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia). That program comprises attacks on welfare, mindless tax cuts, gripes about regulation, and free trade.

To keep the loyalty of the working class the GOP will need to offer an activist economic program. In particular, Republicans will need to expand the welfare state, which is anathema to traditional conservatives.

More intelligent GOP leaders such as US Senators Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) grasp this reality. Hawley, in particular, promoted cash payments as a remedy to the economy damage the COVID-19 pandemic caused.

On the other hand, Republican leaders including Trump, think they can win the white working class’s loyalty with only racial appeals. As President Trump’s policy was to implement all the libertarian pipe dreams of the 1980s and 1990s conservative movement, including radical deregulation.

The Future of Culture War

The Republicans’ efforts have succeeded because the Democrats’ neoliberal leadership refuses to offer the welfare and economic policies that will appeal to the working class. For example, single-payer health insurance, a higher minimum wage, basic income, or Social Security increases.

Conversely, there are many Democratic leaders, such as US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) who promote a massive expansion of the welfare state. The Neoliberals block economic leftists from power, but eventually one will break through.

Will the New Culture War Succeed?

I think there are two probable futures for the New Culture War.

The successful future for the New Culture War is that pragmatic leaders such as Hawley and Rubio will succeed and create a Republican welfare politics. Hence, they will create an American version of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.

To explain, today’s UK Conservatives combine mild culture war and protectionist economics with strategic expansions of the welfare state designed to appease working-class voters. IE Johnson embraces the National Health Service, the Monarchy, and Brexit at the same time. In addition, Conservatives promote infrastructure programs such as new rail lines.

There are enormous obstacles to such rationale conservatism in the United States. In particular, a well-organized and well-financed network of individuals and institutions dedicated to radical libertarianism and neoliberalism. IE the Kochs and think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation. In addition, America’s influential conservative media is hostile to the welfare state.

Another difference is that many American voters have more interest in racial and religious issues than economics. IE there is a segment of the white working class which votes against any effort to empower nonwhites.

In addition, America has large consistencies of conservative religious voters who do not exist in the UK. Those religious voters have no interest in economics which is why neoliberals love them.

Why the New Culture War will Fail

The ultimate problem for Republicans is today’s working class wants both the welfare state and White Nationalism. However, only a few politicians such as Hawley grasp that reality.

The unsuccessful future for the New Culture War is that its leaders will double down on White Christian Nationalism, class grievances, and neoliberalism. White Christian Nationalism and neoliberalism are attractive to minorities in the US but there is no mass appetite for them.

A Republican Party dedicated to New Culture War will drive away educated and upper-class voters while offending corporate America. Thus, the Culture War GOP will have less money and fewer votes.

A White Christian Nationalist Republican Party will only have mass appeal in a few smaller rural states. The United States will not see a mass religious nationalist movement such as India’s BJP. Instead, the White Christian Nationalists will have to form a coalition to achieve any power.

Another future for White Christian Nationalists is as a junior partner in a coalition. American history offers a precedent for such coalition. Between 1912 and 1960, an unholy alliance of Southern Racists and Northern Progressives dominated the Democratic Party.

The Progressives tolerated Jim Crow’s segregation and racism as long as they confined those evils to the South. In return, Southern Jim Crow Democrats supported the New Deal, a Wilsonian Foreign policy, the GI Bill, massive military spending, and unions as long as Progressives did not extend the benefits of those policies to blacks. For example, the National Labor Relations Act; which promoted unions, did not cover disproportionately black professions such as agricultural labor and domestic service.

Hence, the future of the New Culture War could be tolerance of White Christian Nationalism as long as it stays in Idaho and Kentucky. Similarly, the New Culture War will tolerate Woke ideology as long as it stays in California.

Only history will show if such a compromise is possible in America’s emotional political landscape. However, I think one thing is certain; the New Culture War will fail and have little lasting impact on America’s future.