Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Suppose they gave a culture war and nobody came

E.J. Dionne, Jr. declares the culture war over. Our various crises, he argues, are leading to a deemphasis of culture war issues, perhaps inaugurating a new version of what he calls the secular period from 1932 (FDR) to 1980 (RWR).

The crunchy con and the orthopaleo--or is it paleo-ortho?--con disagree.

So do I. My own peculiar reasoning has to do with Dionne’s chracterization of the secular period. He concedes that, for example, FDR used religious language. I’d add: quite confidently because American culture at that time was still watered-down mainline Protestant culture. But that was changing, especially among the elites, and it led to a judicial effort to purge the public square of the remnants of our past "religious" culture. By the time JFK is elected, it’s de rigeur for political figures to speak the language of separationism. In other words, what secularized American politics was not the press of "real" economic and foreign policy issues, but the efforts of elites (mostly under people’s radars) to drain what life was left out of our national vaguely religious, vaguely Protestant cultural consensus.

I’ll concede this much to Dionne: the cultural issues of the last two decades have receded a bit. Most of the states that want to affirm traditional marriage have done so, which means that issue, for the moment, doesn’t have much energy behind it. And, yes, kids don’t seem to care about it as much as do their elders. But abortion is still right there and, as MOJ’s Greg Sisk points out in this most excellent post, the oil Barack Obama wants to pour on our troubled cultural waters is highly flammable.

The stealth offensive that produced the reaction that we call our culture war started in the judiciary. Many social conservatives entered politics in response to judicial provocations. Does anyone think that a President Obama or a President Clinton won’t nominate Supreme Court justices whose opinions will constitute a new cultural casus belli?

I don’t relish this prospect, but I can’t imagine a circumstance in which I won’t be provoked by the judicial decisions that follow from four or eight years of Democratic dominance in D.C.

Discussions - 6 Comments

Joe, well observed and argued. It is important -- although quite daunting when thinking about what to do about it -- to see and state how decisive the Warren and Burger Court decisions were in engendering and sustaining our contemporary politics and attendant (?) cultural wars, as well as certain Rehnquist Court decisions upholding and expanding their predecessors damaging precedents (Casey, Lawrence).


An excess of cultural diversity in a republican or representative system ultimately means the crisis and breakdown of that system into either an authoritarian or monarchical regime of some sort or a crack-up of the polity into numerous, relatively more homogenous states.

This seems indisputable. Thoughts, anyone?

Just from your quote, John, I don't think it's indisputable. The American colonies at the time of the Revolution were remarkably diverse in terms of ethnic background and country of origin, culture of the different states and rural/urban, religion, etc., but were united around a certain set of very simple principles. Tribalism hurts the common good, but diversity (rightly understood as Peter Lawler would say) is not inherently bad as long as people agree on the basics.

Tony, the colonies were not "remarkably diverse." If anything they were remarkably homogenous, excluding the slaves and Indians of course. They were inhabited in much different proportions by various sorts of British Islanders (Puritans up north, Quakers in the Middle, Caviliers on the Southern Coast, and Scots-Irish in the Southern interior), but different types of British Islanders is not the sort of diversity issues we face today.

There were some Dutch, some Germans, some French, some Spaniards, etc. but not in numbers and distribution that would amount to remarkable diversity.

The American colonies at the time of the Revolution were remarkably diverse in terms of ethnic background

Compared to what? Certainly not compared to America today, which is a conglomeration of all the people in the world. And not a "melting pot" either.

diversity .. is not inherently bad as long as people agree on the basics

Maybe you have not noticed, but people do not agree on the basics. And they disagree more and more with each passing year.

Getting back to the "diversity" of the founders, I recommend that you read Federalist #2.

It has often given me pleasure to observe that independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, widespreading country was the portion of our western sons of liberty. Providence has in a particular manner blessed it with a variety of soils and productions, and watered it with innumerable streams, for the delight and accommodation of its inhabitants. A succession of navigable waters forms a kind of chain round its borders, as if to bind it together; while the most noble rivers in the world, running at convenient distances, present them with highways for the easy communication of friendly aids, and the mutual transportation and exchange of their various commodities.

With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people--a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.

This could no longer be said with a straight face. We ARE split into "a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties", each of which hates and fears the other. Jaffa and his followers bear plenty of blame for that.

The United States is more diverse today than it has ever been, except for tommorow. I think that a lot of the diversity stems from what Ortega calls "the curse of specialization". Complex societies have specialists who don't really understand each other. In truth it simply results in a lot of miscommunication and distrust, but I think that we are all somewhat aware that we are misunderstanding others.

I would say that the cultural war is alive and well and belongs to the democrats and Obama this time around, in a sort of sojourner liberal evangelical fashion. I think Obama might say that he is running to end the tower of babble politics of fear and misunderstanding.

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