Members Only | March 3, 2021 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Republicans know their new ‘culture war’ isn’t fooling anyone, much less Republicans
Claire Bond Potter explains how we've been here before.
On Monday, US Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the Republican Party’s most aggressive culture warrior, called for a congressional investigation into “cancel culture.”
Welcome back to the culture wars.
We’ve been here before.
First, there was McCarthyism. Ostensibly a Cold War campaign against fascism and communism, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) dug deeply into university campuses and media companies, ferreting out “subversive” ideas like nuclear non-proliferation, racial equality, and homosexual rights.
Alternative media—Regnery Press, The Manion Forum, The National Review, and 700 Club—supported the expansion of the right. Repudiating liberalism in both parties, by the 1970s, these conservative outlets were actively resisting the “cultural excesses” of the 1960s: free speech, desegregation, free love, and freedom from religion.
Jim Jordan’s initiative not only substitutes rhetoric for policy. It substitutes freedom from ideas for freedom of thought.
Conservatives at the time named this policy agenda “family values.” By 1991, however, sociologist James Davison Hunter had renamed it a “culture war.” Otherwise abstract issues like family, religion, patriotism and freedom were now “controversies that seem to have a life of their own,” dividing Americans into opposing political camps.
By 1992, the culture wars strategy took firm root in the GOP as right-wing populists, under the leadership of Patrick Buchanan, repudiated party moderates. While Buchanan failed in his bid for the GOP nomination, at the convention that summer he urged a return to Reaganism when “they were proud to be Americans again.”
“The central organizing project of this republic is freedom,” Buchanan thundered, excoriating gay rights, abortion rights, and secular public education. “My friends,” he continued, “we must take back our culture and take back our country.”
But is the crackdown that Jordan and the Trumpist majority of the GOP are calling for—eliminating diversity initiatives on campus and hate speech on the internet as if they were indoctrination—simply another chapter in the story of the same culture war?
To be sure, conservatives always sought to protect their rights at the expense of others. The “right” to be free from homosexuality at school and in public jobs required censoring curriculum as well as policies like the 1978 Briggs initiative1 that sought to purge LGBT teachers from California public schools, and the 1993 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” deal forced on Bill Clinton allowing queer people to serve secretly in the military.
But Jordan’s initiative not only substitutes culture-war rhetoric for actual policy. It substitutes freedom from ideas for freedom of thought. While conservatives are up in arms about Amazon’s refusal to sell books that make false or conspiratorial claims, Trumpists are engaged in the more dangerous task of purging public libraries of LGBTQ books, suppressing reports on climate change, and ending diversity training.
Similarly, conservatives recognize that creating a parallel social media platform is not a sufficient antidote to having their speech curbed on Twitter and Facebook. Unlike television, radio, and mailings, social media built for conservatives will not be seen by, or capture the imaginations of, independent and uncommitted readers and viewers.
By contrast, in the 1990s, Republicans like Newt Gingrich offered a concrete map for waging a culture war. Designed to mirror the Bill of Rights, the 10-point “Contract with America” offered voters in 1994 an explicit program of tax benefits, welfare cuts, and a strengthened military that aligned with right-wing conservative objectives.
Today’s Republicans have no policies. They have hot takes, irony, and a vague antipathy to “wokeness.” If Jordan calls for investigations of non-criminal activity, Ben Shapiro bides his time with mockery. On February 26, in response to the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolchildren, he tweeted: “Time to unleash the power of hashtag.”
Time will tell whether this was a winning formula, but initial signs suggest fake culture wars won’t work in 2022. Yes, Donald Trump won the annual straw poll at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference with 55 percent. But since CPAC is Trump country, shouldn’t he have won overwhelmingly? The answer is yes.
The GOP’s increasing embrace of this new culture war isn’t fooling anyone.
Much less conservatives.
—Claire Bond Potter
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School, and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy.
Published in cooperation with Alternet.
CORRECTION: The 1978 Briggs initiative sought to purge LGBT teachers from public schools in California. Due to an editing error, the original did not identify the state.
We regret the error.
Claire Bond Potter is the Editorial Board's politics historian. A professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, she is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar and the publisher of Political Junkie. Follow her @TenuredRadical.