- History is Written by the (Pyrrhic) Victors
Just as I finished reading Andrew Hartman’s War for the Soul of America, the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage to be legal in all fifty states, apparently handing the Left yet another victory in America’s “culture wars.” At around the same time, the fatal shooting of nine African Americans by a white supremacist in a South Carolina church sparked rare bipartisan calls for curtailing public displays of Confederate flags. While few observers believed either issue had been settled, the immediate impression was that the social forces of tolerance and cosmopolitanism were in ascendance, while those of custom, conformity, and control were in retreat. Both news events easily fit into a standard grand narrative that has evolved in recent decades. Namely, that although conservatives have won most of the political battles since the 1970s, liberals have captured and reshaped the national culture; and those who control culture eventually control everything. In the words of Patrick Buchanan (as quoted by Hartman, p. 7), “culture is the Ho Chi Minh Trail to power.”
Yet it is also possible that the price of the Left’s culture-war victories has been its concurrent political and economic defeats. A common trope of early twenty-first–century writing is to declare that the United States has become socially liberal and economically conservative; as the nation grows increasingly fair, open, and pluralistic in the former it becomes less equitable, humane, and democratic in the latter. This begs the question of how two such contradictory trends might have influenced each other. While Hartman’s book begins and ends by raising this overarching frame of reference, the rest of his study focuses exclusively on the ideas and events of the culture wars as they unfolded in post-1960s America, peaking in the 1980s and 1990s and ending—in Hartman’s opinion—at the turn of the century (though their “lingering residues” remain).
War for the Soul of America is the first comprehensive treatment of this high-profile topic since James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars appeared in 1991, and in many respects Hartman’s effort is an updated and intellectually enhanced version of that earlier work.1 Some obvious differences are worth [End Page 160] noting. Hunter paid more attention to the religious Right and to electoral politics; he seemed more sympathetic (than Hartman is) to the conservative sensibility; and since the conclusion of the story (culturally, liberals will win) was still in doubt and the culture wars were still raging, his rendition now sounds like the voice of halftime analysis. Hartman, by contrast, writes with the benefit of hindsight, and so theoretically with more authority; his rendition—while smoothly written and accessible—is perhaps aimed more squarely at the academic audience, though it deserves a healthy general readership. The most salient contributions of the newer book are the attention Hartman pays to neoconservatives and his excellent analysis of women’s issues and feminism; his discussion of multiculturalism in higher education is likewise richly informed. Both books set the stage by highlighting the breakdown of postwar consensus in the 1960s. Hartman credits the New Left (broadly defined) with challenging the culture of “normative America,” and, on the whole, he considers the challenges to have been justified. Hunter too recognized that challenges to the status quo start on the Left; but he separated the citizenry into “orthodox” and “progressive” camps and strained to demonstrate that the recent culture wars were merely new twists on the old traditionalist-versus-modernist skirmishes that had flared periodically since the nation’s founding. Hartman, on the other hand, strongly suggests that the cultural shake-ups that began in the 1960s were historically unprecedented in their scope and magnitude. Both books acknowledge that the culture wars were essentially moral crusades over competing and irreconcilable sets of national values and ideals; the passionate arguments over abortion, school prayer, history textbooks, sexuality and gender, creationism, arts funding, racial conflict, museum exhibits, multiculturalism, U.S...