In “A War for the Soul of America,” Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University, has produced a lively chronicle of the “culture wars,” the political and intellectual clashes beginning in the 1960s pitting left-wing intellectuals and activists who sought fundamental social change against conservative and neoconservative counterparts seeking to resist it.
The two sides quarreled over “secular humanism” and the place of religion in public life; over the value of various liberation movements and the broad claims of multiculturalism; over who should control the public schools and what they should teach; and over the fundamental justice or injustice of the American experiment and of America’s role in the world.
Mr. Hartman’s book makes two main contributions. The first is his framing of the “culture wars” debate from its earliest days. It begins with what he calls “normative America,” which he describes as “an inchoate group of assumptions and aspirations shared by millions of Americans during the postwar years. Normative America prized hard work, personal responsibility, individual merit, delayed gratification, social mobility and other values that middle-class whites recognized as their own.” These values included a preference for men as breadwinners and women as homemakers, sexual discretion, and faith in God and American exceptionalism.
Beginning in the 1960s, this “normative America” was subject to a comprehensive challenge from people who felt excluded or alienated and who devoted themselves to the pursuit of “a nation more open to new peoples, new ideas, new norms.” The “culture wars” took shape when conservatives and neoconservatives rose to the defense of “normative America,” whose way of life they described as valuable in itself for its virtues as well as socially useful in producing prosperity and good outcomes for individuals ascribing to its ethic.
Mr. Hartman’s characterization of the crux of the “culture wars” is hardly his alone. Anyone who has read Irving Kristol’s essays from the Public Interest in the 1970s will recognize Mr. Hartman’s thesis as the one Kristol was propounding at the time. In a more incendiary form, it’s the struggle Pat Buchanan described with notorious gusto at the 1992 Republican convention, urging conservatives to “take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.” Mr. Hartman has read this material and learned much from it.
His second major contribution is his conclusion that the culture wars are over. He strives throughout (with mixed success) to be fair to the conservative side, but there is an unmistakable tone of victor’s justice here. Though he notes that conservatives won their share of economic and political battles, the culture wars are over because conservatives lost. Mr. Hartman doesn’t quite celebrate, but clearly it was not his side that lost.
The bargain Mr. Hartman offers amounts to this: He will accept that conservatives were correct in perceiving a broad-based attack on traditional values (or “normative America”)—in exchange for their concession that the right’s defense of traditional values has been a failure.
Certainly Mr. Hartman is correct to say that the “culture wars compelled Americans, even conservatives, to acknowledge transformations to American life” and to resign themselves to these changes if not to accept them. On matters such as women’s rights, gay rights and exclusionary freedom of association, conservative polemicists of the early years of the culture wars took positions few conservatives would take today. Moreover, the predictions conservatives made about the behavioral effects of the New Left-derived assault on “normative America,” while often accurate, were far less dire than many conservatives anticipated. Perhaps the collapse of Western civilization is just around the corner, but probably not.
Yet to reach his conclusion about winners and losers, Mr. Hartman has to leave something out. He says that the New Left wanted an America more open to “new ideas” and “new norms,” and that’s what it got. But the radicals of the 1960s and 1970s also sought to discredit the values of middle-class America once and for all.
In fact, “normative America” assimilated much of the left’s critique of its erstwhile prejudices with little difficulty. But it’s one thing to open the workplace fully to women, another to conclude that women who stay home to raise children are prisoners of a false consciousness about what women should do. Same-sex marriage became plausible once Americans concluded it posed no danger to heterosexual marriage. “Normative America” still prizes “hard work” and “personal responsibility” but now also prizes diversity and expanded opportunities for minorities. Thanks in part to its conservative defenders but mostly to its own resilience, it survived the more radical attacks of the “culture wars.”
And that leads to the biggest deficiency of “A War for the Soul of America”: its lack of sympathy for the good folks of “normative America.” As George Orwell once famously wrote, “it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet to be fully alive.” This proposition is the soul of the conservative side of the culture wars. It stood against the New Left’s view that normal decent persons, in their collectivity, represent a repressive force.
That normal decent persons have changed their minds on many issues, bringing the culture wars to a close, in no way diminishes their status as fully alive, then and now, and therefore worth defending.
Mr. Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of “The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern,” forthcoming from Encounter.