The antidote to the poison of the culture war

Written by Derek Monson

April 22, 2022

The culture war seems to be expanding its reach into myriad areas of life, beyond politics. What used to primarily be a dynamic of controversial social policy debates – abortion, marriage, sexuality, etc. – has seeped into how children are educated, how we encourage our own good health, how we work and transact in the marketplace, what we consider fundamental rights, and how we elect government decisionmakers.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Yuval Levin captured this reality in a recent essay:

Our culture war plainly lacks boundaries. Every realm of our lives has become one of its battlefields. Not only in politics but also in schools and universities, in corporate America, in our places of worship and places of work, in civil society and in our private lives, online and in person, there is often just no getting away from that intense, divisive, and rigidly partisan struggle.

The particular disputes over which we are supposed to be at each other’s throats constantly shift and change. Sometimes it’s race and policing, sometimes immigration and borders, sometimes American history or education, cancel culture or some bourgeoning fascism, free speech or hate speech, wokism or systemic discrimination, transgenderism, election integrity, vaccines, masks, or the latest careless proclamation of some ridiculous celebrity. The list of controversies is endless, but the parties to them are remarkably constant and durable. Individually, these fights sometimes touch on genuinely vital questions. Yet seen together they appear as a vast sociopolitical psychosis. They are all one fight, and the fight is the point. This is the sense in which we are living through a war of cultures, not of ideologies or interests. It is about us and them – competing identities, opposing teams, contending antipathies, contempt as far as the eye can see. Each party knows the other is the country’s biggest problem, and the latest outrage is just more evidence (as if we needed it).

As Levin notes later in his essay, the creep of the culture war is a bad thing for those who believe in the idea of the United States of America:

Displays of partisan allegiance and factional solidarity may have their place, but they do not belong in every place. And out of their place, they can displace other essential goods, and can divide us along lines that render common action and ultimately common life impossible.

Without any common action or common life, there is no substantive version of the United States of America. We devolve into something like 50 small nations loosely connected through geography and never-ending political debates. A nation defined by the weakness of its distrust of its own people and institutions: whose people prioritize ideological comfort more than establishing justice, providing a common defense, promoting general welfare, or securing liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Part of the solution is to practice the civic discipline and cultivate the civic character required to shield areas of life from the political impulsiveness and argumentative reactionism that defines the culture war approach. As Levin argues:

The resistance we need must begin by protecting the distinct characters, cultures, and modes of integrity of our distinct institutions, and so making sure that we aren’t just using them all as venues for declaring our cultural allegiances. … 

But if we come to see some separate spheres of life as distinct yet overlapping domains of human action, we can hope to better reflect the constructive complexity of our gloriously diverse free society, and so to build out spaces for common efforts, common enjoyments, and common loves despite our differences.

That would mean not only putting up with people who vote differently than we do but also finding ways to admire them and learn from them – even if not about how to vote. It would mean recognizing the humanity of our neighbours, seeing that expertise in one arena does not imply authority in another, and grasping that setting bounds on the reach of our cultural combat is not just a pragmatic concession to civility but also a broader path to the fullest truth about the human person.

In other words, refusing to allow the obnoxious habits of obsessive fighting and biased caricaturing of our political opponents – i.e., the culture war – to creep into and poison another area of life develops the kind of decency, graciousness, principles and intelligence that we respect and admire the most in other people. It encourages us to become type of person that we want as our neighbors, that we want our children to emulate, and that we often want to follow ourselves. Embracing the culture war in ever-increasing areas of our lives encourages the opposite.

So the next time you see people on social media who seem to be fighting for fighting’s sake or promoting prejudice by how they oversimplify and dehumanize someone who disagrees with them, choose not to follow the crowd.

Instead, find someone who you know or think you disagree with politically and invite them to go to a sporting event or a movie that you both enjoy. Ask them to go to lunch sometime. Ask them about their family and tell them about yours. Listen to them until the broad range of their life experience and humanity begins to take form in your heart and mind.

You may gain or deepen a friendship. You’ll definitely be happier. And you will probably do more through that effort to restore America and save the democracy than most political debates ever will.

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