ELECTION 2000 and the Culture War

Article excerpt

Some political commentators claim the results of Election 2000 show that U.S. citizens have changed the way they usually vote. They argue that individual moral beliefs now motivate voters' judgments rather than group affinities such as socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender, region, and urban-rural residence. This claim simply isn't true. Moral beliefs have always collectively reflected the social influence of people's group connections. Election 2000 does, however, reflect the increasing "culture war" in U.S. society. But people's group affinities continue to influence which side they take in our culture's internal conflicts.


A national culture is never a homogeneous thing of one piece. In every culture there are internal contradictions or polarities. U.S. culture is no exception For example, the most familiar internal contradiction in the United States is thai between Anglo-American beliefs about equality of opportunity and universal rights, on the one hand, and racism and Anglo ethnocentrism, on the other. Both are equally American.

The so-called culture war arises out of internal contradictions in our culture. The current conflict can be traced back to the rapid social changes of the 1960s, although it began emerging decades before. The essence of the conflict exists between certain traditional ethnic, Anglo-American cultural values versus modernist, pluralistic, multicultural values that depart from Anglo-American tradition. Anglo-American traditionalists, and those assimilated to traditional Anglo culture, reject many of the social changes of the 1960s, such as those in gender role expectations, sexual attitudes, tolerance for diverse beliefs and lifestyles, and especially in the acceptance of cultural relativism. Modernists are more receptive to the social changes of the 1960s because they are in demographic groups that benefit more from the changes. Many of them are also Anglo-Americans, but they are cosmopolitans who live in large metropolitan areas and are open to many nontraditional cultural influences.


An "ethnic group," for many Anglo-Americans, connotes those slightly foreign neighbors who maintain some "different" ways of thinking and behaving and who "we" should tolerate. Anglo-Americans don't think of themselves as having a particularly distinctive ethnic culture. They see themselves simply as individuals, or average U.S. citizens. (Anglo-American culture now includes that of other white Protestants--for example, those from Celtic, Scandinavian, and Slavic origins--which have been absorbed into Anglo culture.) Anglo-American social scientists enjoy doing ethnological research on those "different" people but have rarely studied Anglo-Americans and the various Anglo-American subcultures (with the possible exception of the Southern subculture). However, Anglo-Americans of the South, rural Midwest, and mountain West do share some cultural patterns in common, some of which influence their political preferences.

Some of the problematic aspects of traditional Anglo-American patterns are also the same aspects that may be regarded as most admirable. The key problem in Anglo-American culture is a kind of extreme individualism; everyone is thought of simply as an individual without group connections. Differences in group culture and history are seen as either superficial or an impediment to freedom of action. Individual self-reliance and self-sufficiency is highly prized. Anglo-Americans expect people to take personal responsibility for their problems and to endure pain and frustration without complaining or involving other people. They tend to believe that everyone is equally free and that there are, and should be, few external constraints on individual action and ambition. Poverty is viewed to be a result of failures of individual personality. Optimism is valued and pessimism deplored, in part because Anglo-Americans lack a tragic perspective on life. …