The Twilight of Social Conservatism: American Culture Wars in the Obama Era

The Twilight of Social Conservatism: American Culture Wars in the Obama Era

The Twilight of Social Conservatism: American Culture Wars in the Obama Era

The Twilight of Social Conservatism: American Culture Wars in the Obama Era


Despite many Americans' triumphant proclamations that Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 elections signified a post-partisan, post-racial society, it seems that the United States is more divided than ever. From the rise of the Tea Party, to strident anti-immigration and anti-welfare movements, to the so-called "war on women", the United States on its surface appears to be caught in the turmoil of a culture war that has not relented since the Reagan era. But, as John Dombrink writes in The Twilight of Social Conservatism, the conservative backlash seen during Obama's presidency is indicative not of a rising social conservative force in society, but of a waning one.

Drawing on demographic research, political polls, contemporary media, and internet commentary, Dombrink demonstrates that the vitality of major social conservative ideas from the culture war era has faded. Support for once-divisive wedge issues, like same-sex marriage and reproductive rights, has increased dramatically, and Americans, particularly young Americans, are less religious and more libertarian than ever before. As he traces the end of the culture wars and the "unwedging" of American politics over the last eight years, Dombrink is quick to caution that social conservatism has not disappeared entirely from view. Nevertheless, the once-prominent "Moral Majority" pushing for dominance in American culture is now reconsidering itself as a minority, and Dombrink argues that it is unlikely that social conservative forces will ever regain the power and potency they once held in American politics. A comprehensive and insightful work, The Twilight of Social Conservatism deftly analyzes the liberalizing trends that created the social and political culture America has today and that portend to the culture America will have in years to come.


I was a college senior at a Catholic university when Roe v. Wade was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in January 1973. It was an unusual day, in that former president Lyndon Johnson passed away that same day after a heart attack at his ranch in Texas. That meant that the Supreme Court’s historic 7–2 ruling could not be the lead headline in the New York Times the next day (though it was a large secondary headline).

While several states had begun liberalizing their abortion laws in the late 1960s, including Governor Ronald Reagan’s California in 1967, some described the decision in Roe as a “bolt out of the blue.” While critics and increasingly mobilized opponents strategized the fastest ways to reverse the decision in Roe, they could not succeed in eventually passing a constitutional amendment to define that life begins at conception. But they were able to limit federal funding and insert abortion politics into our national political discussion in a way that has lasted for the last three decades.

By 1980, as I was finishing my doctoral studies at Berkeley and completing a dissertation on the legalization of casino gambling, that quiet terrain was changing dramatically. The “Moral Majority,” founded by the Baptist minister Jerry Falwell, was pushing back on what they viewed as the unfolding moral decline in American society. There were places like my parish and neighborhood, where the older adults—probably Franklin Roosevelt Democrats—were less enamored in the 1970s with the changes of the 1960s and the McGovern Democrats and had found that the newly reformed Democratic Party didn’t necessarily represent their values. They fit the concept of the “Reagan Democrat.” Ronald Reagan, elected president in 1980 in part because of these voters, would then make the triumvirate of social conservatism, economic conservatism, and foreign policy conservatism the underpinning of his transformative presidency. Today, all Republican candidates and conventions make a point of honoring him and his role in their political development in their statements.

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