Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

A House Divided? What Social Science Has to Say about the Culture War

Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

A House Divided? What Social Science Has to Say about the Culture War

Article excerpt

America, the punditocracy has declared, is at war with itself. Intense political polarization - rooted in deep religious differences - has brought us a culture war, whose troops are recruited from the red and blue states. Upon digging deeper into data on Americans' political attitudes, however, social scientists are more equivocal. Perhaps, some have suggested, we hear only "rumors of wars."1 This debate over whether America is engaged in a culture war is a strange one, if only because the term itself is odd. It is a metaphor and, as such, is open to interpretation - even more so than most terms employed in social science. Whether we are in the midst of a culture war depends entirely on what one means by the term. Most often, the term is simply used to describe the fact that American politics is polarized - a proposition, we shall see, that is also a matter of interpretation. However, when we strip away the hyperbole and return to what the term was originally meant to convey, it describes a tremendously significant development in American religion, society, and politics. This is a case where the term itself has served as a distraction from the important insight it was meant to communicate.


The term "culture war" was first popularized when Pat Buchanan used it in his primetime address to the 1992 Republican National Convention.2 Buchanan, who had been a thorn in the side of incumbent George H. W. Bush during the primaries, delivered a fiery speech in which he stoked the Republican delegates with his inimitable blend of economic populism and social conservatism.3 In the speech, he declared that

[T]his election is about much more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.4

The declaration of a religious and cultural war is evocative, as the martial imagery suggests two sharply opposed camps of opinion.

In a very important sense, Buchanan was wrong. And, likewise, so are the many pundits who also use the term "culture war" to mean intense polarization. While there is admittedly some debate over the degree to which Americans are polarized,5 the fairest reading ofthe evidence suggests that, across the issue spectrum, Americans are not as far apart as the pundits would have you believe. To be polarized in the sense of two opposing extremes requires a "bimodal" distribution of opinion - that is, when Americans' attitudes are arrayed along a continuum, we should expect to see two peaks on the left and right respectively, with little convergence in the middle.6 By this standard, Americans are clearly not polarized. The recent book Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America by Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina demonstrates convincingly that even on the most hot-button issues, American public opinion gravitates toward the moderate middle.7 Take the paradigmatic issue of abortion. In Fiorina's words:

[T]he evidence is clear that the broad American public is not polarized on the specifics of the abortion issue. They believe that abortion should be legal but that it is reasonable to regulate it in various ways. They are "pro-choice, buts."8

Furthermore, there has been remarkably little change in the median position on abortion over the last twenty years.9 Similarly, Fiorina finds that on any of the most contentious issues facing the public, Americans' opinions cluster in the moderate middle.10

Given the frequency with which the term "polarization" is used to describe American politics, it probably seems counterintuitive to claim that Americans are not really polarized after all. While Fiorina's evidence is convincing that Americans are not polarized in one sense, this does not rule out polarization in quite another. …

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