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It's The Culture War, Stupid! - How The Far Right Uses Religious and Ethnic Identity to Mobilize Voters

"Impeach Trump Rally" by Geoff Livingston is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

1 National Conservatism and the Culture War


In an episode of the Hoover Institution's Goodfellows podcast published on 26 October 2022, British-American historian Niall Ferguson argued that politics in the 2020s is fundamentally about culture. He criticized the Tories under former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss, claiming that they should have focused on cultural issues rather than on the tax cuts scheme which led to the downfall of the conservative leader on October 20. Ferguson stated:


"[I]f national conservatism means anything, it means fighting and winning the culture war. When you know that the majority of ordinary people really aren't woke and therefore it's relatively easy to peel them away from the left by pointing out the lunacies that the people on the left want them to believe: that there are 53 genders, that it's actually anti-racism systematically to discriminate against people on the basis of race, and so on … It's the 2020s, and in the 2020s politics is about culture and that's how you get voters to turn away from the left."


Ferguson's remarks highlight a political phenomenon that has emerged over the past decade. The far right has realized that the conservative agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy, austerity and the dismantling of the welfare state is not popular among large swathes of the electorate. By contrast, many voters can be mobilized and even radicalized by cultural and identity issues, especially involving immigration, religion, race, and the debate over traditional values. 


That is why Ferguson adviced the Tories as well as the GOP to resort to the repertoire of far right tropes, ranging from anti-LGBTQ rhetoric to the idea that white people face widespread discrimination. By doing so, the far right can deflect from economic and social demands that would benefit the lower and middle classes, redirecting and channeling their attention towards incendiary cultural issues that speak to voters' emotions and existential angst rather than to rationality. Such topics further draw politically exploitable sharp lines of division between different demographic and socio-economic groups. 


In his seminal book "Culture Wars - The Struggle to Define America", sociologist James Davison Hunter analyzed the history and the development of the conflict between cultural conservatism and cultural progressivism in the United States. Although the book was published in 1991, it still provides an insightful blueprint for understanding the culture wars today. 


The term "culture war" is the English rendering of the German word Kulturkampf, which literally means culture struggle (Hunter 1991, p. xii). It refers to the conflict that unfolded in the 1870s and 80s between the government of German chancellor Otto von Bismarck and the Catholic church. Its beginning dates back to 1871 with the promulgation of the Pulpit Law (Kanzelparagraph) which forbade "the misuse of the pulpit for political purposes". Bismarck's anti-Catholic policies ultimately failed, leading to the repeal of the Kulturkampf laws in 1887 (Walser Smith 1995, p. 19).


The significance of the Kulturkampf lies in the fact that it was part of an attempt by the newly founded German state to create a national identity. As historian Helmut Walser Smith (1995) explained:


"Divided by confession, the rhetoric of Germany's conflict was reinforced by the vocabulary of religious antagonism, the fronts between the two adversaries hardened by a history of civil wars between Catholic and Protestant powers, their antipathy tempered by a long and tenacious memory of mutual intolerance … Rather than seeing the Kulturkampf exclusively as a church-state affair, it might also be instructive to consider it as part of the general trajectory of German nation-building, as an attempt to consolidate German national culture, to create by force of state coercion a cultural unity, a coherent nation, across confessional lines. The official Kulturkampf, in this way of seeing it, was a strategy of nation-building, supported by the state and centered on an attempt to create a common high culture in which national values, largely synonymous with those of enlightened Protestantism, would be shared." (Walser Smith 1995, pp. 19-20).


James Hunter defines cultural conflict as "political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding" for the purpose of "the domination of one cultural and moral ethos over all others." (Hunter 1991, p. 42). The principles and ideals that underpin these competing systems of moral understanding have "a character of ultimacy to them," they are "basic commitments and beliefs that provide a source of identity, purpose, and togetherness for the people who live by them." As a result, they can lead to impassioned political activism. (ibid.).


In the 19th century the United States also went through its own form of culture war between different religions and confessions, specifically Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Mormons, whereby the Protestants represented the majority and the dominant culture. A theme that might sound familiar to contemporary Americans emerged during that period:


"America's uneasy pluralism implied a confrontation of a deeper nature - a competition to define social reality. Through the nineteenth and early twentieth century cultural discord was kindled, in general, by two competing tendencies. On one hand, there was the quest on the part of various minority cultures to carve out a space in American life where they could each live according to the imperatives of conscience and the obligations of community without harassment or reprisal. Such a space would provide the base from which to expand their own legitimate interests as a distinct moral community. On the other hand, there was the endeavor of Protestants and a largely Protestant-based populism to ward off any challenges - to retain their advantage in defining the habits and meaning of American culture." (Hunter 1991, p. 39).


Read also: The Long History of Anti-Immigration Rhetoric 


Today those religious conflicts appear far removed from the American experience. That is because throughout the 20th century, and particularly after the Second World War, the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish communities became increasingly tolerant of each other, forming a new mainstream American culture. For example, a 1958 survey showed that 25 percent of Americans were opposed to a Catholic political candidate, and 28 percent were opposed to a Jewish candidate. By 1987 those numbers had decreased to 8 and 10 percent respectively. (ibid., pp. 39-40). 


2 Cultural Conservatism vs Cultural Progressivism 


James Hunter used the terms "orthodox" and "progressive" to describe "formal properties of a belief system or world view." However, I find the word "orthodox" rather narrow in scope and therefore prefer the terms cultural conservative and cultural progressive to define these phenomena.


Cultural conservatism refers to a worldview that is based on the commitment to an "external, definable, and transcendent authority" that provides "a consistent, unchangeable measure of value, purpose, goodness, and identity, both personal and collective." (Hunter 1991, p. 44). Hunter focused mostly on religious identity, but I will also include national identity in the definition of cultural conservatism.


Cultural progressivism, by contrast, is grounded in "a spirit of rationalism and subjectivism." (ibid.). Therefore, cultural progressivism regards the individual, and not a supernatural entity or a mythical concept of the nation, as the source of an ever ongoing effort to seek truth and morality through reason and debate.  


The contemporary culture wars are "ultimately a struggle over national identity - over the meaning of America, who we have been in the past, who we are now, and perhaps most important, who we, as a nation, will aspire to become in the new millennium." (ibid., p. 50). 


There are two fundamental issues in the culture wars today: religious and ethnic identity. I argue that the old religious conflict between Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Mormons has given way to what I would call a "Judeo-Christian consensus" among a large section of the white Christian and Jewish population, an ideology espoused by the Trump administration.


Cultural conservatives view the United States as a Judeo-Christian white majority nation, while cultural progressives view it as a secular, multiethnic and multicultural society. This is the existential and irreconcilable cultural divide between the two sides. 


Consequently, immigration has become one of the most controversial topics in our public discourse. An "Encyclopedia of the Culture Wars" published in 2008 describes the immigration debate as follows: 


"Some Americans oppose immigration, for reasons ranging from racism, ethnocentrism, and fear of religious diversity to concerns about overpopulation … Some nativist critics, such as the conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, claim that the white majority in America will diminish as new immigrants, legal and illegal, enter the country. They are concerned that an inordinate number of legal immigrants may come from nonwhite, impoverished regions of the world, such as Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, and that, having arrived in the United States, they will bring others from these regions through family-sponsored visas. Nativists see this as a threat to the American «way of life,» fearing that immigration will lead to radical changes in American society and that white Protestant culture may lose dominance. Such concerns echo the critiques of nativists during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when there was substantial fear that Chinese, Irish, and south European immigrants posed a threat to the dominant cultural values … Some critics worry that legal immigrants will not fully assimilate into U.S. culture and will not speak fluent English, resulting in ethnic enclaves outside the predominant culture. Their fear is that immigrants who do not mix with the rest of the U.S. population will not share values and mores associated with the larger «American» culture. They worry that language and cultural barriers will lead to higher rates of poverty and a more fragmented American population … Critics are also concerned that legal immigrants may weigh heavily on social welfare programs …


"Proponents of legal immigration value the diversity in culture and life experience that immigrants bring to America. They believe that, like European immigrants in the 1800s and early 1900s, new legal immigrants, regardless of racial or ethnic background, will make positive contributions to American culture … Supporters of legal immigration also emphasize that promoting employment-based immigration strengthens America's standing in technological and scientific fields as well as in academics and literature." (Duroy 2008, p. 274).


The anti-immigration rhetoric of cultural conservatives has been very clear and consistent over the years. In 1994 author Lawrence Auster wrote an essay titled "The U.S. Must Restrict Immigration to Prevent Cultural Disintegration", in which he claimed that immigration posed a "threat to American civilization":


"At a time when unprecedented ethnic diversity makes the affirmation of a common American culture more important than ever, we are, under the pressure of that diversity, abandoning the very idea of a common culture … [W]e have in effect redefined the nation to the point where there is no remaining criterion of American identity other than the physical fact of one's being here … But we are beginning to see, simply as a practical, human matter, that the successful assimilation of such huge numbers of widely diverse peoples into a single people and a viable polity is a pipe dream. It is at this point that multiculturalism comes along and says: "That's not a problem. We don't want to assimilate into this oppressive, Eurocentered mold. We want to reconstruct America as a multicultural society." And this radical pluralist view gains acceptance by retaining the moral legitimacy, the patina of humanitarianism, that properly belonged to the older liberalism which it has supplanted." (Auster 1994, p. 57). 


In recent years, this type of anti-immigration ideology has been endorsed by various political parties in Western countries. For example, speaking at a Trump rally on October 9, 2022, far right politician Marjorie Taylor Greene said: “Joe Biden’s 5 million illegal aliens are on the verge of replacing you, replacing your jobs, and replacing your kids in school. And coming from all over the world, they’re also replacing your culture. And that’s not great for America.” Greene also sponsored legislation to stop all immigration for four years. 


In July 2022, Fox News host Tucker Carlson espoused on his show the so-called "great replacement theory", repeating all the familiar tropes deployed by ethnonationalists since the 19th century:


"Since Ted Kennedy's bill [the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965] became law, birth rates among native born Americans, which are the clearest possible measure of optimism in the future, those have dropped off a cliff … This country is now well under the so-called replacement level. That means if we continue on this trajectory and no one's trying to take us off this trajectory, eventually there will be no more native-born Americans. 


"Sometime around 1965, our leaders stopped trying to make the United States a hospitable place for American citizens, their constituents, to have their own families.That used to be considered the central task of leadership -- perpetuating the population. If people are happy and confident, they'll have kids. They're vested in the society and if they're not, they won't. That was their job. So, they stopped doing it and instead they just imported new people. That's literally what happened … The leaders of a country can't change the population of the country, especially in a democracy without the consent of the existing population … 


"The majority of population growth since 1965 has come from immigration, not from Americans having more kids. In 1965, the number of permanent illegal migrants in this country from Latin America was essentially zero. They were migrant farm workers, but there were no huge populations of people living here illegally. By 2008, that number had grown to perhaps 20 million people …


"And then came Joe Biden. Joe Biden accelerated that sad trend beyond what anyone thought was possible. The foreign-born population is now growing by 132,000 people every month … [Y]ou have to enforce the law, including immigration law, but Joe Biden stopped doing it … So naturally, people are coming because why wouldn't you want to move to the United States knowing that when you get here, you will be treated like someone who deserves to be here and given every possible public benefit? … No society can metabolize this many new people and stay stable, especially not now in this specific moment … So, the question from day one has always been, what holds everyone together? What is the one thing we all have in common? It's not an ethnic group. It's not a shared history. Now it's not a language. So, what is it? Well, in the absence of glue, things break apart."


3 The Culture War Coalition 


James Hunter made some interesting remarks about elections which might explain why voters choose candidates that defy conventional wisdom, namely politicians who openly lie, are corrupt, incompetent and proudly hateful. Hunter argued that "the true significance of electoral politics lies not in the selection of lawmakers and administrators, but in the opportunity given to the citizens of a community and nation to embrace or reject certain symbols of national life." (Hunter 1991, p. 273). 


Although competence, experience, and personal morality certainly play a role in electoral politics, ultimately "candidates are selected by their parties and run principally on the basis of the symbols of collective life with which they identify in campaign rhetoric and in their official biographies," and they become symbols of "community ideals". Therefore, elections can be regarded as "rituals regularly enacted through which ordinary people select the ideals of their life together - ultimately, the ideals of what America is and should be." (ibid., pp. 272-273). 


If we understand politicians as avatars of existing worldviews, and elections as the expression of voters' feelings and beliefs about their own identity and national community, then we can see why candidates that embrace the culture war are successful, even when their character is flawed or their policies benefit them personally more than many of their constituents.


When Donald Trump ran for US President in 2016, many people believed that he could not win. On June 21, 2016, Jon Wiener wrote on The Nation: "[T]he long-term patterns of American politics tell us that Trump is not going to get millions more votes than Romney did, and he’s not going to carry enough swing states to overcome the historic pattern of Democratic advantage. Hillary will win in November, and she will be sworn in as our next president on January 20."


In August 2016 Politico reported that "Republican insiders are more convinced than Democrats that Donald Trump is so far behind Hillary Clinton that he can’t win in November." In October of that year CNN opined: "25 days before the election, Trump's path to the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the presidency is looking more and more impossible by the day, as states he once said he'd flip from blue to red increasingly slip out of his reach. Meanwhile, reliably red states threaten to turn purple."


As a result, most media organizations were shocked when Trump won. What they had not realized was that Trump was playing a different game than previous candidates. He embraced the culture war, he ran on it. It was not a weakness, but a strength. 


In 2016 and 2020, Trump won 64 percent and 65 percent of white non-college voters respectively. In 2020, 71 percent of white, non-Hispanic Americans who attend religious services at least monthly voted for Trump. 85 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 63 percent of white Catholics who attend religious services at least monthly voted for Trump. 


According to Charles Prysby (2020), research has shown that racial resentment and hostility toward immigrants were important determinants of the Trump vote. In 2016 Trump won almost 90 percent of the vote of whites with a high level of racial resentment


When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, both Democrats and Republicans voted for it. As the party of Lincoln, the GOP had always been favourable to the expansion of civil rights to non-whites. In the Senate, 46 Democrats and 27 Republicans voted in favour, while six Republicans and 21 Democrats, almost all from the South, voted against it. (ibid., Chapter 4). 


But subsequently, the GOP embarked on a strategy of appealing to white southern voters. By the end of the 20th century, Republicans had displaced the Democrats as the majority party in the South, and party support was defined by race, with African-Americans voting overwhelmingly for Democrats, and whites voting for Republicans. Racial divisions became stronger in the North, too, as whites increasingly leaned towards the GOP. (ibid.). 


As the number of foreign-born people in the US rose from 5 percent in 1970 to 11 percent in 2000, immigration entered the public debate as a defining and divisive partisan issue. The 9/11 attacks further fuelled hostility towards a specific group of immigrants: Muslims. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center a far-right anti-Muslim movement motivated by bigotry and nativist rhetoric emerged after 9/11


"This movement was led by activists who portrayed Muslims in general as potential terrorists and trafficked in dark conspiracy theories about Islamist extremists secretly infiltrating the government and the U.S. legal system under assault by Sharia law. Ironically, a number of those anti-Muslim leaders were the ones who later infiltrated the government as President Donald Trump welcomed movement leaders into his orbit, appointed its staunchest allies to high-level national security and advisory positions and issued executive orders to implement a Muslim travel ban." 


Data show that until 1996 opposition to immigration was largely unrelated to the presidential vote. But since the late 1990s and early 2000s, voters who want to decrease the number of immigrants have been trending towards the Republican Party. George W. Bush won almost two-thirds of the vote from those wanting much less immigration, but in 2016, Trump won nearly 90 percent of the vote from those who wanted much less immigration. People who voted for Obama in 2012 but switched to Trump in 2016 were motivated in large part by anti-immigration attitudes. (ibid.). 


Opposition to immigration among whites is motivated by the desire to protect their status as a group as well as what they perceive as national values and culture. Concerns about culture and identity are seen as more salient than whether immigrants contribute to the economy. Moreover, racial issues have reduced the importance of economic issues and thus disconnected social class from voting behaviour. (ibid.). 

It is clear that the political realignment has created a far right coalition that includes traditional Republican donors who want lower taxes and deregulation, as well as voters motivated chiefly by a religious, ethnic and cultural identity based on the belief that the US is a Judeo-Christian white majority nation.  

Bibliography 



Auster, L. (1994). The U.S. Must Restrict Immigration to Prevent Cultural Disintegration. In: Whitehead, F. (Ed.). Culture Wars.

Duroy, T. H. (2008). Immigration Policy. In: Chapman, R. (Ed.). Encyclopedia of the Culture Wars. Issues, Voices, and Viewpoints.

Hunter, J.D. (1991). Culture Wars. The Struggle To Define America.

Prysby, C. (2020). Rich Voter, Poor Voter, Red Voter, Blue Voter. Social Class and Voting Behavior in Contemporary America.

Walser Smith, H. (1995). German Nationalism and Religious Conflict. Culture, Ideology, Politics, 1870-1914.

If you like my content and want to support me, please check out some of my recommended books in the Amazon affiliate links below. The first two books are my own translations of Chinese short stories. Thank you! 


Breeze of a Spring Evening and Other Stories, by Yu Dafu.

Craven A and other Stories, by Mu Shiying.

Culture Wars, by James Davison Hunter.

Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, by James Q. Whitman




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