The Primacy of “Culture Wars”

In America, certain political pundits spend much of their time waging “culture wars” while grumbling that they must do so. The real substance of politics, they suggest, is policy—and fights over cultural issues distract from these more substantive policy debates. But regrettably, they imply, this distraction is necessary because “the other side’s” cultural pathologies are so potentially dangerous, and need so urgently to be neutralized, that policy debates (i.e., “normal” discussions) must be temporarily sidelined to overcome the immediate cultural threat. But this argument undermines its own premise. For if the real substance of politics were policy, then policy debates could proceed autonomously, regardless of any pugilistic cultural disputes that may occur in parallel. The fact that commentators sideline policy debates to settle “culture wars” implies that culture has profound political significance: more significance, in fact, than any particular policy debate. And it does. Policy debates deal with specific problems and ideas proposed to solve those problems, whereas the outcome of a culture war can affect how our political system handles ideas in general. To that extent, culture wars affect American politics more profoundly than any particular policy debate.

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