Who Won the Culture Wars?

The Blue Team mostly won the culture wars. Unfortunately, that helps the Red Team win elections.

David Courtwright, the pre-eminent historian of drug abuse and drug policy, asks that question &#8212 formally analogous to the political question asked in the post immediately below &#8212 in a book to be published by Harvard University Press. I can hardly wait.

Courtwright’s answer: the Blue Team won. When a “victory” by cultural conservatives consists of preventing some states, but not others, from recognizing gay marriage, and when they don’t even contest the abolition of the laws against gay sex, and when the live question about reproductive choice is whether minors can have abortions without their parents’ consent rather than whether married couples can buy contraceptives, it’s clear that this war is being fought deep inside Red territory.

So the culture warriors can’t repeal the Sixties any more than the economic conservatives can repeal the New Deal. But fighting deep inside one’s own territory has considerable tactical advantages; the other side’s supply lines are long, and the civilians near the battlefield are mostly friendly. Precisely because the rate of cultural change has been so fast, the median voter tends to be for slowing things down rather than speeding things up. So the Blue Team won the culture war, but the Red Team has been winning the elections.

Unfortunately, there are real-world consequences of being ruled by people whose defining political characteristic is hatred of the Sixties and the Dr. Spock/Baby Boom generation. (That can be true, of course, of people such as Bush and Bill Bennett who are Boomers themselves.) I’m a little bit leery (Leary?) of the Pleasure Principle myself, but being ruled by worshippers of the Death Principle (should we call them Death Eaters?) turns out to be a total drag.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

13 thoughts on “Who Won the Culture Wars?”

  1. Changing hearts and minds may be slower than suborning judges, but victories won that way are far more secure. We're ruled by people who hate what you did, because you didn't bother to go through the petty formality of actually convincing people to agree with you.

  2. Yeah Mark, you can criticize Bush all you want but DON'Y YOU SEE THAT YOU CREATED HIM?
    Seriously, if the anti-abortion reactionaries would feel differently about abortion if Roe v. Wade was enshrined in legislation, then they are even more vapid than I thought. "I will vote for Y over X, unless everyone else votes for X, in which case this issue loses urgency and I will change my position." Reactionaries find grievances wherever they can get them.

  3. On a dissenting note, I have to say it seems like conservatives are firmly winning the battles regarding the Drug War and capital punishment. (Is it liberal to think 18 year-olds should be able to drink, by the way?) As liberal as I am in other respects, I have to say I don't mind the loss on capital punishment. But I believe it qualifies as a Red Team victory.

  4. Winning compared to what? What other industrialized country takes such crappy care of its citizens in every possible way while being the most uninformed? Is it a victory that our health care industry is a worldwide joke because we deeply believe in free markets as a religion? Is it a victory that Darwin is accepted (to the exclusion of the Genesis story) by less than 20% of the population, whereas in 1806 no one had heard of Darwin?
    Oh, and the Right can repeal the New Deal. It just didn't succeed this time.

  5. That old canard about judicial progress being an imposition of elitist views while legislative progress is acceptable to social conservatives fell apart last fall when Schwarzenegger vetoed single-sex marriage in California, saying that the matter should be decided by the courts.
    And the idea that judicial progress is fragile and insecure needs to explain the dwindling of the crowds that gather to protest Brown v. Board.

  6. On the one hand, it's kind of funny. My rural county isn't ready to let people choose their own entertainment, but it's clearly illegal to simply outlaw free speech. So every six months they do a kabuki dance about "temporary bans" while they supposedly write a zoning ordnance. This has been going on since before I moved here, nine years ago.
    On the other hand, our former state senator is now lieutenant governor, a job nobody else wants because all the lt.-gov can do is play toy soldiers with the state national guard. This guy, who has never had any other politics than being "against drugs", loves the job, and flys all over the state being "against drugs".
    Fortunately, there are also liberal parts of the state that actually produce something.

  7. Although I believe that the social conservatives have made some headway in the countries social fabric I also believe they have made many enemies, who see them as hypocritical busybodies.
    The sixties will never go away, nor will the seventies take a look at the youth around you, they are starting to wear the same clothing and hairstyles. Is this the sign of rebellion or just old fashion statements returning? I believe it is the former.
    Just look around at the younger generation, who have fewer inhibitions about sexuality and who claim either to be agnostic, pagan or atheist. I have found that very few choose Christianity whole heartedly, yet many who call it a lie.
    I believe what we are seeing now is the last gasp of the fundamentalist Christians being a political in this country. I hope that I am right on this, I may be wrong, but from listening to the younger generation it seems the Christian right wing is doomed.

  8. My point is simply that if you go for a legislative approach to your goals, instead of judicial fiat, they engender less hatred because you actually have to get a lot of people to agree with you in order to implement them. OF COURSE your opponents aren't going to like your winning no matter how you accomplish it.
    If you had won by persuading people to agree with you, your opponents would be fewer. As it is, you've hardly even BOTHERED to try to change minds on abortion, and now same-sex marriage, because of your reliance on dictatorial judges.
    And don't be so quick to dismiss the number of people who get made because of HOW you won. It's one thing to be beat fair and square in the voting booth, it's quite another to have the policy victories STOLEN by people who couldn't come by them legitimately.
    You will always face stubborn opposition, when it's obvious to everyone that your victories were gotten illegitimately, because there's no moral presumption that the outcome of the process should be respected.

  9. Ah yes, Brett Bellmore again with the "politics is US versus THEM, and meanie liberals had to cheat to win, which is why we still love to wave the Confederate Flag." Because most racial problems in America could have been avoided if liberals had just shown a little patience in convincing people that slavery was wrong, or segregation was wrong. Oh yeah, and Brett never shuts up about Bush v. Gore, which is kind of irritating. (Oh right: Bush v Gore was some sort of poetic justice for Roe v Wade, a tragic lesson for liberals, something to do with hubris.)
    I forgot to mention that Brett is a libertarian.

  10. It's got to be the utilitarianism, I think; Since liberals generally take utilitarianism as a given, thinking that the end, and only the end, justifies the means, any time somebody attacks the means you use, you interpret it as an attack on your ends.

  11. In eighth grade (1965-'66) a guy was passing around a snap shot of his brother's platoon ear collection (human ears/Vietnam) A gym teacher called a classmate a niger and when he complained he smiled and said, "Who's gonna do anything about it?". This was intentionally in front of the whole class. Nothing happened.
    Can anyone in America imagine that those things could happen today without repercussions? It seems to me that an important foundation has been layed of what is socially acceptable moral behavior. Now we need to be strong to not allow these values be denegrated and deminished. You can never win the war but you can gain ground and hold it.

  12. Brett — actually, I'm still pissed about the Lousiana Purchase. It keeps me up at night, and I'm sure someone as process-oriented as yourself feels the same way.

  13. This is hill-arious. Brett Bellmore telling us that if only we made a reasonable argument, he might change his mind.
    As if.

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