The Great American Culture War
March 1, 2013
Passionate views on gun control epitomize America’s underlying cultural divide
What are we to think of America’s agonizing political stalemate? Scratch the surface and you will find a conflict born of the widely divergent cultural experiences that forged the convictions of the different constituencies. It seems that the country is at some great tipping point, a point of massive resistance just before certain elements that dominated the past succumb to the pressure of an emerging new ordering of cultural priorities.
The politically and economically dominant white males of the Baby Boomer mega-generation are ungraciously unwilling to surrender their power to more worldly, multi-ethnic, technology-driven, and environmentally-oriented younger generations. The youngsters’ world-views were shaped by more rainbow-colored influences than the black and white post-World War II culture that set the stage for the young Boomers.
The evolving future colliding with the vestigial past is the cycle of death and rebirth inherent in all natural processes. Competition and conflict are inevitable. Sometimes the rough waters of cultural cataclysms can be navigated with skillful political leadership. Teddy Roosevelt was able to usher the country through the post-industrial upheaval of the early twentieth century, in part because he embodied elements of both the elite and the common man. Lyndon Johnson’s consummate negotiations with Congress enabled him to legislate a new domestic cultural agenda in the turbulent 1960s.
It is appropriate that gun control is emerging as the iconic clash of the Great American Stalemate. Past irresolvable cultural divides in American history have resulted in our two great civil wars.
The American Revolution was the country’s first cultural tipping point. The political system devised by the Founding Fathers was a revolutionary break from the old European monarchy, the birth of a new society that explicitly valued individual freedom. The new government was a manifestation of the evolving political philosophies of the Enlightenment, including the concept of government as a social contract between the people and their leaders. Religious leaders likewise urged a break from tyranny as part of a religious Awakening that “reached across socioeconomic lines to encompass rich and poor, men and women, frontiersmen and townsmen, farmers and merchants.” The precipitating factors of the military conflict, however, were economic, as the French and Indian War changed the economic dynamics between England and America. Colonial resistance to the autocratic imposition of new taxes to recoup British war costs culminated in the Boston Tea Party and eventually the declaration of independence from King George III.
The American Civil War was America’s second devastating culture war. The southern states’ secession and the ensuing bloody conflict ended slavery and the plantation-based southern economy spawned by colonial economic forces. American colonization had primarily been funded not by European governments, but by individual investors who expected a return on the large sums of money spent in this highly risky endeavor. The lucrative tobacco and cotton trade seduced both Americans and the British to accept a race-based rationale for enslaving the workforce needed to grow these labor-intensive crops. After the Revolutionary War, southern raw cotton was shipped to factories in an increasingly industrial north. The cultural differences between the more urban industrial north and the agrarian rural south heightened unresolved tensions over states’ rights and slavery.
The Confederacy was able to muster an army because of cultural solidarity between yeomen and plantation owners with very different economic interests. The perceived superiority of the white race, the desire for freedom from outside oppressors, and solidarity with the home state were some of the ties that bound a diverse southern coalition.
Our understanding of the underlying causes and motivations behind these great American cultural disruptions have developed and ripened with the passage of time. Our personal stake in the current crisis distorts our ability to discern its true nature. How does history enlighten us? Economic interests are a primary factor now as in the past. The paradoxical conservative alliance of rural folk and the rich urban business class follows the pattern of revolutionary and rebel coalitions whose shared religious and cultural beliefs trumped divergent economic priorities. And a common insistence on the “right to bear arms” should not be surprising in a country whose most beloved cultural icons include colonial revolutionaries, southern rebels, and frontier pioneers.
President Obama quickly seized upon the gun control issue in the wake of the eerie concurrence of mass shootings that ended with the Newtown tragedy. He may be trying to use the emotional energy surrounding these events as a wedge to break apart the heterogeneous conservative alliance. After all, what more powerful symbol of the threat to the future of our country could there be than the violent deaths of children and their teachers?