Are Culture Wars Winnable?

Many, many years ago, as part of my dissertation research, I began reading about the history of the temperance movement. This crusade against alcohol began in the early 1800s and was closely associated with the rise of evangelical Protestantism. That was a winning combination for a while, and by the middle of the century, it had transformed a nation of heavy drinkers (considerably more than today) into one that was full of teetotalers.

By then, however, immigration from Ireland and Germany was in full stride, and the temperance revivals had little success in convincing the Irish to give up their whiskey or the Germans their beer. When persuasion no longer availed, the movement turned to politics, and Maine passed the nation’s first prohibition law in 1853. For the next eighty years, temperance was one of the hottest issues in American politics, including in Moorhead during its saloon era when North Dakota was a dry state. The era culminated in national Prohibition, and we all know how that ended.

The issue of alcohol created what one might describe as America’s original and longest running culture war, and I’ve been reflecting on the lessons that history holds for today. I start with the premise that winning a culture war means changing the culture. Changing cultures is difficult at best, and trying to do it by means of legislation has a lousy track record. Temperance had its greatest success within a particular subculture, where its persuasive techniques profoundly shaped the norms of middle-class Protestantism. Social elites depicted drinking as a vice of working-class men, and advocates of temperance reform blamed alcohol for poverty and (more accurately) domestic violence. Indeed, the movement played a crucial role in women finding their political voice.

The culture did change, of course, but not in the direction that prohibitionists hoped. During the Roaring Twenties, women sought a different kind of freedom. The Jazz Age, as it’s also known, was a distinctly urban phenomenon, and the battle over Prohibition, like the contemporary culture war, became one that to a large extent pitted rural folk against city dwellers and youth against their elders. Prohibition, once regarded as a progressive reform, came to be associated with cultural conservatism and found itself on the wrong side of history.

That doesn’t mean the country stopped legislating over alcohol. There are still laws that regulate when, where, and to whom alcohol can be sold. Perhaps most importantly, laws against drinking and driving have had a major impact. Regulation proved more workable than prohibition, and that also seems to be the direction that the drug war is taking, as more and more states legalize marijuana and cannabis.

History isn’t a predictive science, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the fight over abortion also ends up taking that direction. For fifty years, conservative Christians have been fighting against legal abortion. Their moral appeals succeeded in building a base of dedicated supporters but have failed miserably in their effort to convert a majority of Americans. So they turned to politics, and for the moment they appear to be winning. However, there is zero chance that criminalizing abortion is going to win hearts and minds and change the culture. Most Americans favor abortion rights, but also support regulation as to when and how it’s performed. It seems likely that’s where we’ll end up eventually.

In the broadest sense, when a culture war proves unwinnable, the typical outcome is a kind of conditional tolerance. When efforts to impose morality fail, cultural freedom and pluralism are the biggest winners. Today’s culture war can be resolved. It will take time, but if we stick in the fight, the conservatives will be thwarted.


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