To understand why Americans chose to unite under Barack Obama and shed their ‘red’ and ‘blue’ identities, one must look at where our deepest contemporary fissure began: the Vietnam War. It’s hard for our younger generation to imagine how the struggle over Vietnam divided this country. Nixon articulated the division well by describing the Silent Majority: the group of Americans who did not protest Vietnam or engage in progressive politics during the 1960s and 1970s. This majority witnessed the cultural turmoil of the 60s and 70s via traditional media (radio, TV and newspaper) and from Vietnam. They saw the most sensational aspects: anti-war demonstrations, civil rights marches, student uprisings, Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, Charles Manson, Roman Polanski. The far left defined the cultural political environment with their actions and the Silent Majority responded en mass during the 1970s: first unorganized and indignant, and then organized and confident. The Silent Majority was a predecessor to the socially conservative coalition that delivered five elections to conservatives over the last 30 years. This coalition had three main subgroups, nationalists, traditionalists and libertarians, each of which existed in American politics since (at least) the New Deal.
- Nationalists believe that their countrymen deserve more than other people. Historically, nationalists were rabidly anti-communist. When the USSR fell, the neo-con doctrine of using American military power to impose its economic interests on other nations became more apparent and nationalism became a less significant issue for most Americans. 9/11 brought it back with a vengeance. These hawkish ‘patriots’ are distributed throughout socioeconomic brackets and are well represented among urban intellectuals (the neo-con variety), as well as more traditionally ‘conservative’ populations in inland America. The ’security mom’ subgroup of suburbanite parents who were unconcerned about national security before 9/11 bolstered the nationalist coalition significantly.
- Traditionalists could also be called Christian Conservatives. Their ideology has developed from an unspecific anger at the Federal government for imposing ‘liberal’ programs on small towns. Forced school integration, evolution, sex education, abortion, gay rights, media culture and other issues were used by Republicans to whip traditionalists into a culture war frenzy and united Christians together to fight liberal social objectives. Unfortunately for this grouping, the Republican party could do little to advance their objectives. Abortion remains legal in America, despite much conflict schools have changed little about their curricula, our culture has become more accepting of gays and the ‘culture war’ has fizzled. In short, traditionalists put a lot of effort into getting their Republican candidates elected and have little to show for it.
- Libertarians have been a force in US politics since the anti-federalists fought the ratification of the Constitution. These people (and this author considers himself some type of libertarian) believe that government should be as small and as inexpensive as possible. Libertarians found friends among the traditionalists who disliked how the government was imposing ‘liberal’ values on their communities and were a natural ally of any American who wanted lower taxes. The guns rights debate both attracted more people to libertarianism and redefined libertarianism as a populist opinion.
Each of these groups became more active during the Vietnam era as a response to liberal cultural progress. The nationalists grew more anti-communist so they could spar with the anti-war left. The traditionalists tried harder to insulate their communities from outside progressives. The libertarians fractured: the moderates rallied behind Republican tax cuts while the small government core became dejected and isolated as neither party offered a real small government program.
This coalition solidified under Reagan and it proved to be much more useful than the Democrat’s hodgepodge of interest groups: labor, leftists, minorities, college educated ‘liberals’ and others. Due to the stability of the Republican coalition of the 80s, the Democrats responded by embracing more centrist policies and rhetoric. In response to this centrist threat, the Republicans created the ‘culture war’ of the 1990s, a political crow bar that forced Americans apart and into either ‘red’ or ‘blue’ values communities. This was done to obscure the centrist nature of the post Reagan Democrats and the increasing similarities between the two parties.
The culture war was a red herring because there was little anyone in the political sphere could do to influence the primary culture war issues (abortion, gun rights, federal education guidelines, gay rights.) Abortion is a judicial issue that will be resolved through slow progress via judicial channels. Abortion in cases of rape and incest will not be criminalized and late-term abortions will not be mandated legal. Gun rights is another red herring: the issue is deeply entrenched in complex state and community rights issues. Guns will never be illegal to own in less dense areas and assault weapons will always be restricted. Our federal education system is broken but the debate surrounding schools has been one of content, not structure. The content debate has not prevented evolution from being taught to another generation of students, nor have this new generation been taught about the amazing diversity of world religions and worldviews. Watch the film Philadelphia and you’ll be shocked at how much more tolerant our society is of homosexuals than we were just 15 years ago. There is little politicians can do to stop our mainstream culture from continuing on it’s increasingly tolerant trajectory.
Despite these relatively simple facts, the ‘culture war’ propelled a generation of cultural conservatives into office, George W Bush being the most prominent. These men and women were savvy politicians but were also incompetent leaders. Their obvious and undeniable failures left America fractured and angry with it’s political class. During Bush’s second term pop-political science authors were writing books about a second civil war. More astute political observers noticed the growing and unsatiated demand for a truly centrist leader. Enter Barack Obama and the emerging purple America coalition.