Conservative, liberal, right-wing, tree-hugger, Republican, Democrat. America has become a nation of labels embroiled in a silent – and not so silent – war for our identity.
“We cannot define the American identity,” said Associate Professor of History Andrew Hartman. “Instead we have a debate, a conversation about what it means to be a modern American.”
In his new book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, Hartman explores the battle between conservatives and liberals for the national identity.
The title of the book takes its name from a speech by Patrick Buchanan at the 1992 Republican National Convention, a time often seen as the pinnacle of the culture wars in the U.S. Yet Hartman says those who peg the culture wars in the 1980s and 1990s are not looking back far enough.
“Much of what we think of today as liberal and conservative was born in the 1960s,” said Hartman. “The movements then dramatically changed so many American attitudes on the notions of race, gender and sexuality, and what it means in relation to the American identity.”
The 1960s were filled with marches for racial equality, fights for women’s rights and declarations of embraced sexuality. Hartman noted this extreme jump from the stasis and the conformity of the 1950s was akin to a cultural earthquake that shook the foundation of American culture. “There was bound to be conflict and debate. The change was simply so rapid that it took Americans until the 1990s to adjust to it,” he said.
Suffering from the whiplash of extraordinary change, people of opposing views became entrenched in their beliefs. “The 1960s led to a polarization of identification, especially in terms of what it means to be an American and what should be understood from American history,” said Hartman, noting liberals sought to question authority and perceptions of history, while conservatives tended to view American history as the history of progress and normalization – something to be held sacred, and not questioned.
“Liberals also tended to look for a more multicultural, cosmopolitan and less religious view of America,” said Hartman. “This secularization defines a lot of the 20th century, with laws becoming more secular and less defined by morality or religion.” That approach also caused a retrenching from the conservative population, who looked deeper into religion as a mainstay of security. “There was often a bewildered and frustrated reaction to what a secular society might mean in terms of a larger, national identity.”
Today’s cultural outlook reflects the legacy of the 1960s and reaction to it, Hartman contends. But in many ways, both groups are also looking to escape and evolve from those initial ideas. “From the 1960s on, liberals embraced identity politics, which meant language mattered, and culture became much more important,” he said. “Some critics say it has become too important, and liberals have not concentrated on the importance of economics. Yet this lament of the left is a tradition based in the 1960s, when it was liberals who called for the rapid change of identity.” Conservatives, too, are trying to break away from being viewed as a party geared toward older, white males.
Hartman’s book has already touched a nerve in the American consciousness. He has been asked to weigh in on debates, such as the controversy around the movie American Sniper and the backlash that Gov. Scott Walker stirred when he tried to change the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin, along with $300 million in proposed cuts.
“No one is writing the history of the culture wars, the history of the debate between liberal and conservative,” said Hartman of the interest in the topic. He added he hopes the book will spur more conversations about the culture wars. “I imagine what I am trying to do is complicate the notion that identity politics is a recent phenomenon, and that it won’t be gone any time soon.”