Andrew Hartman could hardly have known in 2008, when he began writing his history on America’s culture wars of the late-20th century, how timely the book would turn out to be. A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars was published in April 2015, just two months before Donald Trump officially launched his stunning run to the presidency.
Trump’s campaign reignited debates over race, political correctness, and other cultural issues that had once been at the heart of American political discourse. With his victory, it appeared the culture wars might not be history after all.
In the years since, Hartman, a professor of History at Illinois State, has continued to weigh in on these battles. Earlier this year he commented on the free speech controversies at universities for the Washington Post and wrote about how neoliberalism has altered the debates over the humanities in higher education for Raritan Quarterly. He also has been working on a new conclusion to his book, taking into account Trump’s election, for a second edition planned for release next year.Appears In
Hartman previously authored Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School (2008). He is currently researching a book on Karl Marx for which he received a Fulbright award to study at the British Library. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, In These Times, and Bookforum, among other publications; he is active on Twitter (@HartmanAndrew), especially with historians in the Society for U.S. Intellectual History; and he co-hosts a podcast, Trotsky & the Wild Orchids, on U.S. history, ideas, and politics.
In the following Q&A, Hartman discusses his culture wars book, its relevance in the Trump era, and his new book on Marx.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why did you start working on the culture wars book?
A few reasons I worked on it. One, no one had really written a history of the culture wars, and I thought this was surprising since it was such an important, relevant, and interesting topic. Then I thought it really spoke to my interests and expertise, especially in terms of intellectual history, history of education, and larger questions about political culture.
Also, as a high school history teacher, I had seen firsthand controversies of curriculum I was trying to instill. Trying to understand the larger historical forces that shape these cultural controversies, especially over curriculum, was personally very interesting to me.
When I decided to choose it as a topic, it did feel like a historical topic. It didn’t just feel like current events anymore. It seemed like at least since 2001, with the attacks of 9/11 and the Bush administration, things felt a little different than in the ’80s and ’90s when the culture wars were at their apex.
There are some interesting characters in the book. Who were some of the more fascinating people to you?
If you look at the book’s index, it’s really interesting—some rap star right up against some conservative Christian figure. There are a lot of interesting figures, like (artist) Robert Mapplethorpe—I didn’t know much about him—and Tipper Gore. It’s interesting because as a kid I remember listening to a lot of the music that was so controversial. I didn’t have a larger framework for knowing why it was controversial. So going back and researching that historically gave me a framework for my own childhood.
Also, I was really interested in some of the ’60s figures, like Corky Gonzales. I’m from Denver, and he is from Denver. And I had always heard about him, but researching him was really interesting. He was a leader of the Chicano movement that arose in the 1960s, and one of their main issues was representation in the schools and the curriculum.
So for me, in my first chapter, which is about ’60s liberation, it’s like the Black Panthers and people like Corky Gonzales and feminists who really set the stage for later culture wars because they really wanted to assert their place in the larger culture through curriculum. That is partly what is different about my book as opposed to anything else that had been written about the culture wars: I went back to the ’60s to really look back at the movements and figures who really shaped the later divisions.
Your book talks a lot about what is normative America. Can we draw a hard line and say normative America ended at a certain time?
This is the scholarly term that I use to describe an imagined America that I think is really specific to the 1940s and ’50s. The 1960s destroyed the America that many, many, mostly white, religious Americans imagined because so much of the 1960s was people clamoring for equal representation, the right to call themselves Americans and all that entails. That really disturbed what people thought of as the norm in the United States.
Did you have any trouble deciding what topics to include or exclude in terms of what fit in the culture wars?
That was tough because—it’s really exciting to write a book of history about a topic that no historian has written about, especially an all-encompassing history of a topic that is so large and pervasive in the sense that it touches everything in American life. And so that was difficult. Probably the hardest thing about writing this book was deciding what is a culture war and what isn’t. Then categorizing that and finding the right sources to inform my historical questions about the culture wars. And for me, the larger question that informed the debate was, What does it mean to be an American? And I saw a number of different spheres in which debates about that question played out.
Some of these were based upon identities. So I have the chapter on race, a chapter on gender. Changing conceptions of identity played out in the larger debate as to what it means to be an American, so that is how I framed those chapters. And then I had more topical chapters: pop culture, secondary education, curriculum battles, higher education, the canon, multiculturalism, and then history, how history is framed in our culture. In those topics I felt that was the larger question as well: What does it mean to be American? Americans were extremely divided on those issues, and that shaped my understanding of the culture wars.
Your book received several high-profile reviews in a number of major publications. Did anything surprise you from the reaction? And did you learn anything from these reviews?
I wouldn’t say anything surprised me, except that I was surprised The Wall Street Journal and all these conservative, major profile magazines were really interested in it. Some of them were negative in ways you would expect, but some were respectful.
The thing I learned from some of the reviews—there was a review in Christian Century and one other in the New Republic—was I make the argument that the culture wars really mattered and we shouldn’t think of it as a distraction from economic issues. But in the conclusion, I argue that it seemed economic issues—I’m writing in the wake of the 2008 recession—had overwhelmed the culture wars. Some of my smartest critics in their reviews argue that I should have paid more attention to these economic issues earlier that I focus on in the conclusion. That they were there and were a huge part of the story and I didn’t pay enough attention to that. I definitely learned from that.
How much do you think economics have played in whether the culture wars are ebbing or flowing?
I think economic anxieties are always there. I definitely think that, for example, issues related to race and gender are informed by changing economic structures. So take the race chapter. I argue that for many Americans it was assumed that racial equality would be a product of the victories of the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act. Obviously, that didn’t happen. Racial inequality persisted in many ways, and because of deindustrialization, it was made worse. The response was just all these different theories put forward explaining it. There were just intense debates about how race fit in the larger picture of American life. It was related to this economic transformation, though I don’t think it’s entirely dependent on it.
I argue that the backlash against feminism only happens because feminism is successful in many ways in American life. Not entirely, but some of these successes, such as putting more women in the workforce, putting more women in universities, happened because of economic transformation. The decrease in unionization as a product of deindustrialization leads to lower wages in general, which means more people in general have to go into the workforce to support a family, which means women have to work. Which comes first, feminist demands or the necessities of the labor market? I don’t know. But these are obviously informing each other.
Many reviewers jumped on your conclusion in which you open with, “This book gives the culture wars a history—because they are history. The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course.” In light of Trump’s campaign, do you think your conclusion was wrong or has it been misread?
I think I was partially wrong. There is a second edition of the book coming out, and I’m writing a new conclusion as you know. I’m going to make some qualifications; I don’t think I’m entirely wrong. During the ’80s and ’90s, our political culture was defined by the culture wars. It’s not entirely the same now.
When I make that argument, I am not saying that we are not divided. There is evidence that we are more divided than ever. If people want to call that the culture wars, I’m fine with that because we are more divided than ever. And some of the logic that informed our divisions in the ’80s and ’90s still applies.
The terms of the debate are ever so subtly shifting. At least that is the argument I’m trying to make. It’s a qualified defense of my original conclusion. I was intentionally provocative in my conclusion. I just like conclusions that end with a bang. I guess I should have known many, many reviewers would focus on that. At times, it was frustrating, but it garnered attention for the book.
A lot of people call Donald Trump a culture warrior. Would you agree with that?
Yes. And that’s the best evidence against my argument and my conclusion. He became the president as a culture war candidate. He speaks, partially, the language of conservative culture wars resentment. His campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” I think is code for the argument that things went downhill in the 1960s. His blatantly racialist, sometimes racist, rhetoric—it’s from the culture wars and it’s even outstripping the culture wars because during the culture wars a lot of the terms when it came to race were much more coded. He has stripped off the scabs so to speak. But in some ways, he is different.
In the ’80s and ’90s, white evangelicals, for example, were extremely interested in having politicians that were pious, that were like them morally, ethically, religiously. And there is always some hypocrisy written into that. (President Ronald) Reagan didn’t really fit the bill, but they loved Reagan.
But now such a large percentage of them support Trump and some outspoken leaders, like Billy Graham’s son, say his election is a sign from God. Now on the one hand, maybe this is just opportunism because the real goal is getting a Supreme Court justice and they got that. I don’t know how they back the truck up on this, because Trump is the opposite of pious. I don’t see how anyone who identifies political leaders as ethical and moral leaders could support Trump from the evangelical perspective. Things seem different. Trump is different in a lot of ways.
In the book, Reagan plays an important part. How much commonality is there between Reagan and Trump in terms of the culture wars?
There are tons of commonalities. I think one of the least intelligent, or least sophisticated, analyses of Trump is that he is some new phenomenon—that this is new in American history. Reagan, and he was not the only Republican to do this or the first—Nixon did this as well—he really ran on coded racial messages.
So in his campaign in 1980, Reagan went down to Philadelphia, Mississippi, which was in the county where the famous civil rights activists were murdered in 1964. And symbolically, he very knowingly gave a speech in support of state rights. This was him sending a message to voters in the same way that Trump does all of the time, though Trump is less subtle about it, especially on Twitter. There is nothing new. It is just more blatant and seemingly more disturbing to people just because he is so crude.
You played the book fairly down the middle. But you definitely have political sympathies on one side or the other. Why did you decide to write the book in this way instead of making the book more of a polemic?
I’m on the left and have pretty strong commitments, but in my scholarship, I really am trying to gain understanding for myself and my readers more than anything else. I wanted to understand the terms of the debate, the historical forces that shaped the debate. And I thought it would do people more good than just another polemic about the culture wars because there have certainly been enough of those.
But also, when it comes to my political commitments, I am much more interested in economic issues. Maybe that’s why this is a good choice of topics because I do side with one side more than the other in the culture wars, but I am not as passionate or as committed about it as I would be if I were talking about tax policy.
You have a new book that you are working on. Where are you at on that, and what are you writing about?
Karl Marx in America is the title. I’m in the midst of researching. I’m writing here and there. It will probably take a few more years.
It’s a history of how Americans have thought about, debated, worried about, fretted about Karl Marx from the Civil War to the present, so covering a lot of ground. There is just a lot of interesting, surprising history there. Americans have really grappled with Karl Marx in some serious fashion, interesting fashion, oftentimes paranoid fashion.
My provocative argument now, always subject to change, is that Marx is a ghost in the American machine in the sense that he really is the most enduring theorist of capitalism for good and bad in people’s eyes and the United States is probably the nation in world history most committed to capitalism. And thus, Marx has always informed ourselves in relation to capitalism.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.