Culture wars cross the Atlantic to coarsen British politics

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama on the campaign trail in 2008 made an unwise remark. Rural voters in the midwest, he said, “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion. . . as a way to explain their frustrations”.

His rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton — remember her? — pounced on the comments, saying they revealed the senator’s “elitism”. Her campaign team handed out stickers that read: “I’m not bitter.” After all, Mr Obama had invoked two of the “three Gs” — God, guns and gays — of America’s long-running culture war, and Mrs Clinton saw the electoral opportunity.

The incident is drenched in irony. The phrase “culture wars” achieved mainstream recognition thanks to a 1991 book of the same name by the academic James Davison Hunter, followed by a speech by former Nixon adviser Pat Buchanan at the Republican National Convention the following year. Its targets were Mrs Clinton and her husband Bill. There was a “cultural war” raging for the soul of America, Mr Buchanan contended, as important as the cold war in defining the country’s sense of itself. “The agenda Clinton & Clinton would impose on America — abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat — that’s change, all right,” he added. “But it is not the kind of change America wants.” (Bill Clinton’s arrival in the White House three months later suggested otherwise.)

Since then, the culture wars have not receded in America. With the fight over gay marriage won, for now — it was legalised by the Supreme Court in 2015 — Donald Trump has turned to the newest progressive cause, the transgender movement. He announced in July 2017 that transgender people would be banned from the US armed forces, even though senior military figures had raised no concerns about their service. It was a vindictive measure — but sent a clear signal to his base. I’m still your guy.

Who wins when abortion and guns become the political battleground, rather than domestic policy? Historian Thomas Frank has suggested that “cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends”. By creating a sense of unity between social and economic conservatives, the culture wars enabled Republicans to convince low-income Americans to vote for tax cuts for the rich. However, the promised social victories never come. “Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished,” Mr Frank wrote in 2004’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? So keep voting Republican.

Britain is now catching up with this model of politics. We have had cultural skirmishes for many years — think of persistent stories about the nursery rhyme Baa baa black sheep being banned for its allegedly racist overtones — but these are escalating. Here too, values have replaced economics as the driving force of our political debate.

“Class used to be central to understanding British politics,” wrote Chris Curtis of pollsters YouGov last year. “But today, class would tell you little more about a person’s voting intention than looking at their horoscope or reading their palms.”

Of the new political divides, age is the most obvious. In the 2017 election the Labour party led by 47 points among first-time voters aged 18 or 19, while the Conservatives led by 50 points among the over-70s. But age is a proxy for other differences: younger voters are more likely to be graduates, less likely to be white and more likely to be socially liberal. They are also far more likely to have voted to stay in the EU in the 2016 referendum.

Unfortunately, the vote on EU membership turbocharged the new British culture war. “Remainer” and “Leaver” have now become shorthand for a whole constellation of views. Here’s a test. Which of the two sides would you associate with the following words: recycling, golliwogs, the flag of St George, quinoa and compulsory national service? I make that Remain, Leave, Leave, Remain, Leave.

To win the next election, the Conservatives must attract more voters under 55, more social liberals, more Remainers and more ethnic minorities. However, to win the next Tory leadership race, an ambitious MP must secure the support of the rightwing tabloids and the party’s predominantly old, white, Brexit-inclined grassroots. So even as prime minister Theresa May tries to burnish her green credentials by visiting a bird sanctuary, her jostling underlings undermine her project by appointing Toby Young, a rightwing provocateur, to England’s universities regulator. (See also: Boris Johnson, foreign secretary, taking time to criticise a decision by Virgin Trains to stop selling the Daily Mail.)

Social media has added kindling to the cultural fires. In the US, the culture war themes matured within a powerful rightwing alternative media. Talk radio thrived on suggestions of a liberal elite conspiring against Real Americans. Online echo chambers, such as hyper-partisan Facebook pages and YouTube channels, now make this worse.

Again, Britain lags behind. But partisan blogs flourished on the left after the unexpected arrival of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015, and the failure of established left-leaning media to cheer him on. Alternative media sites on both left and right share a tendency to drum up trade by promising “what the mainstream media won’t tell you”.

Simple economics influences newspapers too: in a declining industry, outrage is free advertising. Speak to anyone in politics or the media, and they will lament the degradation of our discourse, the vitriol of social media and a focus on trivia rather than policy. But then see whether they can stop themselves reaching for a hot-button issue. In the culture wars, no one is ready to contemplate unilateral disarmament.

The writer is deputy editor of the New Statesman