Searching for Polarization in America

Searching for Polarization in America -...

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Searching for Polarization in America’s Culture Wars K EVIN S LACK Communicated by: Dr. Daniel Olson Department of Sociology ABSTRACT Are Americans becoming more polarized in a war over moral values as James Davison Hunter claims in his book Culture Wars ? Has Hunter’s book itself contributed to making this conflict more severe? This paper examines Hunter’s views as well as other arguments in favor of or against this theory of polarization to see if it is truly occurring in American society. INTRODUCTION Across the United States today there is talk of an ‘ongoing culture war.’ This ‘culture war,’ which may not even exist, has rallied millions of Americans to jump to the defense of certain values and ideals. The idea that Americans are becoming polarized between liberals and conservatives in a war for the determination of the defining moral values of society has existed for some time, but it has become more prevalent since the publishing of James Davison Hunter’s book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America . There are many who disagree with this theory, and it is necessary to examine both sides to determine if such a war and its polarization exists in America today. CULTURE WARS Hunter begins his Culture Wars with several examples of civil tensions in the United States: disputes over gay rights, abortion, public education, flag burning, and contemporary art. He points out that these scenes are not unfamiliar to Americans, and he peers through the violence and chaos in an attempt to make
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some sense of these situations. To Hunter, arguments over such specific issues are nothing but the ‘‘politics of distraction … Though the conflict derives from differences in assumptions that are philosophical and even theological in nature, the conflict does not end as a philosophical dispute.’’ 1 He sees the disagreements over issues such as abortion or gay rights not as a collection of individual crusades, but as battles between large opposing factions. The ‘conflict’ itself is defined by Hunter ‘‘as political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding. The end to which these hostilities tend is the domination of one cultural and moral ethos over another.’’ According to Hunter, they are not fighting in vain, for ‘‘At stake is how we Americans will order our lives together.’’ 2 What Hunter describes is a battle which must include all who do not wish to be dominated. As Pat Buchanan said at the 1992 Republican National Convention, ‘‘There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a culture war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.’’ 3 Drawing the Battle Lines But how are these factions taking sides? Although United States history is dotted with tension between Protestants and Catholics and between Christians and Jews, Hunter relates how these one-time enemies have adopted a relationship of tolerance. In fact, in many disputes over civil issues these groups are joining
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