Stop Fighting the Culture War. Start a Better Conversation.

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Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash

In early December, the NY Times published an article by Charlie Warzel titled Trump and His Supporters Want What They Can’t Have : The culture war doomloop is eternal.

In it, he explores the distorted reality based in fear that drives conservatives contemporary self-identity. Conservatives are afraid. Their leaders, seeking power, lie in order to convince conservatives that some outsider(liberals, immigrants, minorities, anyone they can demonize) is stealing their cultural importance. They are led to believe, despite the evidence, that they are just reacting to the left behaving in the same way. This lie, spread by even "serious, respectable" conservatives David French has convinced millions of Americans that they are in an existential war for the soul of our country. This may feel accurate, but it isn't true. That doesn't matter.

This story is a con. It's a lie used to incite fear to generate election wins so that the Republican party can help the rich and powerful steal from the American people. That's been the goal of the GOP since it nominated Goldwater in 1964 and it's been incredibly effective in eroding the liberal institutions of the New Deal era that gave America the right to claim to be the greatest country in the world.

Unfortunately, the article never actually explains why Trump supporters can't win the culture war, why this matters, or what those of us who want better lives for the American people can do about it. Instead, it devolves into the same reactionary media self defense that has been all too common in the Trump era. Instead of protecting Americans, the NY Times protects itself.

So, we're going to unwrap those questions here.

Why can’t conservatives win the culture war? Here’s why: 

Here's the main point that Warzel alludes to, but never explains. Conservatives can never win a culture war. This isn't a claim to liberal superiority in the fight. It's about the way culture works and how we experience it.

Due to the nature of how we experience culture and who drives cultural change it is simply an impossible war for Conservatives to win. The closest they can come is by instituting an oppressive totalitarian regime, but even that can't win them the culture war. Culture will always evolve and it is not possible for conservatives to drive that evolution.

There are two reasons conservatives can never win a culture war. The first is the nature of how we experience culture. The second is due to who drives culture. 

What we experience as culture is actually changes in culture. We notice changes. The loss of the old and the gain of the new.  Conservatism is a movement to “stand athwart history yelling stop” as one of its founders William F. Buckley proclaimed.  It’s a movement to entrench existing power or return to a previous power structure. The conservative movement's goal is goal is to stop and resist change. 

Because what we experience as culture is actually cultural change, there is simply no way a movement that is resistant to change can win a culture war. It’s impossible without totalitarianism and, even then, it cannot truly be won. Culture will always change. It cannot be stopped.

Even if it were possible to stop cultural change, conservatives could still never win the culture war.

Cultural change is driven by adolescence. Adolescence is a reaction against conservatism, which is itself a reactionary movement. Adolescence is a period of rebirth, from youth to adulthood. In that process, we inevitably question the ideas and behaviors that defined our youth. Those are the ideas and behaviors passed down from or forced upon us us by our elders. Our parents and grandparents. Our teachers. Our coaches. Our clergy.

In re-examining those ideas, we reject some. It’s this rejection of old ideas that drives cultural change. Beyond that, driving culture requires time and energy. Finding new and different art, music, fashion and other forms of culture takes time. It takes energy. It takes a willingness to be different. To take a risk on something that might fail. This is contrary to the nature of conservatism which seeks to entrench the status quo or return to a bygone era.

Very few of us have the time or energy to take on the project of driving culture as adults. We have other things to worry about and occupy our time. Adolescents don’t. They also have less to lose if they try something new and it doesn’t turn out well. By the time we reach adulthood most of our preferences are set. We may try some new things, but we generally believe we know what we like and what we don’t. 

For this reason, adults cannot drive culture. Because conservatism is an embrace of the status quo, adolescence will always be a rejection of conservatism and, thus, so will culture. Or at least what we experience as culture.

Why This Matters

The conservative culture war is a politics of grievance. It's an anger at the way the world is changing and a feeling that conservatives are getting left behind, their cultural status stolen from them. If this feeling were isolated to the 25% of hardcore conservatives in the US, it wouldn't matter. But it does. A lot. It has been the defining driver of our politics since 1980 and the Reagan revolution. This has been a period dominated be conservative electoral victories that have come as popular support for the conservative movement has declined.

The conservative culture war matters for two reasons.

First, while culture is driven by the young, politics is driven by the old. In 2018, the average American was 38 years old, but the median age of registered American voters in 2019 was 50. The median Republican voter is 52. That's partially because no one under 18 can vote, but also due to the fact that a lower percentage of young people over 18 are registered to vote. We have a stupid system that systematically and intentionally disenfranchises young adults. We should change that, but we have to win elections to do it.  

Due to some pretty big mistakes by our founders and the current geographic distribution of each party's voting base, Republicans don't need to win 50% of the popular vote to win elections. President Donald Trump, who won 46.1% and lost the popular vote handily in 2016 but still became president is a clear illustration of that phenomenon.

So was George W. Bush, who became president due to activist conservative judges in the Supreme Court overturning election results to put him in office. A first term GOP presidential candidate has not won the popular vote in the US since 1988, yet a Republican has occupied the White House for 16 of the past 32 years.

Second, this matters because the way conservative communicate the culture war is actually quite popular even among minorities. This sounds surprising, but the evidence is clear.

Ian Haney López, a law professor at UC Berkeley and the author of Dog Whistle Politicsand  Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America, has been researching this subject for years, testing the popularity of different culture war messages across a range of demographic groups.

Here's an example of a far right message that he tested:

Our leaders must prioritize keeping us safe and ensuring that hard working Americans have the freedom to prosper. Taking a second look at people coming from terrorist countries who wish us harm or at people from places overrun with drugs and criminal gangs is just common sense. And so is curbing illegal immigration, so our communities are no longer flooded with people who refuse to follow our laws. We need to make sure we take care of our own people first.

What percentage of Democratic voters do you think found this message convincing?

Take a guess.

It was 52%.

Why? Why would so many liberal voters be convinced by this language? This far right story feeds off of our innate fears. Fears that we all have. It's important to understand that this language is not just popular with white Democratic voters. In many cases, messages like this are more popular with Democratic voters of color than the are with white Democratic voters because white Democrats typically have more progressive social views that Democrats of color.

Many liberal political actors believe that the way to counteract this kind of messaging is to be explicit about calling out racism, sexism, and other bigotry head on. To refute these lies about our American brothers and sisters with objective facts. Other liberal politicians prefer to use a "race blind" strategy that tries to ignore cultural differences in favor of advocating only for the most popular parts of the liberal agenda. While both of these arguments are grounded in truth, neither is more successful than the conservative culture war story.

Unfortunately, being right doesn't win arguments in the realworld.

Humans are an emotion driven species. We make decisions using our emotions, then use the facts that support these decisions to justify them. It's not that facts don't matter, its that facts matter a hell of a lot less than feelings. Further, negative emotions are much more effective at driving behavior than positive emotions. As much as I wish that were not the case, it is. So, a believable sounding argument that evokes positive emotions will be less effective than an equally believable argument that sparks negative emotions.

If we want to make America a happier place, we have to overcome this obstacle. To build a happier country, we must institute policies that increase life expectancy, generosity, social support, and freedom while minimizing corruption and inequality.

If conservative policies did any of these things, the culture war would be irrelevant to those of us who want to make the lives of the American people happier. Unfortunately, conservative policies exacerbate these factors.

One might think that conservatism makes people more free than liberal policies, but they'd be wrong. For individuals to actually feel free, the have to feel like they have agency over the things that happen in their lives. To maximize happiness, we must maximize that agency. When we remove legal guardrails, like labor protections, we limit the number of people who can feel that agency to the wealthy few.

So far this all sucks. Conservatives base their politics on a culture war they can never win, but the nature of our polity means that conservatives don't actually have to win a majority to win power. And, by stoking fear, a powerful negative emotion, their messaging is more popular than liber messaging despite the fact that the underlying policies are much less popular.

What the hell do we do about it?

This is not a hopeless situation. We can overcome the underlying challenges to win elections so we can make the United States a happier country while we make our lives happier. It just involves fighting many of our natural tendencies. We must change process we use and the stories we tell to generate enough political support to make the lives of the American people happier, healthier, more free, and more prosperous. It's hard, but possible.

 First, the messaging. Our natural tendency to fight a culture war head on doesn't work. Neither does ignoring it. So what do we do instead? Here's another message that Ian Haney López tested:

No matter where we come from or what our color is, most of us work hard for our families, but today, certain politicians and their greedy lobbyists hurt everyone by handing kickbacks to the rich, defunding our schools, and threatening seniors with cutting Medicare and Social Security. Then they turn around and point the finger for hard times at poor families, black people, and new immigrants. We need to join together with people from all walks of life to fight for our future, just like we won better wages, safer workspaces, and civil rights in our past. By joining together, we can elect new leaders who work for all of us, not just the wealthy few.

How effective do you think this message was in this research?

It was the only kind of message that beat the Conservative culture war story across most demographics and with the electorate as a whole.

Unlike the conservative messaging which is designed to divide us against each other based on race, gender, and religion, our more effective message unites us against a very small group of extremely wealthy individuals. In the United States, messages of unity are more popular than messages of division because our culture makes unity a value to be celebrated. This "race-class" message feels true, but it also has be benefit of being true, unlike the conservative message.

It is in fact true that the wealthy have systematically stacked the deck in their favor and at our expense. According to a recent study by America's most prestigious think tank, the RAND Corporation:

"A full-time worker whose taxable income is at the median—with half the population making more and half making less—now pulls in about $50,000 a year. Yet had the fruits of the nation’s economic output been shared over the past 45 years as broadly as they were from the end of World War II until the early 1970s, that worker would instead be making $92,000 to $102,000."

So, the rich have literally stolen half of the average American's paycheck and given it to themselves. I bet that makes you feel pretty pissed off doesn't it? Good. That's why it works.

Now, you might think that this is a message that only applies to the culture war. Thankfully, that's not the case. This meta narrative that villainizes wealthy and powerful elites for the problems that we face as American citizens is the most popular political story in the US across a range of issues from the economy, to social policy, to foreign policy because it feels true. Because it is true. 

Our culture and our national story tell us people who abuse power at the expense of others are villians. Those who fight the powerful are heros. It's why we root for underdogs in sports and why we celebrate patriots who threw tea into Boston Harbor. Because our nation has effectively been turned into a plutocracy, it's a story that resonates with the overwhelming majority of Americans today. 

Now, this doesn't mean we can't talk about sticky issues of race or religion like many on the center and left wrongfully argue. I'm arguing the opposite. We need to talk about these things to be credible, but we need to give people a path to changing their minds without making them feel like they are the villains. Instead, we need to give people an out by making them feel as if they been lied to or that they've been conned. 

We must help each other be the heroes of the American story. 

Why? Few want to think of themselves as bad people. If we force people to admit that they've been the bad guy in order to join our "team," they just won't do it. If we try to force minorities to risk their lives to separate themselves from the dominant culture, most won't do it. Attempting to do so will make these people less likely to agree with you. At that point, you're better off not even having the conversation.

So, now that we know what to say, how should we have these conversations?

To understand that, we must look to a theory called "deep canvasing." This is a tool that have been proven more successful than any other at changing minds and convincing people to vote in the way that advances their own personal interests.

How do we do it? First, we must remember that this is a conversation, not a speech. We can't talk at people, we must interact with them. We must listen more than we speak. We must react with compassion and empathy, not anger or hostility, to what they say. No matter how offensive it may feel. We must react with kindness, generosity, and grace. Which is hard. And a lot to ask. I get it. But, would you rather our country continue to decline or do you want to do something to fix it?

  1. Ask for the voter’s opinion on a certain issue and explore it
  2. Ask for the voter’s personal story or experience pertaining to the issue
  3. Connect a personal story to the voter’s initial opinion
  4. Engage with their initial concerns and opinions and give them time to ponder
  5. Get back to the original issue and seek their opinion

As you can see, this isn't going to be accomplished in a quick phone call or email. This takes time and it takes effort, but it works where other tactics do not. It is only in step 5 that we can use our new found messaging skills overtly. Before that, we must weave our narrative into theirs to create solidarity. If we try to jump in with with an overt argument earlier in the conversation, we will change fewer minds.

Now that we know  what to say and how to say it, who should we be talking to?

It's fine to try to use these strategies to engage with a stranger or acquaintance on Facebook or Twitter, but that probably won't do much good. We don't really trust strangers very much, so they are unlikely to change our minds.

Instead, you should talk with people what you know. You should start with the people you know best whose beliefs align most closely with yours, but typically vote for conservatives. Why? These will be the easiest to "convert." The less you know someone and the more conservative their beliefs, the harder they will be to convince them to help make the US a happier, healthier, more free, and more prosperous place.

So, there you have it. Now you know why conservatives can never win the culture war, but why it still matters. More importantly, now you know what you can do about it.

Let's build a brighter future, together.