Culture wars: How identity became the calling card of politics in conservative America
Identity – including race, sexual orientation, gender – have become lightning rod subjects of hundreds of bills in state legislatures across the country as Americans across the political spectrum seek to define the nation’s values.
Debate over these issues is intensifying as candidates gear up for the 2024 presidential cycle – but how did identity openly become one of the leading narratives for conservative politicians on the campaign trail?
The culture wars begin
When the culture wars in the United States first started is arguable.
Christopher Sebastian Parker, a professor of political science at the University of Washington, Seattle, considers the backlash to the abolition of slavery as an early contextualization about how we got to the culture wars we’re seeing today.
As Americans grappled with how to integrate formerly enslaved Black Americans into society, white supremacists in the South called for “Redemption” – the removal of rights for Black Americans.
But the culture wars as we know it begins in the 1960s, which were rife with movements for liberation and change, according to historians.
Marginalized groups in the Civil Rights, Black power, Chicano, feminist and gay rights movements were demanding equal rights and challenging the “normative American culture” of the ’50s that had begun to solidify, according to historian and author Andrew Hartman.
The upheaval of traditional American values was met with anger and backlash – particularly from the Christian and religious right who began “feeling like the nation itself no longer represented them or their values,” Hartman told ABC News.
“You get these sort of two coalescing movements that are polarizing the national culture. By the 1980s, and especially ’90s, you get what’s called the culture wars,” said Hartman, who wrote “A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars.”
In the ’80s, the Republican party grew increasingly aligned with religious conservatives, “noticing that [Reagan] could gain a lot of electoral traction by speaking about issues that matter to the Christian right, to evangelicals,” Hartman said.
The remnants of this shift remain in the GOP and conservative movements of today.
“The things that we now associate with the Republicans in terms of their anti-trans, anti-critical race theory – the culture wars they’re fighting right now – you see all of this even during the Reagan years.”
Alesha Doan, a political scientist and professor at the University of Kansas, told ABC news that the recent restrictions on reproductive care including abortion rights are reflective of the efforts of that ongoing cultural movement.
“Shortly after abortion was decriminalized, there was a really robust anti-abortion movement that has dedicated its time since 1973 to incrementally dismantling it,” Doan said.
“The most recent dismantling of abortion rights under the Dobbs law has been really 40 years in the making,” Doan added.
Though other national issues have taken hold of the country’s attention – including 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis – Hartman said the culture wars have continued to ebb and flow under the surface.
The issues of today
Social conservatives were “losing” as the cultural fights remained centered around what adults were doing, according to Terry Schilling, the president of the conservative think tank American Principles Project.
But when COVID-19 forced people to stay home in 2020, Schilling said parents gained more insight into what their children were learning at school – it was new territory politicians were able to tap into.
Children became the focus for their efforts.
“Parents felt like they were losing control over what their kids were learning in school and I think that made them very uncomfortable,” said Schilling.
This shift came amid the racial reckoning of 2020, which shifted the national conversation toward anti-racism activism and a heightened promise to address societal inequities that impacted people of color.
It also came at a time when LGBTQ acceptance was steadily growing and at an all-time high, according to Gallup polling throughout the years.
“Family is the center of everything and we need a political party that’s going to put the family at the heart of it,” Schilling said. “We want to make the family the most powerful and important special interest group in America.”
Schilling said his group tested a lot of issues to find what stuck the most out to people. But it didn’t matter how popular the issue was, they needed issues that politicians felt comfortable talking about, Schilling said.
That turned out to be trans children in sports, Schilling said.
And thus grew the ongoing anti-trans movement, which coincided alongside restrictions on what children can learn in school that targeted race, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Transgender people make up less than 1% of the population, according to an analysis of CDC data. And yet, more than 220 bills so far in 2023 alone specifically target transgender and nonbinary people, according to the Human Rights Campaign – with many of them restricting gender-affirming care for transgender youth, access to public restrooms and more.
At least 16 states have passed or implemented policies that restrict lessons or programs related to race, according to the African American Policy Forum, with several more legislatures considering such restrictions.
Power and status
At the core of this fight, scholars argue, is the threat to power and control.
“That perception that things were going to change is so scary that it incites a backlash,” Doan said. “Whether it is against the Black community, whether it’s against the LGBTQ community, whether it is against the community of women.”
Parker argues that status threat – the theory that majority groups in a position of power feel like the gains toward equality for a minority group are losses for the majority – has contributed to the backlash.
He points to the “take back our country” and “make America great again” catchphrases of conservative and GOP parties.
“These communities of color, or these marginalized groups, are making progress … so you have these temporal references about going back to a point in time at which white, male, Christian, heterosexual, middle class dominance wasn’t questioned,” Parker said.
Historians argue that politicians have long used fear to rile up their bases and gain political traction, stoking culture wars in an effort to win elections.
One way to incite fear is to rely on stereotypes, experts say. For example, the LGBTQ community is being targeting using a decades old false claim that LGBTQ people are pedophiles or groomers. The language has also begun to surround legislation that restricts both drag shows and drag queen story hours, which have subsequently become targeted by far-right extremists, in part because of false grooming claims.
“In our community and cultural memory lives that stereotype of gay men are dangerous,” Doan said. “Black Americans are dangerous. Women that can control their own body are dangerous. And so it’s easy to call up those stereotypes and play on those and we see that across all of these issues.”
As marginalized groups continue to progress away from marginalization, historians warn that the road toward equality will not be without such political barriers.
“With status threat — the more diversity that spreads in the United States, the more diversity that’s part of the political climate and culture, the more fighting we’re going to have,” Parker said.