The secret of culture war is that it is often a good and necessary thing. People don’t like culture wars when they’re on the losing side, and while they’re losing they often complain about how cultural concerns are distractions from the “real” issues, usually meaning something to do with the deficit or education or where to peg the Medicare growth rate or which terrorist haven the United States should be bombing next.
But in the sweep of American history, it’s the battles over cultural norms and so-called social issues – over race and religion, intoxicants and sex, speech and censorship, immigration and assimilation – that for better or worse have often made us who we are.
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Still, even a proud culture warrior should be able to concede that not all culture wars are created equal. A good culture war is one that, beneath all the posturing and demagogy and noise, has clear policy implications, a core legal or moral question, a place where one side can win a necessary victory or where a new consensus can be hashed out. A bad culture war is one in which attitudinizing, tribalism and worst-case fearmongering float around unmoored from any specific legal question, in which mutual misunderstanding reigns and a thousand grievances are stirred up without a single issue being clarified or potentially resolved.
Unfortunately for us all, Donald Trump is a master, a virtuoso, of the second kind of culture war – and a master, too, of taking social and cultural debates that could be important and necessary and making them stupider and emptier and all about himself.
He is not the only figure pushing American arguments in that direction – cable news, reality TV, campus protesters and late-night political “comedy” all have a similar effect these days. But he is the president, which lends him a unique deranging influence, and he is unique as well in that unlike most culture warriors – who are usually initially idealists, however corrupted they may ultimately become – he has never cared about anything higher or nobler than himself, and so he’s never happier than when the entire country seems to be having a culture war about, well, Donald Trump.
The NFL-national anthem controversy, the latest Trump-stoked social conflagration, is a quintessential bad culture war. It was trending that way already before Trump, because the act of protest that Colin Kaepernick chose to call attention to police shootings of unarmed black men – sitting and then kneeling for “The Star-Spangled Banner” – was clearer in the calculated offense it gave than in the specific cause it sought to further, clearer in its swipe at a Racist America than its prescription for redress. (That Kaepernick sported Fidel Castro T-shirts and socks depicting cops as pigs did not exactly help.)
But in his usual bullying and race-baiting way, Trump has made it much, much worse, by multiplying the reasons one might reasonably kneel – for solidarity with teammates, as a protest against the president’s behavior, as a gesture in favor of free speech, as an act of racial pride – and then encouraging his own partisans to interpret the kneeling as a broad affront to their own patriotism and politics. So now we’re “arguing” (I use the term loosely) about everything from the free-speech rights of pro athletes to whether the national anthem is right-wing political correctness to LeBron James’ punditry on the miseducation of Trump voters … and the specific issue that Kaepernick intended to raise, police misconduct, is buried seven layers of controversy deep.
You could say, it’s always thus with culture wars and racial battles, but in fact it isn’t and doesn’t need to be. Arguments about race were often toxic in the 1970s and 1980s, but there were core policy issues that could be argued and ultimately compromised over – crime and welfare and affirmative action – and across the 1990s they were, to some extent, and as they were overt racial tensions eased considerably. In 2001, two-thirds of Americans (and more blacks than whites) described race relations as somewhat good or very good, and while the white view was usually slightly rosier thereafter, the two-thirds pattern held for more than a decade – until Ferguson, Missouri, and Black Lives Matter and the other controversies of the late Obama years, followed by the rise of Trump, sent racial optimism into a tailspin.
For hope to resurface, we need specific issues and potential compromises to re-emerge. In particular, we need a public argument clearly tethered to the two big policy questions raised by police misconduct and the broader crime and incarceration debate.
First, can we have the greater accountability for cops that activists reasonably demand, in which juries convict more trigger-happy officers and police departments establish a less adversarial relationship to the communities they police, without the surge of violence that’s accompanied the apparent retreat of the police in cities like Baltimore and Chicago?
Second, can we continue the move toward de-incarceration – supported, not that long ago, by Republicans as well as Democrats – without reversing the gains that have made many of our cities safe?
These are hard questions that can be answered only gradually, through trial-and-error and with various false starts. But they are questions that could have answers, that could point to a stable policy consensus around race and criminal justice, in a way that our present “Make America Great Again” versus “You’re All White Supremacists” culture war does not.
For those answers to matter, for them to depolarize our country, we need a social and cultural debate focused on the substance that Colin Kaepernick’s choice of protest unfortunately obscured, and Donald Trump’s flagsploitation has deliberately buried. Not an end to culture war, but a better culture war – in which victory and defeat can be defined, and peace becomes a possibility.