Global Culture Wars from the Perspective of Russian and American Actors: Some Preliminary Conclusions

By: Dmitry Uzlaner

December 18, 2019

The Culture Wars Today

Being a member of the research project “Postsecular Conflicts,” which focuses on contemporary culture/value conflicts, I observed and talked with conservative actors and their critics from Russia and the United States. Transatlantic alliances between conservatives of these two countries—we call these alliances “Moralist international”—is one of the most interesting trends of the last decade of the globalizing culture wars. Here I would like to share some preliminary conclusions concerning the current state of this conflict and the peculiarities of transatlantic collaboration of conservatives.

Increasing polarization and disappearance of the center. The theme that cuts across all debates is the disappearance not only of some kind of consensus, but also of the possibility of a dimension where meaningful rational exchange of arguments is possible. These conditions are implied in the very concept of culture war, but, as our interlocutors see it, the situation is becoming much worse. Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, points out that the Cold War pushed both conservatives and progressives not only toward a centrist position, but also toward the formation of certain consensual positions: Yes, changes are necessary, but—conservatives asserted—these changes should not be made too quickly. However, the end of the Cold War “made the cultural consensus of the Cold War era, built around . . . ‘diversity over unity’ and ‘openness over closure’ both more powerful and more dysfunctional.” The checks and balances that allowed centrist positions to exist and prevented excessive polarization have disappeared. The image that is often mentioned in descriptions of the current stage of culture war is that of a “civil war,” the most extreme phase of civil confrontation. As conservative writer Rod Dreher puts it: “When I look at the United States now, I think about Spain in 1931, when the trouble started there that eventually led to a civil war. I don’t think that we will pull guns against each other in the United States, but the polarization is so great now and there’s no center left.”

The image of violent confrontation over values and identities, which in the American context sounds like a warning, in the Russian Orthodox context takes a much more sinister turn. Military conflict between Russia and Ukraine has a clear value dimension—at least from the Russian side it is often portrayed as a reaction to the attempt of the liberal West to subvert the “Russian World” based on adherence to traditional values. The tensions around the “Russian World” reveal in a much more dramatic and violent form the polarization and loss of any consensus that American participants and observers of culture wars are talking about. 

The eclipse of the mind and the rise of emotions. Positions on opposing sides in these conflicts appear to be embedded in emotionally charged narratives that nearly bring the work of reason to a standstill. Certain issues in these struggles, for example, confrontations about the definition of family or non-discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, are not technical issues waiting to be resolved pragmatically. These are symbols that point to something beyond—to comprehensive narratives about the war between good and evil, light and darkness. This vision of something like a “cosmic war” makes it impossible for each side to hear the other’s positions and turns the very debate into a small part of a bigger story. Liberal actors adhere to the narrative of gradual progress and the emancipation of the human person from various limiting forces and prejudices, while the conservative side sees the culture war as the history of a transcendentally founded order that is about to collapse under the pressure of human sin and immorality. Conservatives are not fighting same-sex marriages or abortions as such, these are just symbols of the moral order, of the hierarchies that might collapse at any moment, plunging society into the chaos of non-differentiation, where everything becomes mixed – high and low, bad and good, old and young, male and female, parents and children. Or alternatively they envision a world gripped by a new totalitarianism, where everything would be turned upside down—evil would take the place of good, low in the place of high, etc. Such narratives, imbued with emotion—fear, anxiety, righteous indignation—lead to a black-and-white perception of the world, to the demonization of the opponent, and to the impossibility of achieving even some minimal consensus.

Russia and the United States as screens for each other’s projections. Russia and the United States are once again becoming screens for each other, on which corresponding actors project some of their own images arising from the internal logic of corresponding societies. The transformation, the inversion of each other’s images that has taken place since the Cold War, is remarkable. During the Cold War, the USSR was perceived by American conservatives as an “evil empire,” as a source of destructive cultural influences, while the United States was perceived as a force that was preventing the world from the triumph of godless communism and anarchy. The USSR, by contrast, positioned itself as a vanguard of emancipation, as a fighter for the progressive transformation of humanity (away from religion and toward atheism), and against the reactionary forces of the West. Today positions have changed dramatically; it is the United States or the ruling liberal establishment that in the conservative narrative has become the new or neo-USSR, spreading subversive ideas about family or the nature of authority around the world, while Russia has become almost a beacon of hope, “the last bastion of Christian values” that helps keep the world from sliding into a liberal dystopia. Russia’s self-identity has changed accordingly; now it is Russia who actively resists destructive, revolutionary experiments with fundamental human institutions, experiments inspired by new revolutionary neo-communists from the United States. Hence the cautious hopes that the U.S. Christian right have for contemporary Russia: They are projecting on Russia their fantasies of another West that has not been infected by the virus of cultural liberalism.

The difference between Russian and American contexts. In interviews, American traditionalists often say that they experience themselves as a kind of new dissident, as losers in culture wars who at any moment could be, if not outlawed, then at least seriously limited in their rights—for example, if discrimination against sexual identity became equal to racial or gender discrimination. This understanding of their own situation pushes them to look for hope elsewhere. They look either toward the future, in the hope of some new demographic shift toward conservatism, or toward exotic cultures and regions such as Russia as a very convenient screen for fantasies of an “alternative West” with an authentic Christian tradition. 

The Russian context is strikingly different from the American one. In Russia it is liberals who are nearly dissidents in a society almost totally dominated by conservative actors and institutions. These liberals are in the very vulnerable position of people who could be declared enemies of the people at any time and whose full membership in the national community could easily be questioned. From this experience, a completely different attitude to “traditional values” and traditionalism arises, and this attitude is expressed by Russian contributors to the forthcoming volume on postsecular conflicts: conservatism as a dead ideology threatening to turn Russia into a museum of archaic outdated forms. 

Focus on Europe. Europe is becoming increasingly important for culture war activists. Against the backdrop of a crisis of mainstream political parties and the rise of right-wing populist movements, both Russian and American conservatives look to Europe with hope. The current European situation is perceived as a very good opportunity to open some kind of “second front” in the culture wars. Moreover, some European societies are seen to provide the possibility of a kind of “third way,” compared to overly liberal America and overly authoritarian Russia. Europe might even redefine the very configuration of culture wars, as Alexander Dugin describes in discussing his “fourth political theory.” As he puts it in his interview, the traditional way of structuring the culture wars was to oppose the union of conservative economic views and conservative social views to the union of progressive economic views and progressive social views. However, Europe, with its traditions of a social state, can offer a different and more attractive configuration: progressive economic views together with conservative social views versus conservative economic views together with progressive social views. That is, traditional values conservatism could be finally separated from its usual link with the neoliberal economy, which many conservatives reject, and attached to a more progressive economic program. 

The fragility of transnational value alliances. Do alliances between Russian and American conservatives have a future? On the one hand, the motivation to build such alliances is strong; both American and Russian actors face the same powerful and insidious enemy. On the other hand, the history of previous conservative alliances shows how short-lived these alliances are and how easily circumstances ruin ecumenism 2.0 in its different manifestations. For example, the Vatican, which was one of the first international leaders of the conservative camp, quickly became a great disappointment for the Christian right: Against the backdrop of sexual scandals, the new Pope Francis in 2013 replaced socially conservative rhetoric with a much more moderate stance, open to new progressive social and cultural trends. Another conservative alliance—that between American evangelicals and Muslim actors—turned out to be no less fragile: The founder of World Congress of Families, Allan Carlson, in his interview describes in detail the collapse of this alliance at the moment of the September 11 terrorist attacks. 

Actually, disappointment in former allies—Catholic and Muslim—was a crucial factor that pushed the American Christian right to seek new allies in Russia. However, given the deterioration of relations between the two countries against the backdrop of the ongoing scandal over possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, as well as the instability of the conservative platform in Russia itself, one can assume with some certainty that collaboration between conservatives from the two countries might soon be put to a severe test. 

Though some American conservatives are more-or-less sure that the national culture war is over and that they have lost their battle for the soul of American society, global value conflicts are far from over. And the outcome of this struggle seems open-ended. Global culture wars in the transnational and global dimension have their own logic and their own line of development that may lead to unexpected consequences in different national contexts—including, probably, the American one. So, as one of our interlocutors put it in his interview, “The great battles lie ahead. We’ll see how it turns out.” 

Author's noteThis post is an abridged version of a fuller contribution that will be published in the forthcoming volume “Postsecular Conflicts: Debates from Russia and the United States,” ed. Kristina Stoeckl and Dmitry Uzlaner (Innsbruck: Innsbruck University Press, 2020).

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