The Shifting Coordinates of the Conservative Worldview

By: Kristina Stoeckl

December 18, 2019

The Culture Wars Today

The two sides in the struggle to define the United States in James Davison Hunter’s book Culture Wars (1991) were securely rooted in the American context. The “conservatives” and the “liberals” were divided over social and domestic issues, like school prayer and abortion. The struggles unfolded in the Cold War context, which ended in the year the book was published. Today, we agree that the culture wars are globalizing. Clifford Bob’s The Global Right Wing (2012), the Postsecular Conflicts project, and numerous other publications provide ample evidence for the extension of the culture wars beyond the United States. What we observe is an export of culture war issues and strategies into contexts where these issues and strategies previously did not exist (for example, the pro-life issue in Russia). While there is considerable strategic and thematic continuity in polarization, I think we also have to focus on the ideological changes which come along with the expansion of the culture wars. By ideological changes I mean changes in ideas, identifications, and adversaries that motivate the two sides in the culture wars. In this blog post, I will try to synthesize what I think are the most important ideological changes on the conservative side (leaving aside, for reasons of space, the liberal side). I identify four dimensions in which today’s conservative worldview in the globalized culture wars appears different from the conservative position at the time when Culture Wars was published.

The coordinates have, firstly, shifted from left to liberal. Where the main antagonist for a thinker on the political right during the Cold War was the “leftist” (Marxist, communist, socialist), it is now the “liberal.” In an ideological framing deeply rooted in the Cold War context in the United States, for many culture warriors, Marxism and liberalism have come to mean the same thing. Sometimes actors will use the term “left-liberalism,” to draw a more subtle distinction, given that conservatives on the whole endorse liberal economic ideas. This wholesale identification of Marxism and liberalism existed also in the European context, but it was never mainstream; instead, in Europe, the wholesale identification of Marxism and liberalism belonged to the ideology on the far right. It owes more to Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger than to concrete struggles between Christian democrats and socialists on questions of public morality in the post-World War II years. If anything, it would probably have been the former to identify as liberal! In fact, many of the Russian actors interviewed by the Postsecular Conflicts project recall that at one point during the early 1990s, they learned—to their amazement—from their conservative Western interlocutors that “communism and liberalism were the same thing.” 

The coordinates have, secondly, shifted from the West to the East, to Russia. Whereas the main antagonist for a conservative thinker during the Cold War was the communist East, the new antagonist is now inside the West; it is the “dying West,” as the American conservative Pat Buchanan wrote in 2001, by which he means contemporary secular and liberal society. Conservatives interpret political correctness not as a manner to manage radical pluralism in the public sphere, but, as Rod Dreher puts it, as “totalitarianism.” The American fascination with Russia is based on admiration for the unbridled Russian disdain of political correctness and the robust defense of Orthodox privileges inside the Russian state over and against minority rights. This admiration is paradoxical, because the country restricts not only the freedoms of LGBTQ people, but also the freedoms of the very same minority faiths that rally along with Russian (Orthodox) leadership on conservative family values.

The coordinates have, thirdly, shifted from religion to tradition. Whereas the main conflict line for conservatives during the Cold War was between religious and secular (especially atheist) worldviews, the new frontline is between traditionalist religious views and liberal religious views. Religious teachings are evaluated on their conservative and traditionalist credentials—and not their evangelical or theological merits. The exact meaning of “tradition” and “traditional values,” however, remains mostly only vaguely defined. It comprises a heterosexual family model, patriarchy, conservative social mores, and the anti-modernist pages of Christian teaching. 

The coordinates have, fourthly, shifted from democracy to authority. Whereas conservatives during the Cold War defended democracy over and against autocracy, which was associated with the USSR (and also against critics from the left who saw in Western democracy a hegemonic project), the conservatives of the twenty-first century do not trust democracy anymore. They ask, in the words of R. R. Reno, for “strong gods,” for authority. 

To summarize: anti-liberalism, Russia, tradition, and authority (and no longer anti-leftism, the West, religion, and democracy) emerge as the four angles of the conservative coordinate system in the globalized culture wars. This shift has made it possible for the culture wars to expand and take root in political contexts that share very little with the history of the struggles that define America.

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