Transnationalization of the Culture Wars: Rights, Rhetoric, and Reality

By: Clifford Bob

December 18, 2019

The Culture Wars Today

The spread of the “culture wars” to many countries in recent decades owes much to recent changes in technology, media, and activism. These changes have led to the diffusion of ideas, lifestyles, and political movements across national borders. Domestic organizations that have long championed one or another side in cultural conflicts have increasingly transnationalized. In some cases, such groups have simply served as models for organizers in other nations. In other cases, they have been invited in by like-minded local activists or citizens threatened by new laws or social changes. In still other cases, globally oriented activists have proactively sought overseas allies and formed loose-knit global networks.

This phenomenon has occurred on both sides of the “cultural” divide over issues concerning the family, marriage, gender roles, abortion, homeschooling, and more. To focus on the “traditional values” network, it includes organizations representing social conservatives from many faiths. Although they may differ in their beliefs, these NGOs generally agree that religiously based “traditional” morality should play a larger role in society and in key policy decisions. At the same time, members of the traditional values network disagree on a host of other issues, not least confessional matters, that they bracket when working together, for instance in UN bodies. In other words, the traditional values network is primarily a tactical alliance—what I have previously labeled the “Baptist-burqa” network, to underline the many differences among groups that work together on certain policy issues. The same goes for the left-leaning human rights activists, both religious and nonreligious, that they oppose: They form a decentralized network, rather than acting as a cohesive coalition with a single leadership.

In addition to their structural similarities, the rival networks use parallel tactics, both affirmative ones to advance their causes and negative one to undermine their foes. Most surprisingly, perhaps, the traditional values network often adopts the language of rights, sometimes even human rights. This use of rights rhetoric is the core subject of my most recent book, Rights as Weapons: Instruments of Conflict, Tools of Power (Princeton University Press, 2019). As I argue, in addition to the moral aspects of most rights arguments, rights themselves are sociolegal tools for securing concrete political goals. Thus, social conservatives, along with liberals, now use arguments wherever they are helpful: to mobilize constituents and allies, to generate test-cases and cause-litigation, and to undermine the contrary rights claims of their opponents. 

Some might see social conservatives’ newfound use of rights rhetoric as chiefly the result of “export” of the United States’ legal culture and decades-old culture wars to other countries. However, I believe that a more important factor is the organic development of cultural clashes in societies marked on one hand by traditional ways of life and on the other by growing numbers of citizens who travel, use the Internet, and are exposed to liberal values. In such contexts, culture wars often arise, and players on both sides of the divide reach abroad for support. 

The United States, with its lengthy history of cultural clashes and its well-resourced organizations, is a major source of such aid. For it to be effective, however, transnational support cannot be a direct transplant from one country to another. Instead, its transfer must include careful adaptation of appropriate tactics to the new social, political, and legal setting. It is important to note, as well, that such supportive interactions are not a one-way street, but instead are often mutually beneficial. U.S. conservatives, for instance, often learn from allies abroad. They sometimes import foreign ideas and tactics, suitably adapted, into U.S. activism, even inviting leaders from foreign conflicts to the United States to showcase the accomplishments possible abroad. Or American social conservatives may point to "overseas martyrs” as cautionary, to indicate the threats that await American social conservatives if they are insufficiently vigilant. 

Over the last five years, the most important change in these practices is contextual: the rise of populist and nationalist governments in many countries worldwide. In some cases, this shift has resulted in part from cultural conservatives’ support for candidates to elective office. In the United States, Donald Trump’s presidential victory owed much to social conservatives. But whatever the source, self-described nationalist or populist governments are more common in much of the world today than just a few years ago—with significant implications for the culture wars. A few populist parties and governments in such countries as the Netherlands and Denmark are socially liberal. But most populist parties are not liberal and are instead sympathetic or supportive of policies dear to the traditional values network. This is currently the case in a number of large and influential states, such as the United States, India, and Brazil. Unsurprisingly, social conservatives are taking advantage of this unusual political moment to advance their causes—even as social liberals scramble to find effective countermeasures. 

As one important countermeasure, social liberals have increasingly tarred their socially conservative foes as agents of foreign influence, specifically of Russian influence. It is true that there has been a recent increase in the role of Russian NGOs and the Russian Orthodox Church in the traditional values network, as the Postsecular Conflicts project has amply shown. Looming far larger, however, particularly since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, is the perception of Russia’s malign influence pervading all manner of political and social issues—with Russia frequently accused of “sowing discord” in liberal Western democracies. Proof of such accusations is harder to come by, however, and of course the culture wars, particularly in the United States, long predate recent worries about Russia. Whatever their merits, however, these perceptions, and the negative tactics that accompany them, suggest that the culture wars will continue and probably even intensify for the foreseeable future.

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