Why conservatives start culture wars and liberals win them

For a time, it was fashionable to declare that America’s culture wars were over. “Culture wars issues not only had a very low profile in the [2008] campaign,” the Center for American Progress’s Ruy Teixeira wrote in 2013, “but, where conservatives did attempt to raise them, these issues did them little good. . . . There will be diminishing incentives for politicians to take up these causes for the very simple reason that they are losers.”

And yet here we are, in 2016, with the culture wars still going strong. Gun control, religious liberty, Black Lives Matter and funding for Planned Parenthood are all high-profile issues in the presidential campaign. Perhaps the most intense battle, though, is the one over immigration, which National Review’s Reihan Salam correctly identifies as a “fight over the future of American national identity in the face of rapid and accelerating demographic change.”

As a historian, I’m not optimistic that our culture wars will end anytime soon. These angry disputes about the meaning of America, and who is a true American, have been raging since the early days of our nation. We’ve lurched from one cultural conflict to the next. A loss in one battle further convinces culture warriors that our society is going to hell. So they cast about for another grievance — another “them” to blame for what is happening to “us.” In this way, the culture wars are perpetually rising from the dead.