People talk about culture war politics as if it were a recent development — a novelty, an exception to a historic rule that American politics is mostly about economics (who gets how much) and only occasionally gets sidetracked into culture (what people should or shouldn’t be allowed to do).
In my view, that gets things backwards. Culture war politics goes back to the American Revolution, which united into one nation colonies with different religious beliefs and cultural values.
Many 19th-century culture war issues were fought over reforms challenging traditional behaviors championed by New England Yankees as they spread westward to upstate New York and the Great Lakes Midwest. Yankee culture, with its Puritan roots, was principled and prescriptive, moralistic and intolerant.
In the pre-Civil War republic, New England and upstate New York’s “burned-over district” seethed with movements demanding the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, prohibition of alcohol and an end to capital punishment. Each used moral logic to oppose an existing practice.
These causes were initially unpopular, opposed by Jacksonian Democrats but found some sympathy from Whigs and especially the new Republican Party that was formed to limit the expansion of slavery. They met with different fates.
Slavery was abolished in 1865 after a bloody Civil War, but Reconstruction, with its goal of equal rights for black people, failed. As Thomas Jefferson had predicted, black people were not treated equally for decades. Women’s suffrage spread from the Wyoming Territory in 1869 to the federal 19th Amendment in 1920, but few women were elected to public office for the next 50 years. Prohibition was imposed in Maine in 1851 and then passed nationally in 1919, but it was repealed in 1933. Capital punishment, abolished in Michigan in 1855, remains on the books in 27 states but is seldom used.
Some of the reforms were thus successful, but only up to a point or only after many years. Others were cast aside (Prohibition) or never achieved universal acceptance. (No president has opposed capital punishment.) Moral logic does not entirely or easily trump human character.
The Yankee impulse to apply moral logic to existing practice survives today, and not just among those with New England ancestry. It is most common among the highly educated (as 19th-century Yankees were) living in culturally homogeneous communities.
The last half-century has seen multiple examples of the Yankee reform impulse, with varying results. Over time, the concentration has been on applying moral logic to practices that are rarer and rarer.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was overwhelmingly successful at changing laws and changing attitudes, not least in the election of a black president — something no one thought possible two generations ago. Approval of black-white marriages increased from 4% in 1958 to 94% in 2021.
Those successes have been overshadowed periodically by claims (by militants in the 1970s and Black Lives Matter advocates in the 2020s) that things are just as bad as ever — that being required to show ID before voting is as bad as being beaten up or threatened with murder when trying to vote. The debate has switched from whether black people should receive equal treatment to whether they should receive preferential treatment.
The feminist movement dating from the 1970s has had striking successes and disappointing shortfalls. Women have entered the workforce in large numbers, and women have been majorities in colleges since the 1980s and majorities or near-majorities in law and medical school for decades. Yet women still tend to choose specialties and jobs with limited time commitments, and even the highest-credentialed women often choose to stay home to care for children. On a less profound level, we seem nowhere closer to choosing unisex clothing than we were 50 years ago. It looks like we’re bumping up against biological limits, doesn’t it?
The nature of the human organism may explain why opinion on abortion has scarcely changed since the 1970s (majorities oppose criminalization but favor many limitations), whereas opinions on same-sex marriage have been almost totally transformed (from 3-to-1 opposition in the 1990s to 3-to-1 support today).
Abortion always terminates a human life. Same-sex marriage doesn’t, and it even seems to have a conservatizing effect on many participants, just as its early advocates Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch predicted.
The number of abortions has been falling, and gays and lesbians are a small share, maybe 4%, of the total population. Lately, the Yankee reform impulse has focused on a much smaller group: transgender people. But it is meeting some resistance.
Many people have qualms about allowing biological males access to women’s locker rooms, dorms and prison facilities. Female athletes such as Martina Navratilova oppose allowing biological men to compete in women’s sports. And Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling has been among those warning that puberty blockers and sex-change surgeries for children under 18 create irreversible damage to those who will later, as adults, change their minds.
This looks like, in the words of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “an experiment on trans-identifying youth without good or certain evidence, inspired by ideological motives rather than scientific rigor, in a way that future generations will regard as a grave medical-political scandal.”
The Yankee reform impulse, applying moral logic to existing practice, is one important part of the American heritage. At its best, it has produced liberating results that have enabled the nation to live up to its promise. But its combination of Puritan moralism and Puritan intolerance sometimes runs up against basic human character, causing unintended damage. The arc of history, it turns out, doesn’t bend in just one direction.
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