Why cultural and political divides in the U.S. seem to be getting worse

Most families gather on Thanksgiving hoping that politics is not on the menu. And this year is no different. James Davison Hunter, an author and executive director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss polarization in the U.S. and how to lower the temperature.

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  • William Brangham:

    Most families gather on Thanksgiving hoping that politics is not on the menu. And this year is certainly no different.

    Amna Nawaz is back with a look at why it seems that cultural and political polarization seems to be getting worse in this country, and what might be done to lower the temperature just a bit.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We're witnessing the newest evolution of the culture wars, a term first popularized nearly 30 years ago in a book by James Davison Hunter. He's also the executive director of the Institute for Advanced Studies and Culture at the University of Virginia. And he joins me now.

    James Davison Hunter, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you for making the time.

    So, it was 30 years ago you used this phrase culture wars. You were trying to capture sort of the national divides and debates over issues like abortion rights and LGBTQ rights and the role of religion in schools. How have the culture wars from 30 years ago changed? What's different today?

    James Davison Hunter, University of Virginia: One of the most important differences is the ways in which the culture wars have now become class culture wars.

    Progressives tend to predominate in the upper middle class, highly educated professionals and managers. And traditionalists, conservatives tend to cluster in the middle, lower-middle and working classes. The class differences are highlighting real differences in life chances and opportunities, the horizons of the future that mean so much to everyday life.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, I guess, definitionally, too, maybe I can ask you to help us understand how you look at the phrase, what culture wars even mean today, because it feels almost as if the term is applied reflexively to any issue that people disagree on that's not purely a matter of policy.

    You can talk about science or sports or education or anything, and it becomes a culture war issue. So, how do you see it?

  • James Davison Hunter:

    So, culture wars can be understood in two different ways.

    The main way in which people think about culture wars is in terms of the politics of culture. It's essentially about politics, but around cultural issues. So, it's the politics of abortion. It's the politics of gay rights, lesbian rights. It's the politics of race and the like.

    The second way in which the culture wars plays out is in terms of the culture of politics. It's the symbolic environment within which politics and our democracy unfolds. This is the difference between weather and climate. They're related to each other. They feed on each other.

    But they're ultimately reinforcing the same kinds of divisions in our society.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You have also written about and talked about this idea of fear of extinction being sort of a central issue in some of these culture war issues as well.

    And polls actually show messaging like that really resonates among the American public. In one recent poll, 52 percent of Americans agree with the statement — quote — "Today, America is in danger of losing its culture and identity."

    We have just seen the largest and most diverse nationwide calls for racial justice and people more willing to see and recognize the racist history of this country. I'm curious what role you think race plays in all of this.

  • James Davison Hunter:

    Well, my sense is that race is, for the most part, replacing abortion as the central issue of the culture war.

    Ever since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, abortion was really the main catalyst of conflict. Race was never really discussed as much through the '80s and '90s. It's now center stage.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's also, we should point out, a really deep divide, a partisan divide on that one issue of whether or not America is in danger of losing its culture and identity.

    It's a 50-point gap, a 50 percentage point gap between Republicans and Democrats; 80 percent of Republicans, we should say, agreed with that statement. Does that surprise you?

  • James Davison Hunter:

    It doesn't surprise me.

    I think that there's the — in a way, you can think about the interplay of our national motto of e pluribus unum. The pluribus has expanded and it has polarized. The unum has all but evaporated.

    There's a sense now that each side sees the other as an existential threat, and that intensifies our public discourse. It intensifies the anger and the fear. If there is an unum right now in our public culture, it's probably fear. It cuts across race, class, gender, the divide between conservatives and progressives.

    Fear seems to be our common culture right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You have also talked about the justification of violence that comes with some of these culture wars.

    I'm thinking about the violence we saw on January 6 that was perpetuated by the lie of a stolen election and political propaganda. I'm also thinking about messaging and political violence. We just saw Congressman Paul Gosar censured for a violent video that he shared online depicting him causing harm, murdering a fellow congressional colleague.

    Talk to me about that. Should we have seen all this coming?

  • James Davison Hunter:

    Well, there was a 30-year culture war that was prior to the Civil War. You never have a shooting war without a prior culture war. Culture provides the justifications for violence.

    It's — and you tend to see this kind of move when each side doesn't see any way forward, when you're at a stalemate, and there's no way democratically to move it forward.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, where is the exit ramp in all of this? I mean, if the onus seems to be upon the people who are perpetuating these kinds of culture wars, leaning into them, maybe even benefiting from them politically, if it's resonating among the American public, how does this all get tamped down?

  • James Davison Hunter:

    I think that there is a sense on both sides of just deep exhaustion, that we're no longer part of a shared project called America, and that — and even reason or facts, each side has their own reasons and their own facts.

    And there's the sense of exhaustion. What's the point of talking through our differences? They're not getting us anywhere.

    So, we end up with a very shallow public discourse that's shouting. It's cliches. It's a kind of truncated discourse that tends to feed each side's base and to mobilize the base toward action.

    This is not healthy for democracy. And it seems to me, if we don't commit ourselves, if leaders are not censuring acts of both physical and symbolic violence, these tendencies are only going to increase. So, it's a dangerous moment. And my sense is that, unless we address this, we're going to be seeing more violence in the future.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    James Davison Hunter giving us all a lot to think about, and we're grateful for it.

    Thank you so much for your time.

  • James Davison Hunter:

    You're welcome. Thank you.

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