“Culture war” used to be a term inextricably linked with the maelstrom of US politics. Popularised by American sociologist James Davison Hunter in his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, it described how socially progressive and conservative coalitions were locked in a seemingly eternal conflict. It could make for surprising alliances, he noted, citing Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergy joining forces in anti-abortion movements during the late 1980s.
The battlegrounds of the US culture war are familiar ones, long regarded with bafflement by patronising and complacent European eyes: God, guns, abortion, gay rights and, of course, race. In a moment that threatened to temporarily derail his 2008 presidential bid, Barack Obama said of working-class rust-belt Americans: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” As the Tea Party movement’s backlash against his Medicare proposals underlined, culture wars became a highly effective means to mobilise low-income white Americans to vote against their economic interests.
Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist