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24 May 2021

How culture wars start

Bobby Duffy and Kirstie Hewlett

Is the UK going down the same road as the US?

us capitol attack
Photo credit: Tyler Merbler

The intensifying focus on a “culture war” in the UK has worrying echoes of discussions that took off in the US three decades ago. The attack on the US Capitol in January can be seen as the culmination of cultural and social divides that coalesced and hardened in the intervening years. Where America leads, Britain often follows – but this is not a trail we want to trace.

To assess whether we are on that track, and more generally to understand the particular drivers and features of cultural division in the UK, the Policy Institute has begun a major new strand of work. We’ve reviewed the literature, conducted an extensive new survey with our excellent research partners in the project, Ipsos MORI, and systematically analysed media content since the 1990s. We’ll also be holding a series of events, including with British Future.

The first part of the study will be released later this week, examining the huge surge in media coverage of culture wars, and how public understanding of the key concepts in the debate has evolved. This first release will illustrate one of the key reasons it’s vital we look at this subject now: in 2015, there were only 21 articles in mainstream UK newspapers that discussed a “culture war” in the UK – in 2020, there were 534.

The US experience is useful context to where we are now in the UK, and where we may be heading. Many researchers trace the genesis of this conflict in the US to the cultural transformations that began in the 1960s, with liberation movements calling on historically marginalised groups to reclaim and celebrate their heritage and identity and demanding recognition of injustices faced, as well as challenging norms around sex, family, patriotism and war. But, certainly in the decades since, shifting cultural debates cannot be seen solely as a simple bottom-up movement, led by public opinion, beliefs and expression. The way that political parties and the media engage in these debates also plays a role in growing division. There is a clear interaction between how the national conversation is set and how the public react – there is the risk that we can get into spirals where one feeds off the other in a cycle. 

Where does the idea of a culture war come from?

The language of “culture wars” was first popularised by the sociologist James Davison Hunter in the early 1990s. Hunter used it to describe the deep-seated tension that had emerged in the US between “orthodox” and “progressive” worldviews. For him, the term not only captured a political struggle over cultural issues, but a conflict “over the meaning of America, who we have been in the past, who we are now, and perhaps more important, who we, as a nation, will aspire to become. 

A “culture war” signals much more than disagreement. In Hunter’s conception, it describes a sense of conflict between two irreconcilable worldviews in what is “fundamentally right and wrong about the world we live in”, and a disconnect between “our most fundamental ideas about who we are as Americans” and “how and on what terms … [we] live together”. 

Indeed, culture wars tend to be described as being fought on one or more “fault lines”. This is often measured by the extent to which attitudes are polarised on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control, which tend to have either a strong moral or values basis, or rub against changing norms. But what differentiates a culture war from mere disagreement is the extent to which attitudes coalesce into utterly opposed worldviews with competing visions for the future, and the perceived threat to what either side considers the right or acceptable way to live one’s life. 

The story of culture wars in the US

A culture war narrative quickly took hold in the US after a speech by the political advisor Pat Buchanan at the 1992 Republican National Convention. Buchanan framed the “cultural war” as a “struggle for the soul of America”, and the term entered more widespread use in the media from that point on. 

The US experience illustrates that culture war issues come and go: once consensus is built, such as on women working – an issue that was salient in 1960s but now largely resolved – other issues, such as same-sex marriage and then gender identity, take their place. In this sense, the culture wars can be seen as inevitable flashpoints in a process of culture change.

However, over time partisan groups in the US have also become more internally homogeneous, resulting in a Democratic party that is more clearly liberal and a Republican party that is more clearly conservative, with a dramatic divergence in views between the two taking place in the years between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s.

These political identities are increasingly seen as having implications for social relations and behaviours. Americans increasingly say they distance themselves from opposing partisans, be it in greater warmth of feeling to political in-groups than out-groups, or their preferences to be friends with, live next door to, socialise with, or marry members of their in-group over members of their out-group.

Since the early 1990s, research on US culture wars has found mixed results about the extent of polarisation in society overall. We need to be mindful that even in the US, there is a good case that there is an “exhausted majority” in the middle, who are not nearly as engaged or opposed to the other side as the “noisy extremes” can make it seem. But there is clear agreement on the fact that polarisation is endemic among political elites and the media – and that it is those highly polarised elites who help to drive the culture wars agenda.

Indeed, Morris Fiorina has been influential in arguing that journalists in the US are over-exposed to the political class, which results in a selection of more colourful, unusual stories being represented in debates, rather than the more moderate positions held by the public, and that this has contributed to the myth of extreme polarisation in the US.

Is the UK next?

Part of what has sustained and intensified culture wars debates in the US is that identity and attitudes have become highly “sorted”, with increasingly little crossover in views between those on either side of the party political divide. This means that party affiliation not only predicts someone’s ideological and cultural values; as Lilliana Mason observes, party affiliation is increasingly a strong predictor of someone’s religion, race, ethnicity, gender and the type of neighbourhood they live in.

 This sorting of partisanship into a “mega-identity” has deep implications. As Ezra Klein has noted, “when you activate one [identity] you often activate all, and each time they’re activated, they strengthen”.


By contrast, there is a much weaker sense of party political identity in the UK today than there is in the US. Yet the consolidation of longstanding cultural identities into strong Brexit identities, and, in turn, the increasing alignment of Brexit and party-political identities, could provide the conditions for more all-encompassing division.

So, while there are many important differences in context between the US and the UK – in party structures, the role of religion, demography, historical context among many others – there are also clear echoes in the debates we are currently having, where the UK could be at the early stages of a trend seen in the US in the 1980s and 1990s.

Top-down encouragement of cultural conflict will only exacerbate the problem. As US analysts outlined in the 1990s, whether or not the waging of a culture war represents a concerted political strategy, the outcome is the same.

Political leaders should instead be looking for appeals that connect worldviews, rather than divide. The US provides a vital case study in how the left playing to a “coalition of the ascendent” of younger, more diverse generations, and the right focusing attention on the extreme positions of “campus politics” to caricature the left, ends in fractious division, not a sustainable, decisive majority. We can still choose a different path.

Professor Bobby Duffy is Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London.

Dr Kirstie Hewlett is a Research Associate at the Policy Institute.

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