The Chronicle Review

Occupy Wall Street: a New Culture War?

Spencer Heyfron, Redux

Tea Party Express supporters rally in Detroit.
November 12, 2011

American punditry, it seems, needs to make sense of Occupy Wall Street in familiar terms. Highlighting the differences between the movement that started in New York City in September and the Tea Party that has engrossed the nation since 2009, The New York Times recently proclaimed, "It's a culture war, young versus old, left versus right, communal food tables versus 'Don't Tread on Me' flags." Rush Limbaugh's mean-spirited labels for the Wall Street demonstrators—"pure, genuine parasites," "bored trust-fund kids"—however off the mark, resonate because he, too, is speaking the language of the culture wars.

For those of us who support the protesters (I count myself an unmitigated enthusiast), refracting the movement through the lens of the culture wars is a vile misrepresentation. By focusing on caricatures of pot-smoking, drumbeating hippies, instead of on the economic messages related to the "We are the 99 percent" meme, some in the media appear to be redirecting the national debate away from what unites us and toward what divides us.

Of course, conservatives might think such treatment a comeuppance for the liberal condescension that greeted the emergence of the Tea Party. Focusing on cultural differences is often the preferred method for analyzing that movement, a form mastered by Bill Maher, for whom "teabaggers" are the butt of endless sneering jokes. Similarly, if less crudely, the Harvard University historian Jill Lepore, author of The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History (2010), focuses more on how the Tea Party misappropriates the ideas and aesthetic regalia of 18th-century American revolutionaries than on analyzing the historical and ideological foundations of its grievances.

In short, though the culture wars have been pronounced dead on several occasions, such as on September 11, 2001, and again on November 4, 2008, the night Barack Obama won the presidency, the culture-wars paradigm persists in polarizing American political debate. This polarization helps us to understand the response to Occupy Wall Street, or, perhaps more compelling, the differences between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party.

No one definition can fit phenomenon as protean as the culture wars. For simplicity's sake, call them the shouting matches that dominated headlines during the 1980s and 90s: controversies over religion, education, art, history, affirmative action, abortion, the family, even the images through which we defined ourselves. Those debates, a legacy of the tumultuous 1960s, joined the nation's continuing efforts to articulate what it means to be an American.

But they also scrambled political allegiances. The many "tribes of America," in the journalist Paul Cowan's apt descriptor for the numerous solidarities that dotted the American landscape, were polarized into two great camps: conservative versus liberal, orthodox versus secular, traditionalist versus progressive, and, the latest iteration, red versus blue. As Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell have shown in their book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010), while interfaith tolerance has risen, so too have religion and politics meshed in polarizing ways. Whereas the degree to which people were religious in the 1950s had little bearing on whether they identified as Democrat or Republican, today it matters greatly: The more religious people are, the more likely they are to vote Republican. Conversely, people who identify as conservative but not religious gravitate toward religion because they find like-minded people in houses of worship. The same goes for liberals who are quitting religion, and atheists who are quitting the Republican Party. That is the culture-wars dialectic.

That dialectic, however, has too often been oversimplified. Thomas Frank's 2004 best seller, What's the Matter With Kansas?, for example, posits that cultural or religious conservatives often vote against their own economic interests because of their irrational obsession with the culture wars. In other words, economic issues are real, cultural issues are ephemeral; those who organize their political thinking around economic issues are rational; those who do so around cultural issues, irrational.

At first glance, that kind of thesis might seem convincing in light of conservative attempts to slander Occupy Wall Street as an anti-American counterculture. But one of the reasons the culture wars act as a powerful agent of political polarization is that they have brought together economic and cultural issues in new and profound ways.

Consider how traditionalists often take conservative, antistatist economic positions that would have shocked forebears such as William Jennings Bryan. Pro-family activists in the early 20th century blamed market forces for disrupting traditional life. But by the 1970s, cultural conservatives increasingly blamed the state, supposedly beholden to feminists who sought subsidized child-care centers and welfare policies that encouraged out-of-wedlock childbearing. Similarly, activists on the religious right, frustrated with the secularization of public schools that was codified by U.S. Supreme Court decisions outlawing class prayers in school and preventing the teaching of creationism, saw the state as the enemy of religion and family. Their newfound antistatism situated them smack-dab in a Republican coalition that sought to dismantle the New Deal order.

Increasingly after the 1960s, conservatives interpreted liberal movements such as "women's liberation" as both hostile to traditional family values and dangerously anticapitalist. The author Midge Decter captured this conflation in her 1972 rebuke of feminism, The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women's Liberation. Decter contended that modern American women had it better than ever in their newfound abilities to secure gainful employment and control pregnancy through birth control. And yet they feared their new freedoms, she wrote, because with them came new responsibilities in the competitive world of capitalism. In faulting feminists for shirking the responsibilities of living in capitalist America, Decter's cultural critique of feminism doubled as a defense of capitalism.

Responsibility became sacrosanct for conservative culture warriors. Today's anti-abortionists are not merely pro-life but also pro-responsibility. As Robert Bork wrote, abortion is "a way for women to escape the idea that biology is destiny, and from the tyranny of the family role." Similarly, conservative racial discourse has morphed from the overt racism of white Southerners who sought to uphold Jim Crow into a colorblind rhetoric of individual merit and hard work, which shapes attacks on affirmative action.

Americans have long subscribed to political language—some call it populist—that separates those who earn their way from those who do not. At various historical moments, especially the Great Depression, a rapacious corporate elite has been assigned the role of leeches, thus enabling redistributive economic policies. At other moments, like the current culture wars, poor people, blacks, feminists, immigrants, and assorted "others" are described as parasites, hindering reform. Cultural description tends to match economic prescription, such as with the appropriately titled federal welfare-reform legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.

Replicating this decades-old culture-war paradigm, many conservatives and pundits view the Wall Street protesters as envious ingrates looking for government handouts because they fear responsibility. As a widely distributed statement by one Tea Party group put it, demonstrators want "a bigger more powerful government to come in and take care of them so they don't have to work like the rest of us who pay our bills." That framework shapes the "I am the 53 percent" backlash (53 representing the percentage of Americans who pay income tax, a figure that ignores other forms of taxes levied). One of the "53 percent" message-based images that went viral, in an appropriation of a clever Occupy Wall Street tactic, admonishes the protesters to "suck it up you whiners." In other words, earning your way is the American way!

Superficially, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party have a few traits in common: Both were provoked by the worst economy since the 1930s; both evince a shared belief that an undeserving minority is pulling a fast one on the hard-working majority; and Ron Paul supporters can be found in both camps.

But differences outweigh similarities. Tea Party conservatives believe that individuals are responsible for their own successes and failures. The Tea Party sprang to life after the CNBC business reporter Rick Santelli's on-air rant that a government plan to relieve foreclosed-upon homeowners would be the equivalent of taxpayers' bailing out "losers." In contrast, Occupy Wall Street activists seem to believe inequality is historically and socially structured and, thus, as things now stand, that most individuals have little say over their life chances. Both of those ideological positions flow from deeply held cultural assumptions that were solidified while fighting out the culture wars in the 1980s and 90s.

The American political future is wide open. The model of the culture wars need not continue to shape the debate that the Wall Street protesters have generously given us. Perhaps we are due for a paradigm shift. In the 1930s, in the context of economic crisis, the cultural struggles of the 1920s—opposition to evolution and biblical criticism, Prohibition, anti-Semitism—were not settled but remolded. A new model took hold. That could happen again.

The high-profile U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts has become a culture-war battle over the meaning of Occupy Wall Street. The Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren, seeking the nomination as a Democrat, embraces the protests, consistent with her outspoken criticism of economic inequality; Republicans seek to smear her as being in league with radicals, intimating that she is repeating mistakes made by Democrats who sided with antiwar protesters in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Explicitly rehashing old bugaboos, Warren and the Wall Street protesters have been lumped together as "McGovernites." In 1972, Richard Nixon won a landslide against a candidate said to represent "acid, abortion, and amnesty." Culture-war boundaries were drawn then. Will those lines remain firm?

Andrew Hartman is an associate professor of history at Illinois State University and president of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He is author of Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). He is writing A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, From the 1960s to the Present, to be published by the University of Chicago Press.