Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections)

The Battles That Define America from Jefferson's Heresies to Gay Marriage

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Stephen Prothero
  • New York, NY: 
    , January
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


One senses, in the original January 2016 publication of Stephen Prothero's Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): The Battles That Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage, an effort at timely historical reassurance in the face of what was shaping up to be an unusually Manichaean electoral showdown. If that election's forces of light and darkness (choose your side) seemed especially clearly drawn, this book—from its very title—suggested it had ever been so. On the near side of Donald Trump's victory, HarperOne has subtly adjusted the title for the book's paperback release; Why Liberals Win (Even When They Lose Elections): How America's Raucous, Nasty, and Mean "Culture Wars" Make for a More Inclusive Nation puts a somewhat finer point on the problem, and more explicitly highlights the good that acrimonious public discourse can produce.

Whether or not readers are willing to be consoled, the outline of Prothero's argument is persuasive, and his narrative of culture wars past will be useful for general readers and specialists alike. He lays out considerable evidence for the case that "conservatives"—whose common feature across three centuries has been a nostalgic allegiance to vanishing ways of life, real or imagined—have consistently been overwhelmed by more vital forces of pluralism and inclusivity. The struggle over Thomas Jefferson's presidential candidacy in 1800 staked a claim for a broad democracy that could not be controlled by a small caste of urban elites (though it also introduced religion as a potent wedge issue in American politics). Catholicism was viewed by Protestant Americans as an antidemocratic and foreign force until the US Catholic population became so large (and demonstrably American) that prejudice fizzled. Mormons, after yielding on the doctrine of polygamy, quickly went from being exotic outcasts to quintessential Americans. Prohibition, at the moment of its greatest political triumph, collapsed under the impossible task of enforcing a narrowly White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant moral code. And contemporary culture warriors from the 1960s through the present failed to achieve any meaningful rollback of liberalizing trends in school integration, secularization of the public sphere, or sexual freedom.

Through these five episodes, Prothero compellingly sets out the shared features of culture wars as he sees them: they are large-scale, public disputes that engage questions of morality and religion; they are initiated by conservatives eager to preserve a traditional way of life, real or imagined; they hinge on questions of American identity, as well as the identities of people properly called "American"; they are fought with an absolutist fervor that casts adversaries as agents of evil. And most important, they almost inevitably fall out in liberals' favor. By their nature, Prothero argues, culture wars are lost before they are begun; they are rear-guard actions that rage impotently against economic and demographic changes (and, downstream from those, cultural and social changes) that have already arrived. At the end of each struggle, a new, more inclusive consensus becomes the norm; paradoxically, the atavistic spasms of cultural warfare push the nation toward a better articulation of pluralistic belonging.

Few will disagree that a defining feature of American history has been a pattern of mutual accommodation between "outsiders" and "insiders." Newcomers arrive, are viewed with suspicion, and are eventually subsumed, enlarging in the process the range of acceptable ways of being "American." The history of American Christianity alone contains countless examples of peripheral groups who have been absorbed so thoroughly into the center of American life that their former status as outsiders is remembered only by historians; not just Catholics and Mormons, but also Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples, Pentecostals, and many more have made their way in from the margins.

But it seems fair to ask, given the broad scope and sanguine tone of the book's title, how far Prothero's model might take today's anxious multiculturalist. Some conflicts, especially ones animated by racial prejudice, seem less obviously to follow Prothero's reliable pattern of accommodation leading to equality. My small city in California approaches the Trumpian nightmare of "taco trucks on every corner," and few residents would have it otherwise. But clearly there are also many here who are untroubled by the thought that Latinos should be a permanent underclass, subject to diminished opportunities in education, unequal representation in government, and high rates of incarceration. The struggle for equality waged by many non-white Americans is now entering its fifth century, and it is not clear how far the general public's acceptance of their music, food, religion, or fashion—their culture—moves them toward the goal. Prothero's culture wars have reactionary conservatism collapsing like a wet cardboard box, its moralizing nostalgia yielding to the more substantial realities of population change and associated religio-cultural adjustments. Perhaps the long-burning fires of racial antagonism are being extinguished by those same forces, but the book mostly steers around that question; readers are left to wonder whether the liberalizing effects of culture wars can touch the deepest fractures, the most vested interests, in American life.

Today, more than ever, one can imagine cultural divisions that are simply intractable, arising from our basic economic and political situation, unsusceptible to resolution by the steady continued operation of the American democratic-capitalistic machine. The curious reader will want to know, then, if Americans have consistently chosen inclusivity, as Prothero observes—indeed, if they have been repeatedly pushed into a more inclusive cultural order—what are the forces doing the pushing? An allegiance to democratic "first principles"? a religious culture that engages in critical self-examination, as David Hollinger has proposed? the brass-tack realities of globalization and neoliberal economics? Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars does not hazard many guesses. But what those forces are, how they operate, how long they will continue to operate—these are becoming the existential questions of liberal democracy. In a book that is accessible, lively, and suggestive, Prothero leads readers right to the edge of those questions, giving them incisive tools for evaluating (not to say surviving) culture wars to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Sizer is Assistant Director of the Gaede Insittute for the Liberal Arts at Westmont College.

Date of Review: 
March 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen Prothero is the New York Times bestselling author of Religious Literacyand God Is Not One and a professor of religion at Boston University. His work has been featured on the cover of TIME magazine, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, NPR, and other top national media outlets. He writes and reviews for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, The Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Salon, Slate,and other publications. Visit the author at www.stephenprothero.com or follow his tweets @sprothero.


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