Mises Wire

Government Is the Hidden Hand Directing the Culture Wars

Recent data from the Pew Research Center shows that from 1994 to 2022, Americans’ views of opposing political parties became increasingly negative. In 1994, only 21 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats held “very unfavorable” views of the other party. In 2022, that category rose to 62 percent for Republicans and 54 percent for Democrats. If we include those who hold “unfavorable” views, then over 80 percent of both Republicans and Democrats have negative views of the other party.

One of the many undesirable effects of this polarization is an environment in which anything can become a political lightning rod. Whether it involves Dr. Seuss books, Mr. Potato Head, or the Barbie movie, controversy seems to lurk around every societal corner. Nothing is safe, nothing is sacred, and anything can be weaponized by one political factor against another. The term often used to describe this perpetual conflict is “culture war”—a depressingly apt term. But through all the angry tweets, op-eds, and “cancel” campaigns, few ask about where these culture wars come from and whether we can end them.

While a complex social event is never the product of just one factor, culture wars generally emerge from one group of people using some form of power to pressure another group into changing its beliefs or behavior. The pressured group may fight back and cause the pressuring group to redouble its efforts. This cycle, if it continues, can broaden into a full-blown culture war.

What does this dynamic look like in practice? Imagine a country where a group of ice cream fanatics decide to make every citizen eat more ice cream. They might try to pass legislation that favors eating ice cream, attack and shame ice cream skeptics, and encourage eating ice cream as a social norm. They would probably win converts, but they would also make enemies (especially the lactose intolerant!). Those who do not wish to eat ice cream would react negatively and maybe try to push an anti–ice cream agenda. Soon, an ice cream culture war could break out, each side pressuring the other to conform to its beliefs.

The catalyst of a culture war is the pressure exerted by one group on another to adopt its ways of thinking and acting. But why do groups elect to use force on others to spread their viewpoints? Prima facie, there is no strong incentive to resort to aggressive evangelism. Societies are built through cooperation, even between those who disagree. The baker sells his bread to members of his political party as well as the opposing party. If he sold bread only to customers who adopted his political beliefs, the market would turn on him. The same incentive to cooperate exists for groups motivated by ideology. While it is certainly in their interest to add to their ranks, doing so in an aggressive and forceful manner is likely to work against them.

The state does not obey the same social norms as its citizens; its injunctions are not optional but coercive in nature. More importantly, such coercion (e.g., taxation, legislation, and law enforcement) does not exist in a vacuum but aims to achieve various ends. Interest groups looking to spread their beliefs can redirect state power to their own purposes. This may involve anything from getting a subsidy for an ideologically friendly company to using state-enforced censorship against ideological enemies.

As the power and reach of a state grows, so too do the opportunities to direct that power. In terms of total spending, the federal government of the United States is the largest in history. It is no coincidence that now, when the power of the state is greater than ever, culture wars are raging all around us. These conflicts are occurring not because people are deciding to fight with one another but because they are compelled to. If there were only free and voluntary associations, then alternative beliefs could coexist. There would be no need to promote, for example, one lifestyle over another, because everyone could live how they see fit.

But state power removes all choice and variety. As the state increases its control over domains like public school curricula and corporate subsidies, fewer ideas and directions are given a chance to succeed. Culture wars fester within such narrowing policy confines because values and beliefs are either represented or excluded.

Conflicts instigated through state power always spill into other areas of society. When the political representation or exclusion of one’s beliefs is at stake, a culture war can become an environment in which any means of defense seems fair game. Social institutions, corporations, and popular media can all be weaponized and wielded against one’s enemies. The result is as familiar as it is exhausting: unending conflict and controversy, with every institution, organization, and event in society politicized and nowhere to hide from the unceasing cross fire.

Culture wars are not created solely by the state, but a state with too much power makes them inevitable. High-minded sentiments about “having conversations” and “understanding the beliefs of others” might sound like appealing options for cooling the tensions of a culture war, but they gravely underestimate the scope of the problem. No amount of civil discussion will remove the divisions created by state power. Until that power is destroyed—or, at the very least, greatly diminished—the culture wars will continue.

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