When the sociologist James Davison Hunter popularised the term “culture war” in the early 1990s, his chief concern was the conflict between the evangelical right and the progressive left in the United States. Back then, abortion was the pre-eminent issue, and the conflict was primarily within the white middle and upper-middle classes. Three decades on, the battleground has got bigger, as has the number of combatants.
In a recent interview, Davison Hunter suggested that the Great Recession of 2008 has driven an economic wedge between the upper middle class – composed of university-educated professionals – and the lower-middle and working classes, “basically” as he puts it, “between the top 20 percent and the bottom 80 percent”.
This bottom 80 per cent are feeling the pinch, which is producing anxiety, resentment, and a well-documented flocking to political movements often described (perhaps dismissively) as “populist”: Trumpism, the Leave campaign, and the gilets jaunes in France. And while these movements are primarily concerned with jobs and borders, they’re also concerned with cultural symbolism.
Western societies in 2021 are no longer experiencing merely a culture war, says Davison Hunter, but rather “a kind of class-culture conflict”, with cultural divisions mapping onto economic ones. Although the correlation is not perfect – there are, of course, rich conservatives and poor progressives – the old Marxist slogan has it roughly right: There’s No War but the Class War.
Most days, events on the news have a culture-war inflection: fans booing England footballers for taking the knee, academics at Oriel College, Oxford, protesting in support of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, and postgraduate students at nearby Magdalen College voting to remove a photo of the Queen from their common room. The sequence of events is always much the same: the 20 per cent make some gesture in pursuit of moral leadership, the 80 per cent respond with anger at the perceived insult to their values, and so the cycle continues.
These are the kinds of incidents guaranteed to set Twitter and talk radio alight, because the media-consuming public find culture-war issues reliably interesting. GB News, the right-leaning news channel that launched recently, is trying to cultivate this interest, for instance by including a regular segment entitled “Woke Watch”.
Some commentators resent this media attention and it has become voguish among progressives to preface the term “culture war” with a modifier such as “fabricated” or “phoney”. Earlier this year, the Labour Party joined this effort, accusing the Conservatives of “manufacturing” a culture war over free speech on campus in order to distract from government failures in the pandemic.
I’m more than willing to believe that ministers are acting cynically, but we have to ask why such a strategy would be expedient for a Conservative government. One highly partisan narrative explains this in terms of the “right” and “wrong” sides of history: the evil, Leave- and Ukip-voting “gammons” versus the righteous wokerati.
But if we think of this as a class-culture conflict, rather than purely a cultural one, then the government’s strategy is more readily understood. Never forget that the bestselling newspapers in this country are the Sun and the Daily Mail. The media leans right because the public leans right.
[see also: Why the UK government’s “war on woke” is failing]
The Conservatives are pursuing an anti-woke agenda because they know that it resonates with voters. The problem for the progressive 20 per cent is that although they control some influential sectors of society – principally academia, publishing, and charities – they are on the back foot in sectors such as politics and the media where the public has a greater voice and so the 80 per cent hold sway.
This is why the Labour Party is in a bind. Many culture war issues are ridiculous – it isn’t dignified to fuss over pronouns, statues, and renditions of “Rule Britannia” – but unfortunately these conflicts have substance because they act as proxies for material issues. Blue passports may not matter, but immigration policy definitely does, and on this question the 20 per cent and the 80 per cent have different sets of economic interests.
Whenever a class-culture issue hits the news – which is most days – Labour must choose its signalling strategy. Unfortunately for the party, however, its activist base is dominated by the 20 per cent whose instincts are not aligned with those of most voters in this country.
Typically, these activists are unwilling to recognise their own role in whipping up a conflict that is symmetrical in its process of escalation, forgetting that any act of progressive provocation will inevitably be met with acts of conservative backlash, in an endless tit-for-tat. Both sides have provocateurs who entrench polarisation, whether they are newspaper columnists such as Owen Jones and Richard Littlejohn, or radio hosts such as James O’Brien and Nigel Farage.
Keir Starmer has struggled to negotiate this conflict. At times he appeals to the 80 per cent by insisting that the party ought to be “patriotic and proud of it”, but at others he aligns with the progressives within Labour. He was photographed taking the knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, despite this gesture being unpopular among some voters.
For Labour, accusing the government of “manufacturing” the culture war does not offer a route out, because while the Tories may be cynically exploiting the conflict, they did not create it. The superficial squabbling conceals a class conflict that is in fact deeply serious. And it is very difficult for politicians to remain neutral when the question is not so much “which side are you on?”, but rather, “Whose side?”
This article appears in the 23 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us