Culture Wars, Book-Banning, and Identity Politics: Symptoms of a Crumbling Democracy?
America today is deeply divided on social issues ranging from racial justice movements like Black Lives Matter to book banning in schools. (Teemu Paananen/Unsplash)
America today is one of the most divided nations in the world, according to Pew Research Center. Among 17 countries in Europe, Asia, and North America, Americans were “most likely to say their society was split along partisan, racial, and ethnic lines”, with the U.S. also being one of five countries in which more than half the public said their fellow citizens can’t agree on basic facts.
Where we stand today in terms of political polarization is the culmination of several controversial social movements and debates about Black Lives Matter, affirmative action, parental rights in education, the legitimacy of the 2020 election, the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and more. The increasing presence of identity politics within the political realm as well as workplaces and schools has also meant a long-awaited battle for inclusion for some, and unnecessary and divisive debates on race and sexuality for others, further fueling ongoing culture wars. Fears over what is being taught in the classroom, from the Critical Race Theory to gender identity, have inflamed much of the nation in fierce debate, leading many school districts to ban or censor books at a higher rate than any other time in recent history. So how and why has America become a breeding ground for fear, mistrust, and disagreement, and will we be able to reconcile our diverging perspectives before our democracy crumbles?
What is a Culture War?
The definition of a culture war is fiercely debated and is frequently applied during debates about hot-button social issues including social justice, racism, feminism, and LGBTQ+ rights. It now serves largely as an umbrella term, encapsulating the ongoing clash between American citizens over contemporary issues, primarily taking part on various social media platforms.
Conflicts in America’s ongoing culture war have led to violence, political polarization, and the rampant spread of misinformation. To some, the increasingly obvious divide between political parties and growing mistrust in government institutions indicate the crumbling of our democracy.
“Democracy, in my view, is an agreement that we will not kill each other over our differences, but instead we’ll talk through those differences. And part of what’s troubling is that I’m beginning to see signs of the justification for violence,” says James Hunter, an American sociologist credited with inventing the term “Culture Wars”. “Culture wars always precede shooting wars. They don’t necessarily lead to a shooting war, but you never have a shooting war without a culture war prior to it, because culture provides the justifications for violence.”
Indeed, Hunter saw the insurrection of January 6th, 2020, where a mob of Donald Trump supporters sieged the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election as the first shots in the physical realization of America’s culture war. The lingering reluctance to accept the 2020 election results among some conservatives across America indicated a larger epidemic of fear-mongering by politicians and misleading narratives pushed by mainstream media channels.
Culture wars have also reached even the upper echelons of the American judicial system. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was asked several questions relating to race and Critical Race Theory during her confirmation, to the ire of many Democrats. Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn falsely claimed that Jackson would utilize CRT as an important resource when making decisions on the Supreme Court. Jackson was later confirmed as the first black woman on the United States Supreme Court by the Senate, despite opposition by many Republicans. The tumultuous confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barett, nominated by former President Donald Trump, also included many probes into her conservative religious background that some felt would influence her decisions on the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has critiqued the highly politicized criticisms of the Supreme Court Justices, largely blaming cancel culture as the culprit. “You can cavalierly talk about packing or stacking the court. You can cavalierly talk about doing this or doing that. At some point the institution is going to be compromised,” he stated.“By doing this, you continue to chip away at the respect of the institutions that the next generation is going to need if they’re going to have civil society,” A few months after these remarks, the Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, a landmark 1973 ruling that gave American women the right to abortion, led to nationwide protest and further scrutiny of the Supreme Court Justices.
Higher education is also a battleground for culture wars, especially revolving around identity politics. College campuses have also become fraught with debate over affirmative action and equity, with some decrying affirmative action itself as racist, with others saying affirmative action prevents racism. A brief submitted by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard and the University of North Carolina over affirmative action within their college admissions processes. The brief, which is now being reviewed by the Supreme Court, argued that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants and gives unfair advantages to black and Latino applicants.
Harvard released a brief rejecting this assertion, stating “Nothing in the text of history of the Fourteenth Amendment suggests that universities must uniquely exclude race from the multitude of factors considered in assembling a class of students best able to learn from each other.” The brief also stated that Harvard’s admission process complies with past Court rulings that permit the consideration of race in college admissions.
UNC submitted a brief with similar arguments, and lower courts ruled in favor of both colleges. However, many believe that the newly Conservative-dominated Supreme Court may reconsider these rulings. Some fear that if affirmative action is scrapped, enrollment of minority students will drop significantly, reducing diversity on college campuses. Others, however, believe that college admissions should be race-blind, only determined by a student’s academic or athletic merit.
Meanwhile, other states including California have already voted to end race consideration in college admissions. A ban passed in 1996 prevented colleges from including race in considered factors for admissions, leading to the percentages of black and Latino students at prestigious colleges like UCLA plummeting. In 2006, the freshmen class of 5,000 students contained just 96 African-Americans. Since then, UCLA has taken minor steps by using a “holistic review” of applicants, which considers racial background as a factor. Newly proposed legislation called Proposition 16 would also strike the ban on race-conscious college admissions if instituted, ending the state’s 24-year ban on affirmative action.
“I think the holistic review process that considers race and ethnicity is a small step toward addressing the problem of underrepresentation of historically disadvantaged groups. I don’t think it’s enough, but it’s better than not having race and ethnicity considered at all.” said UCLA Asian American Studies Center director Karen Umemoto. Still, affirmative action remains highly controversial as critics fear it overemphasizes race in the analysis of an applicant and pits minority applicants against each other.
Others have noticed the infiltration of cancel culture into college campuses. Gordon Klein, a professor at UCLA’s Andersen School of Management was fired after refusing to give African-American students higher grades in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Klein received death threats for months following this refusal. In 2016, in a highly-publicized controversy at Yale University, professor Nicholas Christakis resigned after an email about culturally insensitive Halloween costumes went viral. The email, written by his wife Erika, included a segment where Christakis suggested students “look away, or tell them you are offended” if they come across a racist costume. Christakis’s resignation signaled a move in the right direction for accountability and inclusion on college campuses for some, an assault on free speech for others.
How did we get here?
While political partisanship and disagreement have always been a major part of any democracy, tensions between parties rose to a new extreme under the presidency of Donald Trump. Trump, a former businessman known for his controversial and startling comments regarding women and immigrants. Prior to the tumultuous 2020 election, 80% of registered Democrats and Republicans stated that their differences with the other side were about core American values, while roughly 90% stated that a victory by the opposing party would cause “lasting harm” to the United States, according to Pew Research Center.
This division during the COVID-19 pandemic caused the deaths of 6.44 million people worldwide. Ant-vax conspiracies spread rapidly online, causing some to doubt the effectiveness and purpose of COVID-19 vaccines. School lockdowns and virtual learning sparked outrage as some felt children were being denied quality education and forced to wear masks. Yet, Americans regarded the government’s handling of the pandemic in dramatically different ways. According to Pew Research Center, 76% of Republicans felt the U.S. had done a good job dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to 29% of people who did not identify with the Republican party. This widely divergent viewpoint led many to believe that the U.S. had reached the zenith of political polarization as Americans fundamentally disagreed on how to manage public health disasters. 77% of Americans believed the country was more divided after the pandemic than before, according to Pew Research Center.
Americans were also deeply divided over racial justice movements in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May of 2020. When a video of policeman Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over 9 minutes was widely circulated on social media, protests broke out across the country. In some major cities, protests led to property destruction and physical conflicts between protesters and police. In Minneapolis, a police precinct was set on fire, while police tear-gassed protests in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Madison, Wisconsin. The National Guard was activated in 28 states to stop violent looting and arson. In some locations, peaceful protesters exercising their constitutional right to protest were beaten and fired upon by officers.
A few months after the murder, policeman Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 21 years in federal prison, while his three colleagues who were present during the murder were also tried and convicted on charges of manslaughter. The Black Lives Matter movement that increased media scrutiny of police nationwide was countered by the All Lives Matter Movement, which deemed the motto “black lives matter” as divisive. The All Lives Matter movement was supported by several high-profile politicians, including former President Donald Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence, and prominent conservatives including Rudy Guiliani. While the impacts of the Black Lives Matter and the All Live Matter movements are yet to be fully realized, both social movements signify the wider racial reckoning and culture wars Americans are experiencing.
Book-Bannings and Censorship Plague Schools, Libraries
In another branch of the ongoing culture war, libraries across the nation are now facing unprecedented book bannings. According to the American Library Association, in 2021 there were 729 book challenges attempting to ban 1,579 books, which is double the amount in 2020. The titles being targeted mainly involved sensitive topics including racism, LGBTQ+ identities, and gender.
In 2021, the ten most challenged books were “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, “Lawn Boy” by Jonothan Evison, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, “Out of Darkness” by Ashely Perez, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” by Jesse Andrews, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson, and “Beyond Magenta” by Susan Kuklin. Other historically banned classics that have been re-censored include “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, and “1984” by George Orwell.
In Tennessee, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic memoir “Maus” was voted unanimously to be removed from the McMinn County School Board to be removed from the school curriculum. Elected representatives have also had an increasing role in book banning. South Carolina governor Henry McMaster and Florida governor Ron DeSantis both criticized the book “Gender Queer”, with McMaster calling the book’s content on sexuality “obscene”. In an effort to increase transparency, DeSantis signed a bill into law that required schools to make all assigned books available for parental review.
For some, the inclusion of supposedly age-inappropriate books for children must be countered by increased parental involvement in education. Groups including Moms for Liberty have taken action to increase the voice of parents in school curriculums to counter books that contain sexual or violent content. Moms for Liberty is a Florida-based parents' rights group that was born out of parents’ anxieties over the “indoctrination” of children in schools across America. The grassroots organization has grown to 200 chapters with 100,000 members in 40 states, all working towards giving parents a voice in their children’s education. Much of their efforts today are to work with elected officials to supervise what types of books can be read in schools and libraries. Moms for Liberty has been recognized by several high-profile officials, including Ron DeSantis, who lauded their efforts to work with school PTA’s to review books before they reach the classroom. DeSantis was also widely criticized and celebrated for signing a law into effect that banned discussion about gender identity and sexual identity in kindergarten through third grade, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by progressives.
The Moms for Liberty chapter in Kitsap County, Washington recently criticized the frequently-banned book “Gender Queer”, with Chapter chair Joy Gjservold calling the book “pornographic”. She criticized the high school teacher who taught passages of the book to students “with no warning to parents '.
“There was no consideration given that parents’ religious beliefs might say they don’t want them reading things like that. We’re not trying to ban books. We’re just trying to have it age-appropriate.” Gjersvold said.
Book banning and censorship movements have been widely condemned by librarians, activists, and politicians. “By attacking these books, by attacking the authors, by attacking the subject matter, what they are doing is removing the possibility for conversation,” said author Laurie Halse Anderson, whose novel “Speak” has been widely banned for its depiction of sexual assault. Without access to books that deal with sensitive issues, real conversation cannot take place. “You are laying the groundwork for increasing bullying, disrespect, violence, and attacks.”
Some worry that librarians and educators will be unfairly penalized for their curriculums due to increased scrutiny of the books read in schools. “The politicization of the topic is what's different than what I’ve seen in the past,” said the chief executive of content at Follett School Solutions, Britten Follett. “It’s being driven by legislation, it’s being driven by politicians aligning with one side or the other. And in the end, the librarian, teacher or educator is getting caught in the middle.”
What is Next?
In his first speech as president-elect, Joe Biden promised to defend America’s democracy and address many of the social issues that have embroiled America in a culture war.
"America is rising anew. Choosing hope over fear. Truth over lies. Light over darkness. After 100 days of rescue and renewal, America is ready for take-off. We are working again. Dreaming again. Discovering again. Leading the world again." President Joe Biden said, before outlining his plans for police accountability, COVID-19 relief bills, and restoring faith in the government. He called on politicians to stop making teachers “targets of culture wars”.
Despite these promises, it is unclear what direction America will turn toward with increasingly contentious debates about new issues including the war in Ukraine, US-China relations, and the investigation of former President Trump’s actions in office. Whether the culture war will end in further conflict or reconciliation is yet to be seen.
Sources & Further Reading