Have Conservatives Lost the Culture War?


Joanna Schroeder agrees that culture influences politics more than we have understood in the past, and wonders how we can help create the culture and society we desire.

We know the Conservatives lost the election, but have they also lost the culture war?

An article in The Week by Matt K. Lewis insists that it’s true. And as he sees it, losing the culture war is what’s caused Conservatives to lose in politics, too.

In recent months, it has been especially depressing to be a conservative. In the past, one could more easily endure the ranting of liberal commentators by taking solace that — outside of New York City and Washington, D.C. — most of the country was center-right. Thus, whenever an elite liberal commentator said something fringy, one could always console himself by saying (or at least thinking): “I hope you push that idea, because you’ll keep losing elections in real America.”

Today, conservatives have made a shocking discovery: They are the ones in danger of appearing out of touch with middle America.

Yes, the culture of America is changing. When I stop and think about it, progress in LGBT issues alone has been stunning. Of course, we have a long way to go to create a nation where everyone is considered equal regardless of sexual orientation, gender, or gender expression, but considering where we were 25 years ago, or even 10 years ago, the progress is remarkable.

When I was a kid in the late 80s, a teacher in my hometown lost his job because he was gay. Not because of inappropriate behavior or being bad at his job. In fact, he was a skilled and beloved educator. It was purely out of hate and fear.

Now the President and VP both endorse same-sex marriage. And what was one of the reasons Vice President Joe Biden gave for learning to accept the validity of same-sex partnerships? The television show Will & Grace! Yes, a primetime TV show about dysfunctional but lovable goofballs—two of whom were gay—changed our Vice President’s understanding of what it means to be gay.

The idea of same-sex marriage was simply ridiculous 25 years ago, and now it’s truly mainstream. That’s a huge cultural shift, and hopefully even more acceptance will help protect our LGBT youth from the bullying that still happens in schools.

But it obviously isn’t same-sex marriage that Lewis outlines directly as the cause of this shift he so maligns. It is the overall degrading of the family unit. Citing the fact that 40 percent of children are born “out of wedlock” Lewis writes:

Democracy, of course, requires individuals who are moral and responsible. Strong families are the cure for much of what ails us. You pick the problem, and stronger families would probably render the solution moot. Consider a recent debate: We can put warning labels on violent games and movies, but that won’t replace mom and dad being involved in their children’s lives and being aware of what they are watching.

Conservatives have largely lost the culture, and it can’t be won back by passing some landmark piece of legislation. Instead, it’s going to be a long, hard slog.

Yes, the statement above is abhorrent for a number of reasons, mainly that single parent families (or unmarried parent families, like the one my own children were born into) are not as capable of raising moral children. Anyone else want to raise a hand and explain how disgustingly off-base Lewis is in this attack upon the non-traditional family for being irresponsible or amoral?

Lots of us would. Including President Obama, I assume. And any other legislator, Liberal or Conservative who was raised in a non-traditional family.

But that’s sort of beside the point. Lewis is correct about one thing, culture has more influence than politics—for better or for worse.

Because of that, it is crucial that there are many of us in this world who are actively working to create a culture that represents what we want—more tolerance, more compassion, more acceptance, more protection from violence, more diversity, more health and wellness for everybody, and more opportunities for our kids to grow and learn.

This reminds me of last year, when Huggies featured advertising about lazy doofus dads who bumbled about with their kids, obviously inferior to the moms in the family. A group of dad-bloggers, including a few here at GMP, were outraged and raised their voices for all the millions of dads in this country who are incredibly capable, loving, engaged fathers…and who know how to use a diaper for heaven’s sake!

Huggies listened, sending representatives to the Dads 2.0 conference where they actually listened to the dads about their concerns and created a new ad campaign in response, featuring dads just like the competent ones you and I know.

It started with the dads and sites like The Good Men Project and it moved into the culture, aided by Huggies. Soon enough, politics will hopefully also shift to recognize the importance of dads in raising kids—in both traditional and non-traditional families.

Lisa Hickey believes The Good Men Project is, and will continue to be, central in this cultural shift:

We’re trying to divine the cultural changes at the moment they happen—through stories, through comments, through our own middle-of-the-night emails with each other. Add to that reflections of the bigger cultural stories happening at the moment, add to that our comments in GMP’s brand voice on news stories, as well as our sites partnerships with other bloggers and mainstream media. And THEN pushing what we see outward, so actions can be taken by politicians, social organizations, even brand advertisers like Huggies, who influence the way people see parenting.

It reminds us how crucial all of our voices are in this shift. How will we help turn the experiences of men in society into a way to make the world better for everybody? How can we best help grow empathy, compassion, acceptance and support for a diverse population?

Do you hold firm to the idea that politics can and does influence culture, or do you think that Lewis is correct?

How do you think we can best help our culture to create a society with more tolerance, health and safety?

What role do you think The Good Men Project should play in this cultural shift?

AP Photo/ J. Scott Applewhite

About Joanna Schroeder

Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and editor with a special focus in issues facing raising boys and gender in the media. Her work has appeared on Redbook, Yahoo!, xoJane, MariaShriver.com, TIME.com, and more. She and her husband are outdoor sports enthusiasts raising very active sons. She is currently co-editing a book of essays for boys and young men with author and advocate Jeff Perera. Follow her shenanigans on Twitter.


  1. There are many reasons why third parties don’t do well in American politics;too marginal to get enough support to win elections,too expensive to intro duce and maintain and perhaps most importantly, we have a winner take all election system vs a proportional one like in England.

  2. As a Buddhist, I’m skeptical of any change being permanent.

    The conservatism of the 50s happened in the context of the post war era, when former GIs dealt with the horrors of war by trying to keep a sense of order. As well, these were people who lived through the Depression, so they were also quite austere.

    The 80s were very much a return to conservatism (economic as well as social) after the perceived excesses of the 60s and 70s. It was the Baby Boomers who gave Reagan two terms.

    What bothers me is that people seem to be socially liberal but economically conservative. There can’t be true progress without both.

    • That’s funny, because when I think of the 80s, I think of excessive consumerism, not restraint in any sense.

      • There was a definite turn towards conservative social values in the 80s. The 80s were the time when the word postfeminist entered the public lexicon. Racism and sexism made a “comeback,” as it were.

        My point is that no social trend is permanent.

        • True, but there are longer progress arcs in human civilization than from wide ties to narrow ones and back again. I don’t see papyrus replacing the internet anytime soon, but who knows, it too could make a comeback.

          • Technological progress and social progress are not parallels.

            I would even argue that the Internet has in some ways harmed social progress. Too many people think of discourse on the Internet as inherently confrontational, leading to everyone becoming a troll. As well, there is a great temptation to filter one’s activity in such a way that our biases are confirmed – conservatives flock to conservative sites, while liberals flock to liberal sites.

            But in general, true social change requires vigilance that things won’t ever change back.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          “racism and sexism made a comeback”.
          Examples, please?

          • You’re kidding, right?

            Ronald Reagan was elected by capitalizing on the racist myth of the “welfare Queen.” Women were encouraged to ditch feminism as bad for getting a man. And let’s not even talk about homophobia in the wake of AIDS.

            The 80s were not a fun time for women, minorities or LGBT people.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      What bothers me is that people seem to be socially liberal but economically conservative. There can’t be true progress without both.

      Do you mean we need to be economically liberal? If so, please define/describe.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Heard some time ago that liberal couples average about 1.1 kid. Conservatives exactly replacement, 2.1, and conservative Christians 3.1.
    Then you figure about 80% remain in the families’ political/cultural stream, take the other 20% and split it up, half to each of the other possibilities….
    The future, as Mark Steyn says, belongs to those who show up for it.

  4. wellokaythen says:

    I think we’re going to see some re-alignments in the two-party system over the next decade or so. The grouping of “liberals” vs. “conservatives” may be falling apart, or at least shifting or making room for new subgroups. I’d say there are growing numbers of Americans who just don’t fit snugly into either of the two parties, and even the “big tent” doesn’t seem big enough. There are latino voters who are pro-immigration reform, pro-social welfare, anti-abortion, and pro-affirmative action. For heaven’s sake, Romney got about 20% of the gay vote. A lot of voters just don’t fall easily into one of the two categories.

    Also, if conservatives seem to be losing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that liberals are winning, at least not the 1960’s varieties. I’d say the same thing has happened with conservatives. 1980’s conservative ideas are struggling, but that will just mean that newer conservative ideologies will appear.

  5. I was watching the Melissa Harris Perry show and the subject of poor people came up…finally. It was noted that even though conservatives get saddled with the unfair to poor people label, politically speaking, democrats have done little to speak to the concerns of the poor. either. Right after the panel of -and it must be noted that they were feminists- nodded in agreement, they turned around and spun it so that the conservatives shouldered all of the blame. Imagine that?!

    In light of this and many other egregious oversights and hypocrisies, after a while the complaints of feminists about being treated unfairly just, though they may be true, are hard to hear.

  6. AnonymousDog says:

    “Social Conservatives” have only lost if they stop making valid criticisms of our social and political culture(s). Social liberals do not own the truth, nor do they have the sole vision of a good and just society.
    Our society was different in the past and some parts of it have changed because of the efforts of social liberal activists. Social conservative activists have the same opportunities to advocate social change, and, I would have to say, the same duty to advocate the social and cultural changes which they deem right.

    I find it amusing that a decade or two ago, many liberals were denying that there even was a culture war, they had thought their social vision was triumphant already back then. Now they are claiming to have won the culture war, but they have only won the most recent battle.

  7. In the long run, conservatives always lose every culture war. Society progresses, and they oppose it.

    Then they die off, and the next generation grows up wondering what all the fuss was about.

    • Not really. Again, social progress is not like technological progress. It is often cyclical, nt linear.

      Again, the example of the 80s: Baby boomers were upset to see that their children were more conservative than themselves – hence the popularity of Alex P. Keaton.

  8. I think it is unfair to say that Lewis is saying that ALL 40% of unwedded parents are individuals who are moral and responsible. It is more of an observation: there ARE more unwedded parents, and if you’re a single parent, it IS harder to be there for your child, especially if the other parent is completely absent. This doesn’t mean you can’t raise great kids. It just means that you have to be even stronger to build an even stronger family.

  9. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    My fear is that, to some extent, “liberal” is code for coastal, urban, and places like Ann Arbor or Madison and “conservative” is code for working class or rural. I share some attributes of both, although I’m probably more coastal. But I wonder if it’s code for a new sectionalism or classism (even.) To rural or working class people, some of the old verities are what they stake their sense of social safety on, so they’re not just “misguided.” A good book to read is Deer Hunting with Jesus, which materially grounds R/WC people in their beliefs. I do endorse gay marriage, and usually vote dem, but it’s necessary to see where these ideas come from, and why they persist. To R/WC people, liberals are actually elitists who are telling them what to do (and getting higher salaries for doing it.) To many of these folks, liberal beliefs make no sense as far as they can see. And from their point of view, they may be right.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      You may be referring to bitter clingers. On another blog, a commenter said, without irony as far as I could tell, that a state election had been won by the side which thinks there are two kinds of wine, red and white.
      Years ago, with somewhat more discernment, somebody said liberals mostly lived in areas where you could get–I’m not sure at this point–some kind of fancy tuna steak at airport restaurants and conservatives lived elsewhere. He was making the point that there really are differences and many of them cost money–if you’re in the lib area.
      David Brooks did a series comparing an upscale area of the DC area with a small town in PA. Also had a lot to do with money–the libs had it, which would follow, DC sucking up money and prospering while the hinterlands are losing it–and the rural and small town conservatives didn’t.
      That may change wrt PA due to the nat gas industry.

  10. I think that you are reading Lewis a little unfairly here, Joanna. As I read that quotation, he isn’t saying that non-traditional families are immoral and irresponsible, just that they start at a disadvantage when it comes to raising moral and responsible children. Again, this isn’t to deny that innumerable non-traditional families do just that. Lewis’ point here concerns the culture-wide tendency: he is not making a judgment on each and every non-traditional family.

    His point, one which I share, is that a culture in which biological, legal, and social parenthood are held as closely together as possible, and parents commit themselves to each other and the raising of their children for life is one in which a securer foundation is provided for the culture-wide achievement of the desirable end of moral and responsible children. A crucial part of this picture, of course, is recognizing the essential role played by committed fathers, who are a daily presence in the lives of their children. This in turn – and here is the controversial part – involves the recognition that the single mother is at a disadvantage and that we should seek to encourage a situation where more parents stay together in a secure and lasting commitment as the general ideal (while recognizing that it may not represent the ideal in each and every particular situation).

    As for conservatives losing the culture war, I am far from convinced that it is so straightforward. The culture war is being fought on several fronts and the news from the fronts varies. Conservatives are winning the culture war on abortion and have been for some time. Even on an issue such as gay marriage, where they may seem to have lost, it is far from clear that we are seeing a straightforward loss for conservatives. The fact that the gay rights movement has thrown its weight so strongly behind same sex marriage has arguably led to a shift of the entire movement in a rather conservative direction and the steady marginalization of its more radical elements.

    Once again, while marriage has been losing ground for decades, America is far more of a marriage culture than Europe and one could argue that support for marriage as a cultural value is far stronger across the board. It is seen as a very central dimension of society, generally perceived to have a public meaning and significance, rather than just a private lifestyle choice. This is a relatively conservative position when compared to other countries. The acceptance of gay marriage should not be presumed to be a general acceptance of homosexual practice, but of homosexual practice that conforms to certain conservative cultural norms.

    Conservatives, while losing most of their battles, are rather gifted at gaining ground in their political and cultural wars through control of the Overton window. This is one reason why there is hardly any genuine socialism expressed in American politics. Left and right are relative terms when it comes to the political spectrum. However, to most European observers, American culture and politics is a conversation that occurs well to the right of their political spectrum.

  11. How will we help turn the experiences of men in society into a way to make the world better for everybody?

    Just let it happen? There is this issue of people apparently wanting instant gratification. As such, if there is change, unless it immediately gratifies them personally they give it a thumbs down. In the gender field the policing by by self appointed feminists is oppressive. The SillyJilly Flipfops and Amoaner Macadamias of this world are some of the most Conservative and controlling people there are – and they just hate the idea that anything could be positive for men first and then for society second. So they have to get their instant gratification by denial.

    Culture has a rhythm of expand and contract as it moves forwards, and as with everything as the social slug moves forwards, there will be those left in it’s trail and wondering what happened. The conservatives will come back in a different from once they have had a clean out and found some media savvy types who come with less dust and fust!

  12. In answer to your last question, Joanna, I think you’re doing it. We need to be the change, and that means listening with fearless egos, as well as speaking our truths loudly even when our voices shake.

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    Some years ago on another blog, the subject of SSM came up. I noted that certain activists had said the SSM would end marriage and that’s a Good Thing. After the usual ration of pretending I’d said something I hadn’t –conservatives haven’t figured out how to handle that, which they should, it happening so often–somebody asked me for cites.
    This is webcrap. If you don’t provide cites, you were lying and if you do, nobody cares. While i was thinking about providing the cites (which is a lot of work which is the point of demanding them), somebody else did. Seemed to surprise the folks. But, as usual, it made no difference.
    I figure, the activists who oppose marriage might know something. Wouldn’t hurt to consider it. Or Andrew Sullivan’s point that marriage would have to be viewed differently because of “the complicated lives of gay men”.

    IMO, it would be a problem for all of us if conservatives lose the fight. Because then we would encounter the Gods of The Copybook Headings, when they “with terror and slaughter return”, and we will find out that no amount of ostentatious compassion affects by the slightest the result of arithmetic. Arithmetic does not care. What can’t go on won’t.

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