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When culture wars turn deadly, we all suffer

Will our nation’s culture wars end up killing us?

The question is not rhetorical. Continuing resistance to the coronavirus vaccine rooted in political and cultural suspicions is heart-rending. For many, it is also enraging.

The longer a large minority of Americans remains unvaccinated, and the longer right-wing politicians such as Texas’ Republican Gov. Greg Abbott politicize masking, the longer our return to a vibrant life together will be postponed. (Abbott, who has tested positive for the coronavirus, was at least willing to acknowledge that because he had been vaccinated he has “no fever, no aches and pains, no other types of symptoms.”)

There have always been anti-vaxxers. But attitudes toward this round of vaccinations are so embedded in tribal conflict that persuasion on the merits is, if not impossible — the threat of the delta variant has changed some minds — then far more difficult than it should be. Culture wars are like that. They shut down conversation.

I don’t like culture wars because they exploit our discontents when public life’s calling in a democracy is to heal them. I’m an old-fashioned, bread-and-butter labor liberal. I still see the main task of politics as solving problems and resolving disputes with an eye toward making incomes, opportunities and life chances more equal. Culture wars can get in the way of all that.

Mind you, I am under no illusions that there was some Golden Age without cultural politics. Immigration has torn our society since the days of the Know Nothings in the 1850s. Prohibition was the law (and divided us) from 1920 to 1933. Racism has usually been an important element in cultural struggles, and it has been with our country from the beginning.

While racism distorted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s program, we got something of a respite with the New Deal era and running to the late 1960s. Practical questions about economic organization and distribution — and about national survival itself during World War II and the Cold War — pushed back hard against cultural politics. The New Deal may well have been, in the title of historian Jefferson Cowie’s revealing book, “The Great Exception” in our nation’s story. But it was a formative and productive period.

Since the rise of a counterculture in the 1960s and Richard M. Nixon’s election in 1968, cultural hostilities have returned with a vengeance and, thanks to Donald Trump, are fiercer than ever.

What we’re going through was identified by James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia. His 1991 book, “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America,” described a stark divide between “traditionalists” and “progressivists.”

The traditionalist vision, he argued, “is predicated upon the achievements and traditions of the past as the foundation and guide to the challenges of the present,” while the progressivist view “is ambivalent to the legacy of the past, regarding it partly as a useful point of reference and partly as a source of oppression.”

If traditionalists see themselves as seeking “the reinvigoration and realization of what are considered to be the very noblest ideals and achievements of civilization,” progressivists hope for “the further emancipation of the human spirit and the creation of an inclusive and tolerant world.”

Notice that Hunter does something we could use more of: He gives both sides their due by describing their respective ideals in positive terms. In so doing, Hunter underscored a truth that Alan Wolfe, a longtime political scientist at Boston College, later brought home in a 2006 dialogue with Hunter: The real cultural split is not “a division between red-state and blue-state America; it’s a division inside every person.” (Disclosure: I organized that dialogue as part of a Brookings Institution/Pew Charitable Trusts project.)

Wolfe’s view, expressed in his book “One Nation, After All” is that most Americans “want the moral scales balanced without being loaded down to one side.”

You might say that both Hunter and Wolfe are right: There is one heck of a cultural battle going on, but a lot of Americans want no part of it.

Which brings us back to vaccines. An August Monmouth University poll can serve as a kind of litmus test for whether to focus on culture wars or the possibility of a truce.

One finding got a lot of attention because it seemed to dramatize how divided we are: “Among those who admit they will not get the vaccine if they can avoid it, 70% either identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, while just 6% align with the Democrats.” That piece of data got Democrats’ blood boiling.

Yet the same question, analyzed differently, also found that 63% of all Republicans had either been vaccinated or are persuadable. While much lower than the 98% of Democrats in this category, the figure suggests that, in Wolfe’s terms, we are still hanging on as one nation.

But barely. The culture wars’ distortion of the vaccine argument is potentially catastrophic for millions of Americans. Can we consider putting some of our animosity aside until we are all healthy and safe again?

Distributed by The Washington Post Writer's Group.

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