Scenes from the Culture War

Steven Hayward

July 1, 1999

Current public opinion polling data is raising eyebrows in political circles, suggesting that the next phase of political debate, culminating in the presidential election next year, is going to be more bitter and nasty than usual. According to several recent polls, a majority of Americans say the nation is on the “wrong track.”

The “wrong track/right track” split typically correlates with the economy and unemployment. It is virtually unprecedented for a majority of the public to think the nation is on the wrong track when the economy is booming as it is now. What explains this anxiety? Pollsters say the public is deeply disturbed about the moral and cultural condition of the nation. The Columbine school shooting provided an acute focus for this concern. The “wrong track” poll numbers jumped sharply in the aftermath of the shooting, which was unlike other school shootings in the same way that the Titanic was unlike other ship sinkings. Columbine promises to stick uneasily in our memory for a long time.

The cultural split that has appeared in the aftermath of Columbine has been a subject of widespread comment. Liberals have pressed for stronger gun control laws. Even though the Columbine shooters broke over a dozen existing gun laws, liberals think still more such difficult-to-enforce laws will somehow do the trick. Even if such laws only make a marginal difference, liberals argue with a tiny amount of plausibility, a marginal difference translates into a few saved lives. Conservatives zeroed in on the entertainment industry’s fascination with depictions of extreme violence, plausibly pointing out that it makes no sense to ban Joe Camel and similar tobacco-related imagery because of their purported bad influence on children while saying warning labels on video games and movies are ineffective.

We tend to chalk up these positions to the need for “symbolism” by the two parties, but this is too facile. It is certainly true that one important function of national debates is to see which party best expresses and shapes the moral sentiments of the people. In other words, “symbolism” is important, because it is by our “symbols” that we understand ourselves. That is why the flag burning amendment has such resonance. But the other connotation of “symbolism” also conveys that the public understands the limits of politics, i.e., that the moral character of citizens is often beyond the direct reach of legislation. If we are having to legislate about the nation’s moral health at the national level, Americans realize, it is too late.

The paradox of the place of moral character in America is that the founders understood that democracy requires sound moral judgment among the people if the nation’s institutions are to succeed. In other words, self-government requires a large measure of self-control by the people themselves. This requires that all of the private institutions of society—gun makers, movie makers, and schools alike—behave with appropriate self-restraint.

The public concern for the nation’s moral health long predates Columbine. Way back in 1967, the eminent sociologist James Q. Wilson wrote: “Surveys I have taken, and others I have read, indicate that the single most widespread concern of middle-class Americans is over the ‘decline of values’—evidenced by ‘crime in the streets,’ juvenile delinquency, public lewdness, and the like, but going much beyond these manifestations to include everything that suggests that people no longer act in accordance with decent values and right reason.”

But in those days, Wilson noted, moral values were not thought appropriate for political debate: “In many places, especially the Northeast, our political institutions (happily) do not allow such views to play much part in elections. Parties, led by professionals, instinctively shun such issues, feeling somehow that public debate over virtue is irrelevant (what can government do about it?) and dangerous (nobody can agree on what virtue is or that your party has more of it).”

There is no more certain indicator of how moral issues have intensified in American politics since Wilson wrote these words 30 years ago than the fact that Wilson himself has gone on to write several books about moral character. Politicians of both parties may still be uncomfortable talking about “moral values,” but we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss what they say as mere posturing or symbolism. The moral character of our society may be more central to the next election than it has ever been before.

Steven Hayward is senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.