Culture war is what happens when faith in institutions, and with it the modus vivendi, breaks down. This could be because of the inherent difficulty in sustaining value-pluralist liberalism. As MacIntyre puts it, “On the dominant liberal view, government is to be neutral as between rival conceptions of the human good, yet in fact what liberalism promotes is a kind of institutional order that is inimical to the construction and sustaining of the types of communal relationships required for the best kind of human life.”6 Or it could be because of the particular, concrete failures of political elites over the last decades as they have transferred loyalties from the parochial and the national to the abstract and the global.7 Either way, pluralism has lost out to oscillations between relativism and universalism, which in the end amount to the same thing. All sides come to see politics, the judiciary, and the media as potential means to advance their exclusive account of the good. Some on the religious right see the organs of the state being wielded instrumentally by a progressive elite and wonder why they shouldn’t attempt to do the same. It is a reasonable question to ask (even if those asking it have no shown capacity to achieve or exercise power in this way).
To exert dominance solely through such instrumental means, however, terminates in empty power without hegemony, as today’s liberals are slowly discovering. If there is a way through the culture war, it lies not in one side winning dominance over the other but in the creation of a common good, which is not the same thing as the enforcement of an exclusive or universalist notion of the good. The common good is a product of political action, not abstract reasoning, in which estranged values and interests are reconciled to one another—even if they are not perfectly harmonized. This process creates a self-conscious demos in which there is shared loyalty to the same first‑person plural, the same “we,” even if it contains different values.
This is not just theoretical. A politics of national and cultural renewal cannot be built by giving succor only to a contingent of hardened 1990s culture warriors. But nor is this about some muddling, middling compromise; there is no reason to think the “moderate” center has any particular validity. Instead we need to move entirely beyond the categories and scope of contemporary debate. The starting point for a realignment of cultural politics and thus the creation of a common good—which transcends partisan and value lines—is the recognition that the current settlement fails on both conservative and left-liberal terms. That contemporary politics fails for both sides is perhaps why each side views its opponents as the entrenched power: if it’s not working for us, it must be working for them.
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