Re-enchantment   /   Fall 2015   /    Book Reviews

Unbinding a Nation

Has the logic of the culture wars been exhausted?

Johann N. Neem

Barbara Alper/Getty Images.

The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted,” concludes Andrew Hartman at the end of his comprehensive blow-by-blow account of the battles over God, race, gender, art, music, and education that have roiled American society and politics during the last five decades. Hartman, a professor of history at Illinois State University, makes his own position clear. As he sees it, whether the issue was civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s or gay liberation following the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, the New Left eventually obliged “the nation’s cultural gatekeepers” to open up America to racial minorities, women, gays, and the non-religious. Those who resisted these changes—people whom Hartman defines as “normative America”—have been obliged to come to terms with “a new America, a nation more open to new peoples, new ideas, and new, if conflicting, articulations of America itself.”

But if Hartman largely endorses this outcome, he differs with others on the Left about the substance and ultimate consequences of the struggle. In his influential polemic, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), for example, critic Thomas Frank argued that the culture wars were little more than a distraction to keep working-class whites in states like Kansas from paying attention to their economic interest. Not so, Hartman argues. The culture wars were real, and they were about ideas. And while the Right did well in “economic policy and electoral power,” Hartman believes “the Left was successful” in matters of culture.

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