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Culture Wars and American Exceptionalism

Who is Winning the Culture War?

The term “culture wars” dates back to a 1991 book by academic James Davison Hunter who argued that cultural issues touching on family and religious values, feminism, gay rights, race, guns, and abortion had redefined American politics. Going forward, bitter conflicts around these issues would be the fulcrum of politics in a polarized nation, he theorized. The culture war (or culture wars) has come to mean in America the battle for the very soul of the American experience. Progressives want more social justice meaning the government should expend more resources to take care of its neediest of citizens even if it means increasing the national debt. The conservatives backed by the Tea Party want cuts in the very programs that progressives want to expand. Progressives would raise income tax rates on the richest Americans. I agree in principle but can’t support the low $250,000 cut-off point. You are not rich if you make $250,000 a year – at least not out here in California. I could live with a $1 million and above base amount for higher taxes. Conservatives would respond by saying these people earned their money and shouldn’t be taxed at a higher rate, and the Conservatives warn such a tax policy would dry up investment capital and dampen the entrepreneurial spirit. I don’t believe that. I don’t want to believe that because if that were true it would speak volumes about the lack of civic virtue and sense of one’s responsibility to the country that gave so many the opportunities to get rich. Moreover, I detest the kind of threats coming from the right about stifling growth and continued high unemployment unless they get their way and taxes are not only not raised on the richest but even lowered for individuals and corporations.

I don’t think President Obama’s recent proposals to add another $500 billion to our national debt in the hopes of “stimulating” the economy will work. It’s nice to give businesses a credit for hiring the unemployed but once they are hired the company is committed to paying salaries and benefits while being (perhaps) stuck with an under-achieving, under-producing employee. After all, if that employee were a good worker isn’t it possible that he or she would have already found a job? Sure, the loss of a job could be due to economic circumstances. It can also be due to a lack of skills or, more important, a questionable work ethic.

And there is the problem in my opinion. As I have blogged about so many times before, there has been a steady decline in the work ethic in America over a number of years. It corresponds to changes in the national psyche that began in the 1960s when the mantra was to “do your own thing.” Young people took it to heart and some became narcissistic in their behavior. We have morphed into a no consequences, entitlement society over the years, and that does not contribute to the work ethic. I believe businesses are not hiring as they otherwise might because, for the most part, they are happy with their current employees’ work ethic and fear taking on someone who goes against that grain and may even infect the workplace with values that place self-interest ahead of the interests of the organization.

So who is right (no political statement intended) in the culture wars? Both sides are wrong. We need to build a new spirit of hard work; a culture where ethics is valued and inappropriate behavior scorned; and a sense of personal responsibility for what happens to each of us. While some politicians are addressing these issues at the margin, their message gets lost because these views are always in the background while political posturing and the “gotcha game” is front and center. This is not the recipe for an economic recovery and what’s worse is it bodes poorly for the true American spirit or what has come to be known as “American Exceptionalism.”

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 12, 2011