Pat Buchanan’s infamous speech to the 1992 Republican convention (Buchanan), has often been understood as a defining moment in the US culture wars (Hartman). The speech’s central claim that “there is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America” oriented around the idea that the US was a nation divided between two opposing values systems. On one side were Democrat defenders of “abortion on demand” and “homosexual rights” and on the other those who, like then Republican presidential candidate George Bush, stood by the “Judeo-Christian values and beliefs upon which this nation was built.”
Buchanan’s speech helped popularise the idea that the US was riven by fundamental cultural divides, an idea that became a media staple but was hotly contested by scholars.
The year before Buchanan’s speech, James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America advanced a “culture wars thesis” based in claims of a growing “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding” (Hunter 42). Hunter cited increasing polarisation in debates on “abortion, child care, funding for the arts, affirmative action and quotas, gay rights, values in public education, or multiculturalism” (Hunter 42) and claimed that the defining religious divides in the US were no longer between religions but within them. In the intense scholarly debate that followed its publication, as Irene Taviss Thomson has summarised, little empirical evidence emerged of any real divide.
Yet this lack of empirical evidence does not mean that talk of culture wars can be easily dismissed. The culture wars, as I have argued elsewhere (Davis), were and are a media product designed to sharpen social divides for electoral gain. No doubt because of the usefulness of this product, culture wars discourse remains a persistent feature of public debate across the west. The symbolic discourse that positions the culture wars and its supposedly intractable differences as real, I argue, deserves consideration in its own right.
In what follows, I analyse the use of culture wars discourse in two defining documents. The first, Pat Buchanan’s 1992 “culture wars” speech, reputedly put the culture wars front and centre of US politics. The second, Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos’s 2016 article in Breitbart News, “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right” (Bokhari and Yiannopoulos), sought to define its moment by affirming the arrival of a new political movement, the “alt-right”, as a force in US politics. With its homage to Buchanan and written in the belief that “politics is downstream from culture” the article sought to position the alt-right as an inheritor of Buchanan’s legacy and to mark a new defining moment in an ongoing culture war.
This self-referential framing, I argue, belies deep differences between Buchanan’s rhetoric and that of Bokhari and Yiannopoulos. Buchanan’s defence of American values, while spectacularly adversarial, is at base democratic, whereas, despite its culturalist posturing, one project of “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right” is to reinstate biological notions of race and gender difference in the political agenda.
Culture Wars Then
Buchanan’s speech came after decades of sniping. The emergence of the “counterculture” of the 1960s helped create a basis for the idea that US politics was defined by an irreducible clash of values (Thomson). Buchanan played a direct role in fostering such divides. As he famously wrote in a 1971 memo to then President Richard Nixon in which he suggested exploiting racial divides, if we “cut … the country in half, my view is that we would have far the larger half.” But the language of Buchanan’s 1992 speech, while incendiary, is nevertheless democratic in its emphasis on delineating rival political platforms. Much culture wars discourse focuses on the embodied politics of gender, sexuality and race. A principal target of Buchanan’s speech was abortion, which since the Roe versus Wade judgement of 1973 that legalised part-term abortion in the US has been a defining culture wars issue. At the “top” of Democrat candidate Bill Clinton’s agenda, Buchanan claimed, is “unrestricted abortion on demand.” Buchanan singled out Hillary Clinton for special attack:
friends, this is radical feminism. The agenda Clinton & Clinton would impose on America–abortion on demand … homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat … is not the kind of change America wants.
Buchanan then pledges to support George Bush, who had beaten him for the Republican nomination, and Bush’s stance “against the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women.” He also supports Bush on “right-to-life, and for voluntary prayer in the public schools.” Buchanan’s language here references essentialist ideas of morality and contrasts them against the supposed immorality of his opponents but is ultimately predicated in the democratic languages of law-making and rights and the adversarial language of electoral politics. Through these contrasts the speech builds to its famous centrepiece:
my friends, this election is about much more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.
Buchanan, here, sharpens and maps the contrasts he has been working with onto differences in identity. Politics, here, is not about the distribution of resources but is about identity, values and a commensurate difference in belief systems. On one side are righteous Americans, on the other a culture of immorality that threatens the proper religious basis of the nation. Notably, the speech makes no direct mention of race. It instead uses code. Evoking the LA riots that took place earlier that year, Buchanan sides with the troopers who broke up the riots.
they walked up a dark street, where the mob had looted and burned every building but one, a convalescent home for the aged. The mob was heading in, to ransack and loot the apartments of the terrified old men and women. When the troopers arrived, M-16s at the ready, the mob threatened and cursed, but the mob retreated. It had met the one thing that could stop it: force, rooted in justice, backed by courage … and as they took back the streets of LA, block by block, so we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country. God bless you, and God bless America.
Unsaid here is that the “mob” were black and reacting against the injustice of the beating of a black man, Rodney King, by police. The implication is that to “take back our culture … take back our country” is to vanquish the restive black enemy within. By using code Buchanan is able to avoid possible charges of racism, positioning the rioters not as racially different but as culturally different; their deficit is not genetic but patriotic.
Culture Wars Now
Since the 1990s culture wars discourse has become entrenched as a media staple. Supposedly intractable values divides between “conservatives” and “liberals” play out incessantly across a conservative media sphere that spans outlets (Fox News), platforms (Breitbart News), broadcasters (Rush Limbaugh), and commentators such as Ann Coulter, in debate over issues ranging from gun control, LGBTQI rights, American history and sex education and prayer in schools. This discourse, crystalised in divisive terms such as “cultural Marxist,” “social justice warrior” and “snowflake”, is increasingly generated by online bulletin boards such as the 4chan/pol/(politically incorrect) and /b/-Random boards, which function as a crucible for trolling and meme-making (Phillips) that routinely targets minorities, women and especially feminists. As Angela Nagle has said (24), Gamergate, the 2014 episode in which female game reviewers and designers critical of sexism in the gaming industry were targeted with organised trolling, played a pivotal role in “uniting different online groups and spreading the tactics of chan culture to the broad online right.” Other conduits for extremist discourse to the mainstream include sites such as the white supremacist Daily Stormer, alt-right sites, and “men’s rights” sites such as Return of Kings. The self-described aim of this discourse, as the white nationalist Jared Swift has said, has been to move the “Overton window” of what constitutes acceptable public discourse far to the right (in Daniels).
The emergence of this diverse conservative media sphere provided opportunities for new celebrities willing to parse older forms of culture wars discourse with new forms of online extremism and to announce themselves as ringmasters of whatever circus might result. One such person is Milo Yiannopoulos. Quick to read the opportunities in Gamergate, he announced himself a sudden convert to the gaming cause (which he had previously dismissed) and helped turn the controversy into a rallying point for a nascent alt-right (Yiannopoulos). In 2014 Yiannopoulos was recruited by Breitbart News as a senior editor. Breitbart’s founder, Andrew Breitbart, is perhaps most famous for his dictum that “politics is downstream from culture”, an apt motto for a culture war.
In 2016 Yiannopoulos, working with Bokhari, another Breitbart staffer, published, “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right”, which, written with Andrew Breitbart’s dictum in mind, sought to announce the radicalism of a new antiestablishment conservative political force and yet to make it palatable for a mainstream audience. The article claims the “paleoconservative movement that rallied around the presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan” as one of the origins of the alt-right. Donald Trump is praised as “perhaps the first truly cultural candidate for President since Buchanan.” The rest, they argue, is little more than harmless online mischief. The alt-right, they claim, is a fun-loving “movement born out of the youthful, subversive, underground edges of the internet,” made up of people who are “dangerously bright.” Similarly, the “manosphere” of “men’s rights” sites, infamous for misogyny, are praised as “one of the alt-right’s most distinctive constituencies” and positioned as harmless alongside an endorsement of masculinist author Jack Donovan’s “wistful” laments for “the loss of manliness that accompanies modern, globalized societies.” Mass trolling and the harassment of opponents by “the alt-right’s meme team” is characterised as “undeniably hysterical” and justifiable in pursuit of lulz.
The sexism and racism found on bulletin boards such as 4 chan, for Bokhari and Yiannopoulos, is no less harmless. Young people, they claim, are drawn to the alt right not because of ideology but because “it seems fresh, daring and funny” contrasted against the “authoritarian instincts of the progressive left. With no personal memories or experience of racism, they “have trouble believing it’s actually real … they don’t believe that the memes they post on/pol/ are actually racist. In fact, they know they’re not—they do it because it gets a reaction.”
For all these efforts to style the alt-right as mere carnivalesque paleoconservatism, though, there is a fundamental difference between Buchanan’s speech and “An Establishment Conservative’s guide to the Alt-Right.” Certainly, Bokhari and Yiannopoulos hit the same culture wars touchstones as Buchanan: race, sexuality and gender issues. But whereas Buchanan’s speech instances the “new racism” (Ansell) in its use of code to avoid charges of biological racism, Yiannopoulos and Bokhari are more direct. The article presents as an exemplary instance of how to fight a culture war but epitomises a new turn in the culture wars from culture to biologism. The alt-right is positioned as unashamedly Eurocentric and having little to do with racism. Yiannopoulos and Bokhari also seek to distance the alt-right from the “Stormfront set” and “1488ers” (“1488” is code for neo-Nazi). Yet even as they do so, they embrace “human biodiversity” ideology (biological racism), ethnic separatism and the building of walls to keep different racial groups apart. “An Establishment Conservative’s guide to the alt-right” was written in secret consultation with leading white supremacist figures (Bernstein) and namechecks the openly white supremacist Richard Spencer who is given credit for helping found “the media empire of the modern-day alternative right.”
Spencer has argued that “Race is something between a breed and an actual species” and a process of “peaceful ethnic cleansing” should take place by which non-white Americans leave (Nagle 59). He is an admirer of the Italian ‘superfascist’ and notorious racist Julius Evola, who Yiannopoulos and Bokhari also namecheck. They also excuse race hate sites such as VDARE and American Renaissance as home to “an eclectic mix of renegades who objected to the established political consensus in some form or another.” It is mere happenstance, according to Yiannopoulos and Bokhari, that the “natural conservatives” drawn to the alt-right are “mostly white, mostly male middle-American radicals, who are unapologetically embracing a new identity politics that prioritises the interests of their own demographic.” Yet as they also say,
while eschewing bigotry on a personal level, the movement is frightened by the prospect of demographic displacement represented by immigration. Border walls are a much safer option. The alt-right’s intellectuals would also argue that culture is inseparable from race. The alt-right believe that some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved.
“Demographic displacement” here is code for “white genocide” a meme assiduously promoted over many years by the US white supremacist Bob Whitaker, now deceased, who believed that immigration, interracial marriage, and multiculturalism dilute white influence and will drive the white population to extinction (Daniels). The idea that “culture is inseparable from race” and that “some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved” echo white supremacist calls for a white “ethno-state.”
“An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right” also namechecks so-called “neoreactionaries” such as Nick Land and Curtis Yarvin, who according to Yiannopoulos and Bokhari regard egalitarianism as an affront to “every piece of research on hereditary intelligence” and see liberalism, democracy and egalitarianism as having “no better a historical track record than monarchy.” Land and Yarvin, according to Yiannopoulos and Bokhari, offer a welcome vision of the conservative future:
asking people to see each other as human beings rather than members of a demographic in-group, meanwhile, ignored every piece of research on tribal psychology … these were the first shoots of a new conservative ideology—one that many were waiting for.
Culture Wars Futures
As the culture wars have turned biological so they have become entrenched ever more firmly in mainstream politics. The “new conservative ideology” Yiannopoulos and Bokhari mention reeks of much older forms of conservative ideology currently being taken up in the US and elsewhere, based in naturalised gender hierarchies and racialised difference. This return to the past is fast becoming institutionalised. One of the stakes in the bitter 2018 dispute over the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court was the prospect that Kavanaugh’s vote will create a conservative majority in the court that will enable the revisiting of a talismanic moment in the culture wars by overturning the Roe versus Wade judgement. Alt-right calls for a white ethno-state find an analogue in political attacks on asylum seekers, the reinforcement of racialised differential citizenship regimes around the globe, the building of walls to keep out criminalised Others, and anti-Islamic immigration measures. The mainstreaming of hate can be seen in the willingness of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate and as president to retweet the white supremacist tweets of @WhiteGenocideTM, his hesitation to repudiate a campaign endorsement by Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, his retweeting of bogus black crime statistics, his accusations that illegal Mexican immigrants are criminals, drug dealers and rapists, and his anti-Islamic immigration stance. It can be seen, too, in the recent electoral successes of white nationalist parties across Europe.
For all their embrace of Eurocentrism and “the preservation of western culture” the alt-right revisiting of issues of race and gender in terms that seek to reinstate biological hierarchy undermines the Enlightenment ethics of equality and universalism that underpin western human rights conventions and democratic processes. The “Overton window” of acceptable public debate has moved far to the right and long taboo forms of race and gender-based hate have returned to the public agenda. Buchanan’s 1992 Republican convention speech, by contrast, for all its incendiary rhetoric, toxic homophobia, sneering anti-feminism, and coded racism, somehow manages to look like a relic from a kinder, gentler age.
Ansell, Amy Elizabeth. New Right, New Racism: Race and Reaction in the United States and Britain. Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.
Bernstein, Joseph. “Here’s How Breitbart and Milo Smuggled Nazi and White Nationalist Ideas into the Mainstream.” BuzzFeed News, 10 May 2017. 4 Dec. 2018 <https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/josephbernstein/heres-how-breitbart-and-milo-smuggled-white-nationalism>.
Bokhari, Allum, and Milo Yiannopoulos. “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right.” Breitbart, 29 Mar. 2016. 4 Dec. 2018 <http://www.breitbart.com/tech/2016/03/29/an-establishment-conservatives-guide-to-the-alt-right/>.
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Davis, Mark. “Neoliberalism, the Culture Wars and Public Policy.” Australian Public Policy: Progressive Ideas in the Neoliberal Ascendency. Eds. Chris Miller and Lionel Orchard. Policy Press, 2014. 27–42.
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Phillips, Whitney. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. MIT Press, 2015.
Thomson, Irene Taviss. Culture Wars and Enduring American Dilemmas. University of Michigan Press, 2010.
Yiannopoulos, Milo. “Feminist Bullies Tearing the Video Game Industry Apart.” Breitbart, 1 Sep. 2014. 4 Dec. 2018 <http://www.breitbart.com/london/2014/09/01/lying-greedy-promiscuous-feminist-bullies-are-tearing-the-video-game-industry-apart/>.