The Great White Culture War

Discussion of American cultural conflicts has to take place alongside pivotal conversations about race, not instead of them.

With each passing year, I grow more convinced that Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy represent two of the best vehicles for understanding our times. Though they’re not specifically political, they help us understand the profound differences between different white American communities — differences that are often exacerbated in our polarized age.

.. Consider, for example, the extraordinary faith gap between white Republicans and white Democrats. According to recent Pew data, fully 72 percent of white Republicans believe in the God of the Bible. Only 32 percent of white Democrats share that same faith. To take another important cultural issue, gun-ownership rates vary wildly between white Americans, with whites in blue America far less likely to have a firearm at home.

Now, what does this have to do with race and condemnations of “whiteness”? Earlier this week, my colleague Reihan Salam wrote a fascinating piece in The Atlanticmaking the point that white-bashing is actually a way in which the progressive white elite distinguishes itself from “lower” white rivals, a form of “intra-white status jockeying.” Here’s Reihan:

It is almost as though we’re living through a strange sort of ethnogenesis, in which those who see themselves as (for lack of a better term) upper-whites are doing everything they can to disaffiliate themselves from those they’ve deemed lower-whites. Note that to be “upper” or “lower” isn’t just about class status, though of course that’s always hovering in the background. Rather, it is about the supposed nobility that flows from racial self-flagellation.

Given the awesome power these “upper-whites” exercise in elite American institutions, there are incentives for other people to bash whites as well:

In some instances, white-bashing can actually serve as a means of ascent, especially for Asian Americans. Embracing the culture of upper-white self-flagellation can spur avowedly enlightened whites to eagerly cheer on their Asian American comrades who show (abstract, faceless, numberless) lower-white people what for. And, simultaneously, it allows Asian Americans who use the discourse to position themselves as ethnic outsiders, including those who are comfortably enmeshed in elite circles.

.. the GOP’s revulsion at the message that white people’s day is done isn’t grounded exclusively (or even mostly) in racial resentment and fear. Because we know full-well that the white people who so gleefully make that claim fully expect to emerge victorious, their status and power intact, in a post-white-majority America.

.. consider California and Texas. Both states are firmly majority-minority. Yet the leaders of both states are still disproportionately white and male; they’re just culturally very different kinds of white males. Conservative white Americans eagerly move to majority-minority Texas. Those same people would be far more reluctant to live in majority-minority California, because of its profoundly different treatment of religious freedoms, gun rights, and of course tax rates.

.. Discussion of American cultural conflicts has to take place alongside, not instead of, pivotal conversations and debates about race. Indeed, the legacy of American racism (including the sad prevalence of outright racists in the GOP) is one reason why white conservatives struggle to form alliances with black voters who are actually more culturally and religiously similar to their rural and exurban white neighbors than to their white progressive allies.
.. it’s important to understand that when conservatives confront a political coalition that seems to be cheering the decline of “whiteness,” they often experience it as an attack on “white people the Left doesn’t like.”

As for the rest? They roll on, enjoying the same power and the same privilege. They’ve sacrificed little and stand to gain a lot: nothing short of victory in the great white culture war.