Culture War: Americans are Redefining What it Means to Disagree

By Ashley Pickus, National Politics Reporter

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The term ‘culture war’ was made popular by James Davison Hunter in 1991 with his book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. The book focused on contemporary issues at the time that are still relevant today, such as religion in schools, abortion, and LGBTQ rights (Stanton 2021). However, in the 30 years since, new issues arose that now defined the American culture war. The main difference is that, at the time, the debate almost entirely revolved around secularism versus theology. Today, while religion plays a role in some issues, Hunter says the positions some people hold are “mainly rooted in fear of extinction” (qtd. Stanton 2021). Thirty years ago, a political issue and a culture war issue were distinguishable. For example, how much the government should subsidize healthcare was a distinctively political area of debate, and the discourse about transgender people was a culture war issue. Now, the same debate gets conflated; if more people are eligible for Medicare, then what if a transgender person on it gets hormone replacement therapy? Should citizens whose taxes were raised to pay for their treatment have the ability to object? On the other hand, is it any of their business? Simply put, a compromise can be found on a political issue, but for a culture war issue, each side sees its position as morally correct, and thus concessions are rarely made. 


One aspect of the modern culture war is its ability to transform topics that were previously apolitical into hot-button issues. A primary example of this is the array of debates around education. In recent years, there have been several controversies surrounding how children should be taught, including Critical Race Theory, social-emotional learning, sexual orientations, and gender identities.

The teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) has always been contentious, but recently state governments have begun placing restrictions on it. Several states, including Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, have banned CRT, and over a dozen more states have pending legislation aimed at accomplishing this goal (“States that Have Banned” 2023). CRT has been used as a buzzword during these debates, so it’s important to know what it is. CRT teaches about systemic racism, which means that, as opposed to individual prejudice, racism is “embedded in legal systems and policies” (Sawchuk 2021). The division has mostly been split down party lines, with Republican governors such as Ron DeSantis advocating for banning CRT in all schools. The main argument against CRT is that some claim it encourages discrimination against white students and is a form of indoctrination; DeSantis has said, “We believe in education, not indoctrination” (qtd. Papaycik and Saunders 2022). Conversely, House Minority Leader and Binghamton University alumnus Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) argues that “It is our moral imperative to tell the truth about our past to finally reconcile with this nation’s history of racism and white nationalism” (Camera 2022). However, CRT has not been the only point of contention in children’s education. In some states like Arizona, parents and legislators have shifted focus to a new target: social-emotional learning.

Social-emotional learning, or SEL, has long been a part of elementary school curriculums throughout the country. It teaches children important tools for “developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success” (Committee for Children 2022) and is backed up by research showing that it increases academic performance and decreases bullying. However, SEL has been called “woke nonsense” (qtd. ​​O’Brien 2022) by critics such as Karol Markowicz, a Fox News Contributor, who argue that it does not belong in classrooms and that schools should stick to strictly teaching academic subjects like math and reading (O’Brien 2022). “Parents need to understand that woke nonsense is creeping into their kids’ education in a variety of ways” (qtd. O’Brien 2022).

Another significant culture war issue in terms of education stems from Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, or as critics of the bill have called the “Don’t Say Gay” statute. The law prohibits discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms from kindergarten to third grade and says parents of children of all ages must be notified if there “is a change in the student’s services or monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being” (“Parental Rights” 2022). Supporters of the law maintain that these topics are inappropriate for young children and are a distraction from what children should be learning. Conservative Political Action Conference Chairman Matt Schlapp spoke out in support of the law, saying, “Instead of being force fed the left’s points on gender and sex, young students in Florida can focus on learning how to read and write” (Migdon 2022). Critics assert that it opens the door to further discrimination against an already marginalized community and could potentially force school faculty to out LGBTQ students to their parents, creating a possibly dangerous home-life situation. Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay Cabinet secretary, said, “It tells youth who are different, whose families are different, that there’s something wrong with them out of the gate and I do think that contributes to the shocking levels of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth” (qtd. CNN Newsroom 2022). Other states have also begun introducing similar policies, which critics argue have dangerous implications for queer students throughout the country.

Transgender Rights

The topic of transgender people can elicit strong reactions. Between the discourse around the release of Hogwarts Legacy and the declaration that “transgenderism must be eradicated” (qtd. Wade and Reis 2023), some people feel like they are acting in accordance with God, while others believe their very existence is under attack. 

At the most recent Conservative Political Action Conference, Daily Wire host Michael Knowles stated, “For the good of society … transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely—the whole preposterous ideology, at every level” (qtd. Wade and Reis 2023). After “Nazi Germany” started trending on Twitter, Knowles later attempted to defend himself, saying, “Nobody is calling to exterminate anybody, because the other problem with that statement is that transgender people is not a real ontological category—it’s not a legitimate category of being” (qtd. Wade and Reis 2023). Knowles represents one—albeit more extreme—side of this particular culture war issue. 

On the same side are significant figures such as former President Donald Trump. A contentious issue within the topic of transgender rights is access to gender-affirming care, which includes hormone replacement therapy and surgical procedures. In a campaign video for the upcoming 2024 primary elections, Trump announced that, if re-elected, he would ban gender-affirming care to minors, declaring that it was tantamount to “child abuse” and “child sexual mutilation,” and he would prohibit federal agencies from promoting “the concept of sex and gender transition at any age” (qtd. Narea and Cineas 2023). While supporters of these efforts believe that minors should not have access to permanently change their bodies with surgery, critics point out that puberty blockers that many transgender minors take are reversible (Kassel 2022). 


The implications of the modern-day culture war cannot be understated. Education, which has previously been a local and state issue, is now at the forefront of national politics. The introduction of a bill by House Republicans to nationalize policies similar to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law would change how children across the country are educated (although the bill is extremely unlikely to come close to passing with a Democrat-controlled Senate and White House) (Wamsley 2022). Still, the influence of the law is seen in several states, such as in Alabama, where Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law bans on teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through fifth grade and transgender healthcare for minors. 

Teachers have also expressed their frustration with the increased focus on how they should run their classrooms. Arguing that these laws undermine the role of public schools, some educators have considered leaving the profession (Walker 2023). On the other hand, parents that support these restrictions deem them necessary to protect their children (Wolf 2023).

The ramifications of the culture war are even heavier on the issue of transgender rights. With a growing number of states passing legislation prohibiting gender-affirming care and increasingly aggressive rhetoric being used in opposition to “transgenderism,” there have been reports of escalating mental health issues among transgender individuals, including up to 86 percent of trans or nonbinary minors (The Trevor Project 2023). Moreover, states like Idaho have introduced legislation “to ensure that counselors and therapists will not be required to take on clients when it would conflict with their ‘sincerely held principles’” (Narea and Cineas 2023). Those who are already at an increased risk of poor mental health may see restricted options for mental health services. A similar situation can be seen with the Parental Rights in Education Act; because teachers and guidance counselors are required to inform parents of any mental health concerns, students may feel like it is no longer safe to discuss any issues they may be having.

While there may be some less serious issues involved in the culture war, including Tucker Carlson’s war against the packaging of M&Ms (Radde and Folkenflik 2023), James Davison Hunter warned that if the culture war continues to grow and each side becomes more belligerent, there could be grave consequences.

“Culture wars always precede shooting wars,” Hunter said in a 2021 interview. “They don’t necessarily lead to a shooting war, but you never have a shooting war without a culture war prior to it, because culture provides the justifications for violence” (Stanton 2021).

Ashley Pickus is a junior from Plainview, New York. She is double-majoring in political science and English rhetoric and minoring in writing studies. Ashley spends most of her free time following the current pop culture trends, watching television shows, or listening to music. If asked, she can explain the meaning of any Taylor Swift song and its significance. After graduation, Ashley hopes to find a job in the media industry.


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Walker, Tim. 2023. “The culture war’s impact on public schools.” NEA, February 17.

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Wolf, Zachary B. 2023. “The growing movement to protect children from their government.” CNN, March 10.