L. Benjamin Rolsky on Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America
A little over a month ago, the critically acclaimed situation comedy “Parks and Recreation” came to an end after seven award-winning years on NBC. Numerous news and late night television outlets dedicated airtime to the cast to address a collectively felt sense of loss and sadness in light of the show’s time-bending series finale. Footage of actor Chris Pratt singing his ode to local hero Lil’ Sebastian during the wrap party made its way onto the internet while former SNL head writer Seth Meyers of “Late Night with Seth Meyers” gave the Pawnee gang ample time to sing their last goodbyes to an audience not yet ready to say their own. The crew stood on stage in its entirety, creators and actors, looking to the band for musical guidance. The singing may ultimately have descended into uncontrollable laughter due to the antics of Aubrey Plaza and Jim O’Heir (April and Jerry/Gerry/Terry/Larry), but those in the studio and those at home watching undeniably felt its impact.
What is clear about these events is that audiences across the country had fallen in love with another ragtag cast of characters who came together to make the world a little bit brighter in a time of deeply felt cynicism towards public officials and institutions of American governance. In light of the other shows on television that situate their characters within the realm of politics, including “House of Cards” and “Veep,” this encore performance reminded its viewers of how unique “Parks and Recreation” truly is in such uncertain times, namely because of its investment in the idea that people can work with one another despite their disagreements.
We have seen situation comedies like this before. Legendary names such as James Brooks, Larry Gelbart, and Norman Lear quickly come to mind, yet their shows benefited greatly from the social unrest that had preceded them during the 1960s with the emergence of youthful demographics with discretionary incomes and urbanite tastes. “Parks and Recreation” owes much to these unprecedented showrunners, but it is also a product of its thoroughly divided times as defined by fierce partisanship and mass media. I, too, was one of those in the audience who found something kind and generous in the teamwork of the Pawnee gang regardless of the town’s fictional character and small-town charm. I, too, looked upon the cast with a feeling of sadness at the thought that such a community would no longer be on NBC in primetime. I, too, hoped that another show would follow suit by showing the human capacity to work on behalf of something larger than the individual self.
Despite all of this, I suspected that something was not quite right about the show, or better yet, that something was being said without technically being said, suggested more than stated, implied more than articulated. My heart followed Leslie Knope wherever she went, knowing that she could achieve anything if she tried hard enough, but my head said otherwise. What was the show trying to say through its characters? Did this comedy serve as a vehicle for politics or social change? Like the subject of this confession, my questions focus their attention on the realm of culture and not politics as traditionally understood in its narrow sense. Those who dominate the entertainment industry, namely political liberals and progressives, consistently enact their politics in and through culture. I do not single out any one individual or organization but instead describe an ethos, a predilection, a preference for the impossible over the pragmatic, the ideal over the realized.
Optimism for the political process is in short supply these days, but not in Pawnee. For Leslie and her fellow organizers, local government can still serve a valuable purpose in America’s recent history of deregulation and government bailouts. As creator Michael Schur has described, local politics tend to lack the partisanship and complexity that state or federal politics thrive on, which is why “getting Jammed” is about the worst thing one can experience as an employee of the Parks department. This depiction of politics in both writing and acting, however, leaves much to be desired and ultimately imagined if politics is understood as simply the setting for communal action instead of the fierce contestation over the images and values that shape conceptions of American public life and the common good.
To locate my beloved “Parks and Recreation” in a tradition that stretches back to the tirades of Archie Bunker, the stern support of Lou Grant, and the wit of Captain Hawkeye Pierce is to do two things simultaneously: to establish its esteemed place in the history of the American situation comedy and to demonstrate its fundamental flaw as a product of liberal Hollywood argumentation. Representation, regardless of its subject, has real world consequences; the actions of Leslie, Ben, and others do not. The fact that television in general and primetime programming in particular can serve as a venue of politics and activism is surprising in light of the criticisms of the medium, but it is an essential insight if we are to understand how liberals have articulated their political sensibilities through culture arguably since the early 1970s. As a result, Republican dominance in the realms of economics and foreign policy has found its stride as more and more Americans choose their political futures within the marketplace of ideas. If martial conflict has taught us anything since World War II, it is that ideas matter, regardless of their content. The conflicts of our times are as deeply felt as “hotter” engagements because they occupy the level of ideation, and in this arena, the public interest is anything but public or common — it is culturally contested. How this came to be is a complicated story, but it is one that finds its voice in historian Andrew Hartman’s latest monograph, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. But first, let me offer a short historical aside.
Situation comedies such as “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “M.A.S.H.” that premiered during the early 1970s introduced America to television characters never before seen in primetime. Instead of focusing their attention on rural travelers, flying witches, or talking horses (a trend not unlike the one unfolding currently through the endless supply of remakes, reboots, and comic book movies), these new shows had a different take on how primetime TV could connect with its diversifying audiences. Network executives were on to this slightly before the creative material reached their desks, but in the end it was the combination of corporate interests and creative storylines that led to the emergence of “relevance programming,” a tradition of storytelling that pulled much of its subject material from contemporaneous events and newspaper headlines as a form of topical story writing.
Despite the fact that programming in the 1960s reflected anything but real events on the ground in either the American South or Southeast Asia, it still said a great deal about network logic and audience preference in terms of storylines and character arcs. The decade’s fervor gradually found its way onto network TV, but it was not until this period of relevance programming that America first saw itself as a racist, sexist, and homophobic country through the genre of the situation comedy. Images of violence directed at Civil Rights activists had already graced the screens of millions of American television sets, but for such events to make their way into primetime to audiences numbering in the hundreds of millions was unprecedented in the medium’s short history. For writers such as James Brooks and Larry Gelbart, television writing as witnessed in relevance programming served as a venue for expressing politics without venturing to traditional political venues to do so, such as marches, courthouses, or ballot boxes for that matter. No one demonstrates this tradition of social commentary in primetime more clearly than television writer and producer Norman Lear.
Lear spent his early years in Hartford and New Haven, CT at the feet of giants both kind and vociferous — his grandfather, President Franklin Roosevelt, and radio personality Father Charles Coughlin. The crystal radio served as a gateway for both Lear and his grandfather as they discussed politics, boxing, the New Deal, and Anti-Semitism in an America still adjusting to an unprecedented level of immigration during the early part of the twentieth century. Lear was reminded of such tension through the diatribes of Coughlin and the Jewish applicant quota system of nearby Yale University. Lear’s experience of religious discrimination and bigotry would stay with him into his adult years as he gradually made his way to Emerson College and later to the European theatre as a gunner over the Italian countryside. The social programming of FDR as part of the New Deal also left its mark on Lear as a child of the Great Depression. As a result, those who appeared as poor or were ostracized due to their appearance always had a place with Lear in his writing regardless of the setting.
After coming home from war, Lear began to pursue his comedy-writing career seriously with the help of comedians Danny Thomas, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis. By the late 1960s, Lear had already written his first movie, “Divorce American Style,” starring Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds. During this same period, Lear came upon the successful British television show “Till Death Do Us Part,” which focused on the East End of London and the white, working class interests in protagonist Alf Garnett. Not surprisingly for those familiar with Lear’s comedic sensibilities, Garnett was loud, blunt, and racist. The show made its way around the world with adaptations broadcast in Brazil, Germany, and the Netherlands. Despite this diversity, the most popular adaptation came from the creative genius of Lear who decided initially to title his adaptation, “Justice for All.” After numerous tweaks, pitches, and network passes, the show eventually found its way onto CBS in 1971 with the title- “All in the Family.”
Despite the show’s enduring legacy, its opening broadcast came with a disclaimer from the network. Its message was clear, but its intention anything but: “The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show — in a mature fashion — just how absurd they are.” Was this disclaimer meant to protect the network from what they feared most? Was it an admission that the views of the primetime situation comedy were not those of the network? In short, it was most likely a bit of both. That the network said anything at all in light of the feared public outcry was telling. The mentality of the least offensive programming possible to the widest potential audience that had guided network logic through the 1960s was giving way to a more niche-audience approach, especially the demographic of the youthful, politically-interested, and socially-mobile viewer. The show received both high praise and virulent condemnation. Numerous academically published studies examined the impact Archie Bunker had on the American people and their racist tendencies. Actor Carroll O’Connor grew increasingly annoyed that his character grew larger than life when people came up to him in the street yelling, “Tell ‘em Arch!” In time, the show found its stride and eventually went on to dominate television ratings for the next decade, along with Mary and Hawkeye.
Politics was not limited to these traditional spaces, but instead suffused human experience, particularly topics such as racism and discrimination.
The network’s disclaimer may have been designed to deflect potential criticism, but it also captured the nature of relevance programming subject material — namely, those storylines and character dialogues that foregrounded frailties over father knows best. Many saw Archie’s behavior as absurd, but such reception was only possible if the viewer had an appreciation for the liberal satire that grounded the show’s comedic logic. In this sense, the maturity that the network sought became subject to interpretation. It also established a dichotomy between mature treatments of challenging subject matter and its dialectic opposite, immature or less sophisticated programming. This was especially the case when activists from the nascent Christian Right began organizing against Lear’s programming first in response to “All in the Family” and later to the infamous abortion story line on “Maude.” Lear always thought that if his audiences were laughing and crying, then the message would sink in a little deeper. What he failed to anticipate was how such programming could be seen or rendered as detrimental to the body politic by an emerging constituency of conservative Protestants who were already organizing against the federal government in light of key Supreme Court decisions that questioned the validity of prayer in school and the non-profit status of segregated Bible colleges throughout the South. Traditional subjects of politics such as the economy and foreign policy remained as relevant as ever during this period, but there was something larger afoot in the programming of Lear and others. For them, politics was not limited to these traditional spaces, but instead suffused human experience, particularly topics such as racism and discrimination. Reflecting the clarion call of the decade, the personal had indeed become the political through the realms of popular culture, primetime television, and the situation comedy before an audience of over a hundred million.
For Lear, this was the most attractive aspect of television over feature films. Storylines that appeared in September would become the stuff of national debate by November. Even contemporary situation comedies such as “Parks and Recreation” take full advantage of this dynamic by adapting their storylines to their political surroundings. This immediacy not only prefigured the impact that social media would have on mass media, but it also spoke to Lear’s command and understanding of his medium of choice. It was up to his detractors to catch up, assuming they could.
The conflicts that ensued over the next two decades between writers like Lear and conservative Protestant organizers such Donald Wildmon and Jerry Falwell reminded the country that the enemy of the nation was not abroad, but at home in America’s public life and institutions of higher learning and culture. The battlefields for this conflict were no longer the foreign theatres of the Pacific or the Atlantic, but rather the literal theatre of primetime television as narrated by Lear and his fellow subversives. In this sense, one’s reactions to this series of events, especially those of the 1960s, tell us much about the last half century of American cultural and religious life as the terrain of the culture wars. For historian Andrew Hartman, it is this Rorschach test that holds the answers to how and why we have come to this partisan point in our recent political history.
The first monograph to treat the culture wars writ large as a subject of historical analysis, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars examines the last five decades of American cultural and political history as the primary terrain of the country’s cultural warfare. Hartman’s survey begins with the 1960s as the definitive decade of the culture wars since it was during these tumultuous years that one America began to crumble while another slowly ascended in its place. If the 1950s cultivated a sense of consensus-based comfort among much of the country’s middle to upper-class citizenry, then the 1960s signaled the first and most comprehensive challenge to this worldview as an expression of what Hartman calls “normative America.” This was the America of hard work, individual merit, and social mobility. It was also the America of traditional gender and sexual roles in addition to triumphalist narratives of national achievement. In short, this was the America that stood as a city upon a hill, a beacon to a lost world.
Despite this America’s ubiquity in the minds of many, countless youth across the country began to create a “new America” according to their own existential dictates. The meeting of these Americas, an encounter televised weekly in the arguments between Meathead and Archie Bunker on Lear’s “All in the Family,” utterly transformed the country’s political and cultural landscape, leaving the US re-aligned and re-structured along new culture and geography-based fault lines stretching from coast to coast. One-time enemies came together as friends in a series of cultural skirmishes over the content of art, television, gender, race, museums, history textbooks, university classrooms, federal endowments, and religion in public. In this sense, the culture wars were the defining metaphor of post-modern America because they signaled the extent to which the personal had thoroughly become the political in American public life. As a result, conflicts between individuals seemed to emerge as quickly as they dissipated due to the increasingly politicization of everyday life through twenty-four hour news channels, talk radio, and politically-partisan think tanks. Within this field of conflict, the advantage went to those who could most successfully and skillfully utilize the means of mass media, direct mailings, and the television set to further their culture-focused political agendas as Democrats and Republicans.
Notwithstanding the differences between these two parties, they both met each other on the same terrain of conflict — American culture itself. No stone would be left unturned as each side monitored the other in hopes of identifying a moment of obscenity or offense, or more specifically, political incorrectness at the other’s expense. This emphasis on culture was the victory of the New Left’s defense of the new America and its alternative politics of subversion expressed through sexual, cultural, and artistic experimentation. As each side sized up the other, there was no question that the social power to alter American society had migrated from political subjects traditionally understood to the nation’s reservoirs of cultural production, as well as its means of dissemination regardless of content. Normative America’s cultural canon unraveled with the help of the country’s most youthful and most educated in the highest offices of culture and social achievement — a segment of American society dubbed “the new class” by neoconservative analysts such as Irving Kristol, William Buckley, and Gertrude Himmelfarb. For these neocons, and their counterparts on the political left, culture was power.
If Hartman is correct that the 1960s function as the preferred test to determine one’s current political orientation, then we should view the period as setting the terms of the debate over our contemporary moment of discord and partisanship. This also means that conservatism was not the sole perpetrator in upsetting an otherwise healthy consensus America. The encounter between opposing epistemological systems, ongoing since the 1960s, is not simply the result of reactionary conservative mobilization, but rather the result of competing versions of consensus meeting one another in public through various media representations: one largely liberal and supportive of the state, the other generally conservative and suspicious of any governmental intrusion in the realms culture or public education. No one group or political party had monopolies on status anxiety or moral panic(s), despite what we’ve been told about conservatives, their guns, and their religion.
If anything, the strongest feeling of status anxiety, a term describing the gap many in the knowledge industry feel between their chosen professions and the subsequent lack of socio-economic power relative to such a position, came from the political and religious left. This angst emerged in the face of conservative Protestant organizing that relied on neoconservative rhetorical strategies for much of its political successes against the welfare state and its liberal supporters. The emergence of the Christian Right during the culture wars was not the result of a violent, fundamentalist rejection of the modern world and its wares, but rather the product of the age of the advocacy group and its claim to a unified nation under the banner of a Moral Majority or a People for an American Way. What had once been the personal, had again become the political, only this time, the public square could no longer depend on civility or public reason for its health and safety. The new America had ruptured the old at its own peril.
No one group or political party had monopolies on status anxiety or moral panic(s), despite what we’ve been told about conservatives, their guns, and their religion.
Hartman’s analysis finds its analytical stride when he describes the political legacy of neoconservative thought relative to the assemblage that eventually coalesced into the Christian Right — that inchoate collection of coalitions written about and analyzed by journalists and academics since the late 1970s as symptom of the nation’s fraying social edges. One could argue with Hartman that it was the neoconservatives who supplied post-war conservatism with the philosophical and rhetorical architecture necessary to take on the New Left and its reliance on culture for much of its social power and critique. Authors such as Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Norman Podhoretz developed a system of thought that examined the emergence of an “adversarial culture” defined as the “new class” of US society, a group of individuals whose livelihoods depended not on the accumulation of property as a form of power, but rather on the acquisition of knowledge as a source of social relevancy. Those who possessed the most education and knowledge, however, were at the same time some of the most critical of American triumphalism, expressing their anti-American sentiment through art and academic training. This phenomenon was confusing at best and repulsive at worst to many a neoconservative author who looked upon the nation’s institutions of higher learning as gateways to successful assimilation within the purest form of a meritocracy.
For Hartman, these sentiments are described most succinctly as “the intellectualization of the white working-ethos.” “In this way,” Hartman argues, “neoconservatives elaborated on the crude conservative populism of George Wallace’s presidential campaigns.” The neoconservatives were extremely critical of student activities that targeted America’s colleges and universities using the tools and theories they had learned in newly offered classes such as Women’s Studies, Black Studies, or Critical Theory. It is from within this social context that we find the first usage of Kulturkampf, or culture war, in US political culture in the form of a memo from Moynihan to “law and order” President Richard Nixon, “The adversary culture which dominates almost all channels of information transfer and opinion formation has never been stronger, and as best I can tell it has come near silencing the representatives of traditional America.”
Such representatives, including one Archie Bunker, were drowned out by the clamoring of students and their academic advisors due to their expertise in the knowledge industry and its various means of dissemination including print journals, newspapers, academic publications, television, foundations, and the arts. This group also included a number of Americans who began responding favorably not only to Republican politicians and their promises to reduce crime, but also to conservative Protestant preachers. Many of these individuals, “televangelists” for short, went on to positions of influence and discourse formation that shaped national opinion and presidential elections through their televised pulpits within the “electronic church.” With the help televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, amidst a fracturing country the neoconservatives defined a conservative agenda in the culture wars equal in epistemological force to the New Left. The Christian Right helped solidify this interfaith alliance between many neoconservative Jews and pro-Israel evangelicals and fundamentalists, but it could not have done so without the ideational production of Kristol and others who argued that “religion” was foundational to representative Democracy, and more importantly, to the orderly society — a term that President Ronald Reagan used frequently in his public speeches and private correspondences with television producer Norman Lear.
The image captured the essence of both the terms and parameters of the culture wars. Phrases such as the “common good” and the “public interest” were no longer taken at face value as common or public as opposing sides gathered their respective print and media resources in an effort to lay claim to the orderly society and its application to American public life. This was indeed another iteration of a uniquely American conflict over the idea of America, but it was also specific to its time and place as the very rules for governing civic debate and articulation came under scrutiny as more and more conservative preachers questioned the iron clad separation of church and state, which for many came across as the exclusion of church in favor of the state.
The state assumed a greater social role in American public life as a “secular” influence on public schools the country over. Many of the Supreme Court cases during this period were seen as enshrining secularism as the predominate knowledge system in the US. The conservative critique of “secular humanism” epitomized the ways in which conservative Protestants identified and located the corrosive agents of modernity in the nation’s highest court system and public schools. In Hartman’s telling, this wave of secular power mirrored the weakening of authority that was taking place in America’s religious communities despite the fact that many “doggedly persisted in religious belief.” This paradox may help explain the interdependent relationship between the rise of the Christian Right and the secularization of 20th century America, but it depends on a faulty assumption about an equally telling relationship between popularization and secularization.
As scholars are beginning to realize, American secularization is not a zero-sum game — it never has been and it never will be. Although many social actors during this period argued that more secularism resulted in less religion in public to great success, this rhetoric did not reflect reality. The Christian Right did not emerge because it defined itself against the latest means of communication and dissemination, but rather because it reacted to them in a selective manner that proved endlessly frustrating to Lear and others on the spiritual left who let their discerning sense of taste get in the way of utilizing the very same means to the same effect. If anything, the Christian Right made headway when it did because of its own deployment of secularism against the Left as a competing “epistemological conception of difference and its relationship to American pluralism and diversity,” as the scholar of religion Chad Seales puts it. The brand of consensus-based secularism preferred by the political Left, which included concepts such as public reason and bifurcations between the public and private individual when it came to religion, could no longer fortify the public square in a manner conducive to liberal democratic values of debate and respectful exchange. These divisions introduced the tonalities of intra-religious struggle to the culture wars, which said a great deal about the new alliances and allegiances formed between one-time enemies as examples of “the new ecumenism.”
The resulting coalitions scrambled more traditional inter-religious formations in favor of a restructured and arguably de-regulated religious landscape of market choice and buffet-style religious diversity. The blending of neoconservative thought and evangelical fervor found in Christian Right discourse endowed 1970s conservatism with a fierce cultural conservatism and anti-statism that undergirded much of President Reagan’s campaign against born-again President Jimmy Carter. If secularization is understood less as an emptying-process and more as a diffusion of religion (read as Christianity) through its popularization, then the culture wars take on a much different dynamic then simply the secular Left versus the Christian Right. As American religious historian R. Lawrence Moore realized almost thirty years ago, “The different and often antagonistic ways in which most Americans negotiate a purportedly secular world remain closely tied to what they insist is religion.” For scholars of the culture wars, secularism is one of the most significant rhetorical tropes that reflects less what’s happening and more how religious actors leveraged their arguments in public debate in late twentieth-century America.
Scholars are only now beginning to pay attention to this narrative of the recent past. Hartman’s contribution succeeds as an interdisciplinary study of the culture wars by one of its preeminent historians. His work is analytically sharp and historically expansive, his prose is clear and research capacious. Hartman’s erudition is also worth celebrating as the archive of the culture wars continues to grow by leaps and bounds with each new publication. The addition of A War for the Soul of America to an ongoing conversation initiated by Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture and Robert O. Self’s All in the Family: The Re-Alignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s greatly assists American historians by giving us its first comprehensive history to date through evidence drawn from cultural, political, and religious history. Even though Hartman’s less than optimistic conclusion about the all-encompassing power of capitalism to domesticate even the most antinomian sensibilities of the counterculture is somewhat unexpected in light of the preceding pages’ narrative focus, it speaks to the need to disentangle the convoluted relationship between liberalism, consensus politics, and religion since 1970s. Our collective inability to address these relationships is a product of ideational power and privilege, an authority forged from control over the primary means of communication and their regulation in US society. If there has been any moral establishment in the pages of America’s history, especially over the last century, then it has been this one — liberalism both in theology and politics.
The terrain of politics has never been solely that of the debate stage or the campaign stop.
Writing for The New Republic in the mid-1970s, British journalist Henry Fairlie drew his readers’ attention to the “new politics” and their manifestation in American politics: “‘The key political struggle of the decade could well turn out to be as much over the nature of culture as the politics of the 1930s were over the nature of the economy,’ and in that struggle the lower-income workers, unless they were black, would be the enemies.” “Like the Greek city state itself,” argued Fairlie, “the American liberal family is one of the most consciously controlled environments that can be imagined.”
For residents of Pawnee, Indiana, this feeling must be nearly ubiquitous as Leslie Knope takes on one project after another in the name of health and choice. Her defense of the local government’s ability to outlaw oversized drinks yet protect the inventory of a local failing video store tells us all we need to know about the tastes of liberal politics as an expression of “new class” interests in the twenty-first century. The government’s role of preserving public spaces, a key argument of “Parks and Recreation” and its creator Michael Schur, is no longer the straightforward project it may have once been. On the contrary, due to the government’s seeming allegiance to a “new class” agenda, it has become yet another combatant in a conflict that has seen its share of carnage and mayhem in the bombing of abortion clinics and public schools from the 1970s to the present day.
The story of American religion and politics since the 1960s is about more than status politics and voting against one’s self-interest. As the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall observed in his analysis of conservatism in Great Britain under Margaret Thatcher, “It is important to understand why Labourist social democracy was vulnerable to the charge of ‘statism’ — and therefore why ‘anti-statism’ has proved so powerful a populist slogan; otherwise, we may confuse ourselves into believing that the headway which ‘Thatcherism’ is making among working people … can be wholly attributed to false consciousness.” It is this assumption that has arguably been the left’s undoing in post-war America, which has resulted in its victory on the battlefield of culture, yet its ultimate defeat in the political arena.
Texts like Hartman’s allow us to understand better this development in an increasingly partisan age of calcified systems of knowledge and their subsequent ideologies of populist appeal and financial accountability. If this country has any desire to reflect the optimism of shows such as “Parks and Recreation,” then it must first realize how the terrain of politics has never been solely that of the debate stage or the campaign stop. The personal has become the political at the expense of politics becoming personal. These conditions make honest dialogue that much more difficult, but understanding this dynamic is the first step towards a fuller public life in the 21st century.