The American Right Knows How to Fight a Culture War

It's all about picking your battles.

by Kojo Koram

4 August 2021

statue removal US
(Abdazizar/Wikimedia Commons)

The ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK has always extended beyond formal politics into the realm of culture. The exchange of ideas back and forth across the Atlantic has influenced everything from rock and roll to the rise of neoliberalism. This exchange has continued into the present day, but it is always filtered through each country’s unique history.

Today, with the Anglo-American world at the epicentre of the so-called culture wars, it’s worth exploring the similarities and differences in how each country has navigated it. While the sensationalisation of issues around race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality is a tactic deployed by politicians all over the world, the media obsession with the culture wars in the US and the UK, in particular, has reached new levels over the past few years.

In the UK, it is common for conservatives to dismiss growing concerns over issues of gender, sexuality and especially race as unwelcome American imports. Indeed, Britain’s fascination with US race relations has long been used as a method of disassociating from its own. In the 1960s, Britain’s liberal establishment celebrated American racial justice activists like Muhammed Ali or James Baldwin when they would visit the UK, whilst demonising or ignoring equivalent figures on their own island. 

The same attitude underwrites the contemporary claim that everything, from the #metoo movement to Black Lives Matter, is really a product of America’s political immaturity; outbreaks of mass hysteria from a frontier society that don’t belong in a sophisticated and refined democracy like Britain’s. 

Yet, whilst it is a stretch to dismiss these movements as mere American transplants – as though the problems they identify aren’t inherently global in nature – the backlash against them is very much indebted to the US and its experience in making cultural issues political trigger points.

The Breitbart effect. 

The person who probably did more than anyone to advance the culture war in the US is American conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart. Responsible for resurrecting ‘cultural Marxism’ – an umbrella term he deployed to describe the many ‘infections’ he identified as corrupting American society from within – Breitbart’s news website became the leading platform for the American alt-right, before launching its London bureau in 2014.

Like other institutions driving the reactionary backlash against the rights of minorities, such as Turning Point UK or GB news, Breitbart London is directly inspired by and connected to like-minded American organisations that have been playing this game for decades. Indeed, many of the tactics organisations like GB News are using to stoke division and whip up public anger against minorities are taken straight from the American culture war playbook.

Even the now-ubiquitous insult of ‘wokeness’ that British conservative culture warriors love to throw at their enemies is an American transplant. Indeed, the British right rely on framing such attacks through an American lens, pointing to a desire to not only attract an America audience, but also the dollars that come with it. 

The statue wars.

Yet despite the debt that Britain’s conservative culture warriors owe to their US counterparts, there are marked differences in how the culture war has manifested within the two countries. 

Take the so-called statue wars, for instance. The pulling down of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol last summer became the symbolic lightning rod for the wider reckoning with Britain’s colonial legacy. As other statues of slave owners began to be removed by local authorities across the UK, a fierce debate raged in the national media, with politicians insisting that these statues, and the British history they represent, must be protected from thebaying mobs. The recent unveiling of the Colston statue, now exhibited in a Bristol museum accompanied with the painted decorations of protest, reignited the debate around statues of historical racists, with petitions being launched to return it to its plinth.

This is not the case in the US, however, where conservatives have ceded the ground on the taking down of such statues with relatively little pushback. Statues of Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson have been removed from the public squares of American cities with minimal fuss. Conservatives in the US have divested from the wider romantic myth that surrounded the confederacy with surprising speed, with even the likes of NASCAR banning the flag from all of its races. And what’s more, following the death of George Floyd, the republican state of Mississippi, the final state flag to have the confederate symbol incorporated within it, voted to remake its design.

A different history of racism. 

How can we make sense of the stance conservatives have chosen to take on this issue on either side of the Atlantic – especially considering the interrelation between the institutions driving the culture wars in both countries? Why have conservatives in the US decided to leave the removal of statues of figures who fought to defend slavery largely unchallenged; whilst their counterparts in Britain – ostensibly a more racially tolerant society – have kicked and screamed at the prospect of removing the statues of actual slave traders?

One element is the way in which the structure of each country’s historical racism feeds into its contemporary popular memory and national identity. 

Because Britain has historically externalised its racial violence beyond its own shores – instead outsourcing it to Jamaica, Barbados and Kenya in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – it has been better able to sustain the myth of itself as a country free from racial tensions. This is why the recognition that such histories have marked the public space of British cities, catalysed by the tearing down of these statues, has been so disorienting for many in Britain.

By contrast, in the US, where plantation slavery, Jim Crow segregation and public lynching all took place on home soil, the history of racial violence has always been more explicit. Whilst this makes explicit remnants of racism easier to call it, it can also be used to as an example of violent past that America has moved past today.

A tactical withdrawal.

After the death of George Floyd, the historical moment called for abandoning the confederacy as a legitimate part of the country’s romanticised self-image in order to protect the rest of the American dream. Interestingly, the same defensiveness seen in the UK around figures like Colston or Robert Mulligan can be seen in the US when the debate moves from confederate figures to the nation’s founding fathers, like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

In this way, this withdrawal by American conservatives from defending the symbolic representations of the confederacy in the public sphere looks to be a tactical one – a strategy that allows efforts to be instead focussed on reinforcing the founding narratives of America more broadly. 

Indeed, at the same time as taking down statues of confederate generals and removing displays of the confederate flag, states have also been passing laws to ban the teaching of critical race theory. These laws aren’t really concerned with critical race theory as an academic tradition, but are instead using it as a catch-all term to delegitimize anything that might encourage people to reconsider how America’s history is interwoven with racism. 

The vicious attacks which the American right have mobilised against scholarship reveal conservative culture warriors in the US to be more organised and versatile than those in Britain. That said, as the institutions driving the reactionary backlash in Britain come to learn more tactics from their more experienced American counterparts, they may start to move away from denying that there are problems with Britain’s history, and instead start focusing on more sophisticated and strategic attacks. 

This is the second article in Contesting Culture, a new series asking who really owns British culture. Read part one here

Kojo Koram is a writer and an academic, teaching at the School of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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