’80s and ’90s-era conservatism was dominated by foreign policy and culture-war issues. For example, Dan Quayle in 1992 criticized the recording industry for promoting rap music that glorified violence against police officers. The 1992 Los Angeles riots could be considered a literal culture war. And there was the war on drugs, which under Reagan saw a significant ramping up of federal funds for controlling and preventing the circulation of illicit drugs and tougher sentencing guidelines for offenders. There was also the first Gulf War, which to Bush’s credit he ended after the main objective had been achieved instead of staying there indefinitely and in the process costing trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. During the moral panic of the ’80s, some evangelicals were convinced that Dungeons and Dragons and rock music were indoctrinating young people into satanism. The PMRC, a political committee founded in 1985 by Tipper Gore, lead to the Recording Industry Association of America adding warning labels to albums that contained explicit lyrics, and generated an enormous backlash by musicians in a rare instance pop culture and political policy locking heads, that you don’t see as much of today. Nowadays, the acrimony is much more one-sided, with musicians attacking politicians, but, unlike a generation ago, politicians have little desire to push back against the entertainment industry.
From 2001 up until Romney’s nomination and loss, defense and and culture wars issues also dominated. 911 lead to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan , which almost 2 decades later have finally seen their denouement. George W. Bush took a strong stand against gay marriage and abortion, and even opposed stem cell usage on pro-life grounds. Romney was seen as a continuation of the polices of Bush, but his loss, although widely expected, lead to the GOP to question some of its assumptions and beliefs of the cultural issues it had held on to so resolutely for the past three decades. The Supreme Court overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013 (United States v. Windsor), which ruled that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional, and, in 2012, the Robert’s Court upholding Obamacare as constitutional (National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius), was a win for ‘big business’ and a loss for culture warriors. This inevitability of business interests dominating cultural narratives lead to woke capitalism, which combines right-wing free market orthodoxy with left-wing political ideology. This why many conservatives are reticent to be too judgmental about companies pushing left-wing political agendas, because it interferes with their free market beliefs.
Trump’s presidency marked a major decline in the significance and importance of culture wars for the right. Trump ran a successful campaign and has record high approval among conservatives despite putting culture war issues on the periphery, focusing mostly on defense, immigration, and economics. Trump’s agenda is almost exclusively dominated by economic policy and some foreign policy, with issues such as abortion, pornography, church vs. state, and drugs pushed to the periphery or ignored entirely. Trump cares much more about how high the stock market is (even more than I do, and that is saying a lot) and what China and the fed are doing, probably more so than any president in history.
There will always be the hard/traditional/Christian-right, but since 2016 they have lost ground to the pragmatic/smart-right. Trump and his supporters on Twitter go on about dems, economy, the stock market, China, immigration, etc., but, by comparison, very little about gay marriage, religion, morality, or abortion. Newt Gingrich was an antecedent of this trend of pragmatic-conservatism, who worked well across the aisle and was never much of a culture warrior himself, and like Trump, despite having a closet full of possible scandals that although embarrassing were never career-ending, maintained party loyalty. I cannot imagine anything like the PMRC existing today or someone like Dee Snider addressing the Senate again. Even among conservatives, the war on drugs has lost popularity, and gay marriage has gone from being an abomination and a perversion to now accepted and inevitable. The GOP can still hold its ground on economic issues and defense, but, at best, as far as cultural issues are concerned, conservatism at best is a weak counterweight to the left.
In what I have called non-judgmental conservatism, the pragmatic-right may oppose careerism or single-motherhood on ideological grounds or as inferior to traditional parenting, but also tries understand and empathize with why so many women may choose careerism over parenting, such as due to economic factors. In rejecting the puritanical moralizing of the Reagan-era right, it’s not about imposing judgment about how people should be and act or condemning sinners to damnation, but about trying to understand why people make the choices they do in the context of broader economic and societal forces. It’s much more academic in that sense, in that it tries to study and understand these issues, detached from emotion and judgement, compared to talk radio or cable TV conservatism, which is less nuanced.
My theory for this transition, especially online, is that taking a hard stand on cultural issues is now seen as prudish and low status, unlike in the ’90s when televangelists and pastors such as Falwell had more influence. Falwaell’s Moral Majority, and to a lesser extent, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, were a huge deal in the ’80s, as were pastors and televangelists, in general. Reagan was close friends with Billy Graham, and there are many photos of them with arms locked in embrace. Falwell’s lambasting of the execrable PBS kids TV show Teletubbies for being gay propaganda, although forgotten now, was taken seriously at the time and made headlines all over the world, largely owing to Falwell’s influence (which has now evaporated). Now the right has firmly positioned itself itself as the party of low regulation, pro-capitalism, strong foreign policy, being very pro-police, and low taxes, with culture stuff secondary. For the left, it’s social justice that is focal. As opposed as the left, which takes itself too seriously in regard to cultural issues and politics, today’s right wants to project the public image of being cool and detached. No one wants to be seen as having been ‘triggered,’ which is to be too easily offended. The rise of centrist and center-right individualistic-minded moderates such as Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro has made being a moral crusader less popular, at least for conservatives online. Scandal and hypocrisy, as well as an overall decline in religiosity in America, has in recent decades lessened the influence of these pastors and the Christian-right overall.
That also leaves us with the dissident-right, which in spite of large appeal online, still faces the challenge of having success offline. In 2016-2017 it seemed like that would change, but the status quo prevailed yet again. Like Gingrich, Trump may talk a tough game regarding democratic corruption, but has little willingness to do anything about it, as it would cause undue disruption and sever bipartisan ties. He whines about Pelosi, Hillary, and the FBI, as if he’s an outsider, when he’s has had three years to try to do something and arguably has the biggest and most powerful platform in the world. Today’s mainstream right would much rather attack and taunt the left for vague charges of corruption or being triggered, or whine about how bad the dems are, than necessarily standing up for right-wing cultural issues and supporters (such as conservatives who have gotten de=platformed online). Sometimes this gets repetitive. It’s like yeah, we get it, the left sucks, but if the left disappeared tomorrow, what would you stand for?