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Moving Past the Culture Wars

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
June 17, 2022

Like many others, I have been watching the January 6th hearings with mixed feelings. Obviously, we need to understand how an insurrection with intent to subvert American democracy occurred. We also need to hold enablers of the insurrection to account. But I keep asking myself, who is the audience for these hearings? These days, the United States seems to be less a nation divided than a nation living in parallel realities. There are diehard factions that will not be convinced, regardless of the evidence, that the 2020 election was not stolen. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and others, are committed to calling every protest an insurrection in an obvious, and effective, attempt to strip the word insurrection of all meaning. Though the hearings are important, I will believe their ability to change minds when I see it.

I find the current state of American politics depressing. There is little space for policy debates when party identification is reduced to a signal of one’s side in our culture wars and nothing else. I experienced this firsthand in my first run for local office. Keyboard warriors were keen to denounce me as both a radical leftist professor and a GOP operative with history in the school choice movement. The truth is I am a college professor and did work as a school choice advocate for many years. Like most people I have nuanced opinions on most policy issues that do not align perfectly with one political party. But, the politics of our day are not the politics of nuance and debate. We seem keen to confirm our biases rather than explore the possibility that others may be right, and us wrong, about anything. Hence, we take comfort in the safety of tribe.

“Culture wars” is a very generic term, but I think it is the most apt way to describe the pathogen in our collective civic life. When every debate is framed as disagreement between an in-group and out-group, every debate is sure to stoke further division rather than progress. I think back to disagreements over mask policies, we managed to turn a piece of cloth into a symbol of everything we believe is right about us and wrong about the other. When disagreement and assumptions of ill-intent are the starting point, they are sure to be the ending point.

How do we move past these culture wars? As I have written before, I think focusing on the bread-and-butter issues of local government are a good place to start. Garbage pick-up, infrastructure, parks, streets and so much else that local government does is non-controversial when done effectively. If we can unify around the need for dependable government for basic services, we can crowd out more divisive debates. Of course, we have to acknowledge that some social issues are extremely relevant to local government. Policing, for example, is the largest expenditure for most local governments. As the last two years have shown, the appropriate role of police in society is a significant cultural dividing point.

In addition, many controversial issues need to be debated. Progress around basic human rights issues like marriage equality would not have happened if we chose not to engage with the issue because it spurred controversy. Avoiding a difficult issue is often akin to advocating for the status quo. So, the question becomes what social issues are needlessly divisive vs. what social issues are important for progress? That question is impossible to answer, and potentially harmful if we try, because it means picking and choosing what are acceptable topics for public discussion. In my opinion censorship is not a viable path for solving our cultural divides.

Aside from focusing on non-controversial issues, when possible, we need to create a space for healthy disagreements that are not predicated on permanent division. As a local government advocate, I think our governing boards, elected and appointed, are where we can make this happen. Governing in a structure that promotes trust, honesty and reinforcing behaviors can bring people with very different opinions together to work towards the common task of governing. Efforts to improve the small group dynamics on non-partisan governing boards can bring people living in the same community together, and show that you can still trust and work with someone with whom you disagree. It is not an all-encompassing solution to our culture wars, but it is a place we can make progress.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin  Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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