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War for the ages

Don Rogers

The real question isn’t whether a “culture war” rages in America, but when has it not?The term was first voiced by then-presidential candidate Pat Buchanan during the 1992 Republican Convention. Robert Bork, famously “Borked” from nomination to the Supreme Court, banked a book on it in 1996, “Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline.” Although I don’t recall him using those precise words.”Culture war” talk peaked after last November’s presidential election, settled a second straight time in one state. The weight of “moral values” (whatever that might mean) in the outcome has been endlessly dissected ever since.Red vs. blue America; Bud vs. soy latte; Mel Gibson vs. Michael Moore; the flag wavers vs. the flag burners – this is our America today. Some say it’s all fiction, there is no culture war, no discernable difference between the blues and reds. That to whatever extent Americans clash this way, it’s all advocates and other zealots who hog all the press. The overwhelming rest of us are moderate, centrist, middle-of-the-roaders if we pay a lick of attention to anything smacking of politics at all.Of course, that’s mainly the elites talking – scholars, think tankers, city pundits. I believe that there’s a culture war, all right. There pretty much has always been one in this country. Maybe we notice it more now because what had been simmering now boils afresh with the ascendancy of the red’s political power in Congress since 1994. But the liberal viewpoint triumphed with Vietnam – talk about boiling over. And Watergate. I’d say America, while certainly busy trying to feed itself, had a culture war going during the Depression era. How about the Civil War, the height of cultural as well as full-on shooting warfare on American soil? And on back. When did “moral values” not divide us?This new century is poignant for this nearly 50-50 split between red and blue values in America. So small battles – Ohio, Florida, the U.S. vs. a state supreme court – tip the scale completely at the presidential level. Winner takes all. The vast middle is moveable, with the right candidates and messages. But it seems the Democrats and Republicans have moved further left and right, toward poles, risking the loss of this greater block of centrists. The parties must fear losing their true believers, who are far more likely to be active, by reaching across the divide more than they worry about losing this huge, politically apathetic lump in the middle.So, more and more, I’m afraid, I look at which nut is more dangerous than the other between my choices. For president, Senate, Congress, I’m looking pretty much in vain for that candidate who isn’t locked into an ideological and partisan grip. Good luck.It gets better locally, although to a large extent our moral values simply cannot be available for compromise. A no-growther, for instance, is simply not going to cross over to join the folks who can’t get enough of development. You bet there’s a whole raft of moral values that come with each stance.I missed the Vail Valley Institute’s annual three-day seminar on this very subject in late June. But of course I’ve gotten ahold of the reading material, which I’m making my way through now. Eagle County is a great place for a seminar like this, with our own red-blue voting split at the ballot box. West of Wolcott went red. The upvalley voted true blue.Most of the households with children are downvalley. The resorts themselves lie east. Rural, suburban and wealthy mores swirl in very interesting ways in this valley. The middle class, which seems chronically under siege with its dearth of truly middle-class jobs, nonetheless has grown like every other segment up there. Beyond accounting for nearly three of every four homes in Vail, second homes make up a full half of our entire county’s residences. The pressure for housing for the low-wage workers who service them is no more going away than property values are soaring. And still, somehow, the beast keeps growing.You don’t think there are culture clashes in this mix? You can see the clues on this page, prominent in the commentaries, letters, Tispline calls and Web comments following stories on-line. The current culture war is hardly at the level of the 1960s, with rioting over civil rights and the trauma of Vietnam in America. Iraq pales in comparison, although it is indeed a big player in this flare-up. Gay rights are a bare shadow of the upheaval over Jim Crow, though you couldn’t tell from the rhetoric. The content of today’s culture war is not nearly so dramatic as yesterday’s, but it’s a mistake to pretend it doesn’t exist or that this is something particularly new.What’s different, even fascinating, is less the battleground itself than the nearly equal numbers on each side. The right has regrouped and taken the current advantage nationally. The left is floundering for the moment, but they’ll be back. The tug of war is still roughly in balance even as the right makes the most of its legislative dominance, perhaps to its detriment in the long haul.I do think that the parties are tugging fiercely in exactly the wrong direction, as they both pull away from the middle. The first to truly tack back to the center will be the one that prevails. Or perhaps they’ll leave a wide enough gap for a viable third party of moderates. Wouldn’t that be something?Given the war metaphors the pundits and politicos are trucking in, though, it’s hard to see either side being quite able to figure it out. Meantime, that great lump in the middle waits, perhaps in vain, to hear the message that tips the balance decisively. And turns down the heat on the “war” back to simmer. Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or editor@vaildaily.comVail, Colorado


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