Three Generations of Culture War

Culture is a fundamental element of societies. As culture changes, society changes. Inevitably, people realized their actions could influence culture, allowing people to work to change society. When attempts to change culture met resistance or a contrary attempt to change culture, culture war was the result.

Culture war is the struggle between ideas for acceptance by the population. Over the past 100 years, culture wars have become a huge part of Western political life which effect everyone, no matter if you wish to engage in them or not. As this has gone on, technology has evolved and tactics have gotten better. Surveying the evolution and utilization of various tactics in the culture wars, I’ve found there are three distinct phases, each loosely corresponding to the first three of Lind’s generations of modern war. 

The first generation of cultural warfare is, in essence, winning elections. With the reigns of power, laws and policies can be enacted to shape society.

Concretely, this means the mass mobilization of people who already support your cause to seize the levers of power. This parallels the 1st generation warfare’s key element: mass mobilization of your population and industry to fund a large and well armed military to overrun your enemies.

The first generation of culture war’s most successful strategy was the expansion of franchise. By changing the electorate and adding more people who support your point of view, the levers of government go into the hands of your compatriots who wield them to implement your favored policies.

In America, two of the three major periods of change in government came about because of the expansion of franchise. After women’s suffrage, Prohibition and income tax followed. In the wake of the civil rights movement and  lowering of the voting age to 18, came the welfare state and expansive administrative government. All told, as voting rights extended to much wider swaths of the populations, society changed greatly with radical changes to the relationship between people and their government.

After the 1960’s though, there were no more big groups of Americans who could be brought into the fold to vote. Importing a new population has been one successful strategy along these lines, but in the short run, it is insufficient. The influx of Catholic immigrants to America and the New Deal may be an example of this: 15 years after the end of mass immigration, all of those new voters and their children put FDR in the White House again and again and again and again.

In the short run though, turnout politics comes into play. The outcome of an electoral vote is dependent on who shows up to vote. Campaign managers and political professionals today operate in this realm. They campaign by adopting policies to convince groups not already in the fold, and they raise issues to stir up the base. This even involves physically driving voters to elections to make sure they vote for you and your ticket.

These types of strategies only really work to mobilize the electorate that already exists. What happens when turnout isn’t enough to get support for the kind of policies you’re interested in?

The answer is the second generation of culture war, which lies in concentrating attention on a particular topic. It essentially grows out of the Rules for Radicals model of politics and has been used repeatedly since the 1970’s. This parallels the second generation of modern warfare which are tactics that identify targets and puts as much fire power at the targets as possible. Once the artillery is finished, the infantry moves in.

One example of this type of culture war are the social justice warriors. When #Gamergate started, the coordinated “Gamers Are Dead” articles, and accusations of misogyny were deafening. That’s all there was to hear from one side, it was the only argument where the anti-Gamergate cultural forces concentrated their effort. When larger organizations came in to aid them, they kept focused on the same position.

Individual targets are a vital part of this process. It is why Caitlyn(sic) Jenner is brought up constantly, and not transgendered individuals in abstract. Caitlyn(sic) wins, abstractions lose.

However effective these tactics have proved in the past, social media and the internet have enabled a new generation of cultural warfare.

The third generation of culture war is where individuals take the initiative. Social media and the internet enable people to do things which haven’t been done before. Individuals can now do everything that larger cultural organizations can do, albeit at a smaller scale to a smaller audience. The sharing mechanisms, however, enable the best content to reach a broad audience and inspire a thousand other individuals to explore in the same direction.

This parallels maneuver warfare tactics. Maneuver warfare empowers small groups of people to look for weak points in the enemy line. Once they find and exploit it, their neighbors move to push the exploit, and once the general notices, reserves are committed to pushing the breakthrough even further.

Like maneuver warfare, the third generation of culture war relies on individuals taking the initiative. They must produce new pushes against the opposing culture. Individuals ought to take inspiration from their compatriots, tweaking and improving along the way.

The surface has only been scratched when it comes to what individuals are going to be capable of in the future. When maneuver warfare tactics were first introduced in World War 1, it was too little, too late for the Kaiser’s armies. By the time World War 2 came about, maneuver warfare allowed the German army to conquer The Netherlands, Belgium and France in a month.

In our current culture war, the current stage seems to me to be close to the end of World War One. New, more effective tactics have been generated, but they are facing off against a more powerful enemy. However, unlike in World War One, there is no United States to come in and impose unconditional surrender. All forces have already been mobilized.

In the future, the third generation of culture war will benefit from the same kind of technological advance that motorized infantry brought to actual warfare. Instead of making inroads on the fringes, complete collapse of the enemy positions and their ability to coordinate will be achieved.

As someone who finds themselves participating in this third generation of culture war, I’d like to offer some thoughts on tactics.

First, stay focused on the enemy at hand. Don’t get distracted by those you’ve bypassed and those off in the future. The whole point of maneuver warfare is to leave your opponents in the dust without supply or command so that they can be easily mopped up later by traditional forces.

Also, if you see something you like, share it, spread it, and follow the person or blog. Don’t be shy. I have a policy of following every Twitter account with under 1,000 followers I come across, just to help make sure the best ideas get spread no matter who comes up with them. Showing those around you the most effective attacks and the enemy’s weakpoints is absolutely necessary,

Last, if you see someone else do something good, but you think you can make it better, just go for it. Finely tuning attacks and memes is a group effort. Finding the precise spot to achieve a breakthrough is challenging, but will lead to success.

Now get out there and keep meme-ing.


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