In the culture war's trenches

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As if there were not enough real enemies to fight, the United States has been at war with itself in recent years. They call it the culture war. It has generated more hot air than most real wars in history.

As Pat Buchanan noted early on, the culture war is a war for power. Not military power, but the kind that comes from shaping the norms, beliefs and values by which people live, and the meanings attached to words like liberalism, patriotism or, indeed, culture. The two sides in this war came to be labeled red and blue, after the coloring of Republican and Democrat states on electoral maps.

No one has generated more hot air in this cause than Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, who in 2006 published a book proudly called "Culture Warrior." In it, he describes the culture war as a battle between traditionalists like himself and "the committed forces of the secular-progressive movement that want to change American dramatically: mold it in the image of Western Europe." Like Europe! God, how horrible.

O'Reilly labels this movement "S-P" and identifies George Soros as "el jefe of the S-P forces." In a fashion disturbingly familiar to any student of the 20th century, he illustrates this with an unflattering photo of the financier-philanthropist, captioned "George Soros, S-P jefe, puppet master, and moneyman."

O'Reilly pounds the hot buttons of the culture war with a ham fist: abortion, drugs, gay marriage, not celebrating Christmas, atheism, the liberal media and elites. He excoriates such "left-wing outfits" as the BBC.

Does this sort of thing matter? Over the last decade, it has mattered a lot. The framing of the political debate in cultural conservative terms -- a counterrevolution against the cultural revolution of 1968 -- contributed significantly to George W. Bush's victories in 2000 and 2004. And one way of understanding the direction taken by the McCain campaign over the last few weeks is this: Only the culture war can win it for us now. On Iraq, we lose. On the economy, we lose. But by caricaturing the liberal otherness of a candidate called Barack Obama, perhaps we can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Enter Sarah Palin, the Katyusha rocket of red America. (I trust she won't mind a Russian analogy because, as she has informed us, you can see Russia from Alaska.) The selection of such an obviously under-qualified candidate can only be explained by electoral calculation, and that calculation has everything to do with the politics of the country's cultural civil war. Her kind of down-home populist inveighing against Washington elites is part of the well-tried semantic armory of the red army.

Palin now leads the attacks on Obama. This week, she has repeatedly tried to tar-and-feather him for "palling around with terrorists" such as former 1960s radical William Ayers. The not-even-subliminal message is: He's not like us; he's like them.

Who are "they"? Elites, liberals, subversives, immigrants and infidels, closet Europeans! Chapter 1 of O'Reilly's "Culture Warrior" begins with an imagined 2020 State of the Union speech by a president of the United States called Gloria Hernandez. Latino, and a woman to boot. Worse still, she celebrates the United States as "a diversified nation striving to be at peace with the world." How terrifying. How bloodcurdling.

For Gloria Hernandez, read Barack Obama. Or "that one," as McCain disrespectfully referred to him in Tuesday's debate. At the moment, the tactic isn't working. This election is about the economy, stupid. The pocketbook trumps the prayer book. However much John McCain lauds himself as a "maverick," he can't disassociate himself from eight years of GOP rule that are ending in the biggest financial crisis since 1929 and a near-doubling of the national debt.

And Obama is better on the economy: clearer, more specific, always bringing it back to the everyday struggles of ordinary Americans. In the instant-reaction polls, a clear majority thought Obama won that debate, as he is winning in most polls both nationwide and in key states.

An Obama victory won't spell the end of the culture war, but perhaps it may spell the beginning of the end. And let's be clear: This war will not finish with a victory of blue over red, or vice versa. It will finish with the accepted, peaceful coexistence in one society of different faiths, value systems and lifestyles -- along the lines laid down centuries ago by the classical liberalism of John Locke and others, which so much influenced the founding fathers. It won't be "liberals" (in the perverted sense in which that word is now used) trouncing conservatives, but classical liberalism remade for the 21st century. It won't be blue obliterating red, but red, white and blue.

Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to the Opinion pages, is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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