Thirty years ago, we all understood what the term “culture wars” meant. It was about Mapplethorpe vs. Helms and teaching old, dead, white men vs. revisionist and black history. There were lines. Whichever side you were on, you knew where you stood.
The battle lines changed and have morphed into something quite different today. As the first efforts by the Trump Administration to enact an immigration ban sputtered in chaos, confusion and a “must see TV” legal battle, the implications of the fight over how to provide national security have become clear. So, too, did the historical precedents that informed this newest battle.
It turns out that the new culture wars are also social, economic, and political in nature.
The new battle lines are between visions of American society that are industrial vs. post-industrial in outlook, design, and practice.
Historical Perspectives on Economic Battle Lines
What’s most interesting is that these new lines mirror the pitched battles over industrialization in the early 19th century, especially in England, as machinery replaced manpower in textile production, especially weaving. The warriors then were craftsmen, rooted in an agricultural society, who saw their traditions and way of life threatened by the mechanization of their livelihoods.
The protesters – the Luddites – were English textile workers and independent craftsmen who destroyed weaving machinery to protest the mechanization of textile production. They were fearful that years spent learning their craft were wasted and that unskilled workers would take their place. Eventually, the military suppressed the Luddite movement. England became the world’s leading industrial power throughout much of the 19th century.
Two hundred years later, the parallels persist as America moved from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. Workers in the manufacturing sector have seen their jobs disappear and wages stagnate as income inequality has continued to rise for over twenty years, despite some recent upticks. The presumed culprit is cheaper overseas labor, principally identified as Mexican and Chinese. The Luddites of 19th century industrial England have become the “America first” nationalists of 21st century America.
Globalization and National Security Concerns Interwoven
Symbolized by the debate over renegotiating NAFTA and abandoning the Trans Pacific Partnership, it has become a battle to stem the tide over “free trade” globalization cloaked in concerns about national security. Internally, the battle lines are also cultural, on issues like Planned Parenthood, immigration and refugees, and Supreme Court picks. The philosophies behind these competing claims are decoded into a broader national debate about “American values.”
For the moment, the effect is to split the country almost uniformly, depending upon the crisis de jour. Practically, there is a political dimension with the red and blue states recast, within limits, as “nationalists” and “globalists,” respectively. The problem with the rhetoric today is that people will get hurt. It’s probably where the large crowds protesting immigration policies can do the most good, however, especially if they can humanize the negative impact of “America first” policies.
“Eds and Meds” are Economic Engines
There is another danger, already recognized in cities like Boston, New York, Seattle, Washington, and San Francisco. These are the “eds and meds” capitals of the country whose economies are in each case bigger than those of most countries with which America competes. They are the booming economic engines of the US economy. It’s why the Silicon Valley’s biggest technology players have joined together to speak against the immigration ban.
The stakes are high. How American higher education plays its hand could set the United States on a path that will shape its ability to compete.
To this end, it’s important to have clear strategic goals in mind. Here are some first thoughts:
Higher Education Must Choose Battles Wisely
Build a strategy out of the initial tactical responses that have occurred in response to the early policy initiatives of the Trump administration. Protests are fine – critical, in fact – but choose the battles wisely. America’s leading educators should speak out on policies that affect higher education, linking what they say to social, cultural, and political concerns about American values. Their campuses must be prepared to support them, particularly if they focus on the issues and stay out of the politics.
Higher Ed Must Be Broadly Inclusive
America’s colleges and universities must remove what can sometimes be seen as legitimate criticism and become more tolerant of ideas, including those with which they and their college communities disagree. They must practice what they preach on how best to be broadly inclusive.
Higher Ed Must be Leader in Post-Industrial Economy
“It’s the economy stupid.” American workers list job security as their principal worry. In a world in which “do no damage” should be a primary operating principle, it is dangerous for the American economy to power down, for example, because of knee-jerk immigration policies. We need the best and the brightest with us. But we also need a Manhattan Project version of a Tennessee Valley Authority initiative to move the Rust Belt mindset forward.
The goal is a growing economy to build a robust middle class across the country. America signaled that globalization would undergird the world economy when Bill Clinton signed on to NAFTA.
The trick now will be for leaders – including those who run American colleges and universities – to help America prepare to lead a post-industrial economy.
It will require sane, reasoned debate. Let us begin.