How Affluent Conservatives Fuel the Culture War

In his book The Idea of Decline in Western History, historian Arthur Herman writes, “Perhaps the most salient feature of the twentieth century has been the tremendous upsurge of … cultural pessimism, not just in the realm of ideas, but directly into the arena of politics and culture.” This sense of decline, which Herman chronicles as a recurrent feature of modern society, has long animated a loud minority of the political left, and has now become a feature of an increasingly large share of the political right. It is worth pausing to consider what is happening, and what it means for policymaking. 

Until Donald Trump’s electoral defeat in November 2020, Trumpism was largely understood by the political class and media as a collection of anti-elite sentiments and policy notions aimed at the working class. Since then, a number of commentators have noted that Trumpism—if that is even the right name for it—is a type of cultural alarmism most ardently embraced not by the working class but a more affluent set of voters. Sure, many of the bozos who stormed the Capitol on January 6 personified the media’s idea of the conventional working-class Trump voter, but the anxious, anti-leftist rhetoric conservative political leaders deploy today is aimed at a more affluent, professional-class (and thereby statistically more active) voter.

Shortly after the 2016 election, Cato pollster Emily Ekins identified among Trump voters a more educated, professional “free marketeer” voter who was Trump-skeptical but voted for him to avoid the alternative. This group has now largely gone all-in on alarmism about the left’s cultural agenda, which is one of the most unexpected political phenomena of the past four years and probably why it was mostly overlooked until recently. They are members of what David Brooks has recently called the “GOP gentry” and the “proletarian aristocracy”—a mix of family and small business owners, middle managers, ranch and franchise owners, and so on. They gravitate toward the “plutocratic populism” that political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have identified (and that Price St. Clair has covered for The Dispatch), which appeals on cultural rather than economic grounds. While such voters still care about policies that create economic opportunity, they are more emotionally invested in the fight against censorship, speech codes, and the left’s general assault on traditional values.    

Even though some members of Congress continue to push economic policy along the lines of working-class concerns, the incentives all point in the direction of cultural conflict as a larger share of active, more influential voters in the base ascribe to alarmism. When Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Banks of Indiana urged his committee members to “lean into the culture war,” he was channeling the heart of the right’s current anti-elitism, which is angst over cultural demise more than a concern for everyday Joes working hourly wage jobs. 

Cultural anxiety among more affluent conservatives overtook economic alienation as a primary concern a while before the political class woke up to it. Even after four years of donning “Make America Great Again” merch, Trump’s most ardent supporters were the gloomiest among all demographic groups on the eve of the 2020 election in that they were the most likely to say America’s best days are behind us. This helps explain why—even in the wake of the disturbing scenes of the U.S. Capitol on January 6—survey data show that an astonishing 55 percent of Republicans believe the traditional way of life in America is disappearing so fast that force may be necessary to save it.  

The distinctive class element on the right over today’s culture wars—battles over cancel culture, critical race theory, and speech codes, for instance—is less evident in the older culture wars over abortion and same-sex marriage. According to survey data from the American Enterprise Institute shortly before the 2020 election, wealthier conservatives are roughly as conservative as lower-income conservatives on the older culture-war issues, while considerably more anxious about the new ones. On the left, the situation is flipped.  Affluent and working-class liberals are more likely to think both sides have roughly the same power on today’s cultural issues, while affluent liberals are considerably more progressive on the old culture war issues such as abortion.  

Culture wars are about ideological power, and when one side loses it, anxiety ensues. When asked who controls America’s culture and way of life, 61 percent of conservatives with a college degree say liberals do, compared to 43 percent of working-class conservatives. By comparison, only 16 percent of both educated and working-class liberals think they have the most cultural influence. Forty-two percent of working-class conservatives and 44 percent of affluent liberals (i.e., those earning more than $100,000) think both the left and the right have the same amount of cultural influence, compared to about a third of college-educated and affluent conservatives. Ironically, conservatives with arguably more cultural power—they are more politically active, engage civically at higher rates, and have more access to elite institutions—are more likely to believe they have less of it than their less-affluent and less-connected ideological compatriots. 

A class gap also exists on views of the ideological nature of the media. Eighty-six percent of affluent conservatives believe journalists have personal or political agendas, compared to three-quarters of the working-class on the right. Meanwhile, among liberals, only 41 percent of the affluent and 46 percent of the working class believe the same. With justification, conservatives could argue numbers like these prove their point—namely, liberals are simply blind to media bias since they regard “mainstream news” as unbiased. But the class distinctions are notable.

The case of religion in America is especially illustrative. Six in ten college-educated conservatives say it has become more difficult to be a Christian in the U.S. compared to just 44 percent of working-class conservatives and 39 percent of the nation overall. Working-class liberals track with the national average on this question, but only about a quarter of educated liberals believe it has gotten harder to be a Christian. What’s interesting is the cultural aspect of this issue. Educated conservatives may have heightened worries about anti-Christian sentiments, but they are considerably less likely to think society depends on Christianity. Compared to 57 percent of working-class conservatives, only 42 percent of college-educated conservatives think belief in God is necessary for someone to be a moral person, which is on par with the national average. Christianity as a cultural more than moral force seems to be what makes the professional class on the right most anxious. 

Conservatives are not wrong to believe liberals are gaining ground ideologically in America, but Gallup’s long-term trend has long shown conservatives enjoying a healthy ideological plurality over liberals. Educated conservatives are less likely than educated liberals to say they have been attacked for their political views, and less likely to feel stressed during political conversations. But anxiety abounds nonetheless. 

Conservatives are right to be concerned about the left’s ambitions, but wrong to let alarmism dominate their political outlook. Anxiety blinds people, first, to past cultural upheavals that are arguably worse than the present, and second, to longer-term, more constructive strategies for strengthening U.S. culture, as I have argued elsewhere at length. Instead of “leaning into the culture wars,” conservative policymakers and thought leaders could lean into a more positive agenda, focused on opportunity and everyday concerns like jobs, schools, and public safety. These issues resonate with a politically exhausted majority of people, who are not particularly interested in the left’s ambitions or the right’s cultural anxiety. 

Ryan Streeter is the director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. 

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