From Academic Kids
Origins and polarization
The expression gained wide use with the publication in 1991 of Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America by James Davison Hunter. In that book, he described the dramatic polarized re-alignment that had transformed American politics. The term echoes the German Kulturkampf.
The observation is that on an increasing number of "hot-button" defining issues — abortion, gun control, separation of church and state, privacy, homosexuality, censorship — there are two definable polarities in American culture. These are not defined by their nominal religion or even by their political affiliation, but rather by an ideological world view.
See also culture war speech
During the same period, paleoconservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan mounted a campaign for the Republican nomination for President of the United States against incumbent George H. W. Bush in 1992, mostly based on Bush's decision to raise taxes after the latter's famous pledge, "Read my lips, no new taxes". After doing surprisingly well in the first Primary in New Hampshire, drawing 37% of the vote, his campaign faded. He did receive a consolation prize: the keynote speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention.
The speech played well amongst the hard-line Republicans, but some consider that its effect may have cost the party swing votes and alienated moderates. That is, it was adjudged to have been polarizing. Buchanan said, "There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself."
Buchanan's campaign is credited to some extent with allowing Independent Ross Perot to emerge as a major figure in politics. Perot received 19% of the vote that year, doing extraordinarily well for a third-party candidate in a two-party system.
A definition from the conservative side was that in the Culture Wars, public morality was a defining issue. This would not be generally accepted as a description, but has some force in terms of electoral politics.
Attempting an era name
The term Culture Wars was adopted by William Strauss and Neil Howe in Fourth Turning (1996), to describe the historical period from 1984 to approximately 2005. The preceding era they termed the Consciousness Revolution; the succeeding era in Strauss and Howe's system is the predicted upcoming Crisis of 2020.
The period opened with triumphant "Morning in America" individualism and drifted toward pessimism as time wore on. Personal confidence remained high and in the 1990s few national problems demanded immediate action. But the public reflected darkly on growing violence and incivility, widening inequality, pervasive distrust of institutions and leaders, and a debased popular culture. People began fearing that the national consensus was splitting (http://jkalb.freeshell.org/web/culture_wars.html) into competing "values" camps.
Campus culture wars
From the point of view of American academia, the 'culture wars' and their alignments were nothing new — rather they were perceived as an extrapolation of some conflicts that had been simmering in university life since the 1960s. Positions had been taken up on a number of issues: feminism, homosexuality as a topic in the humanities, postmodernism being some of those attracting attention in the arts faculties. Cruder debates in more emotive terms were expected on the curriculum, popular culture, supposed enforcement of political correctness, affirmative action as it applies to admissions, and allegations that teaching was too centred on DWEMs and WASP interpretations.
The campus culture wars reflected a change in the demographics of the student population, as well as social change in society at large. Public intellectuals have sometimes been content to blur the distinction between 'culture war' in this sense, and in national politics.
The September 11, 2001 attacks and the Culture Wars era
The results of the 2004 elections in the USA did not support the idea that an era had come to an end in 2001, as some had earlier suggested. The evidence was that, with reference to domestic politics, the 'culture wars' agenda was if anything stronger than in 2000. Some argue that the destruction of the World Trade Center, resulting from the September 11, 2001 attacks, produced only a temporary sobering national reaction in American politics.
If the Culture Wars era had ended then, some say, the national mood could have been compared to the mood at the time of the start of the Great Depression. The American military took over Afghanistan and Iraq, but that has not prompted the same feelings among the populace as, say, VE Day. Others see September 11 more as similar to the beginning of the Pacific War. Many argue that the 9/11 Attacks were "a new Pearl Harbor" that heralded the beginning of a culture shift.
Some right-wing and left-wing intellectuals see a post-9/11 United States as being more assertive, more militaristic, more unilateral, and more patriotic. This perceived change has been both applauded and criticized.
Text of Culture Wars speech via Wikisource (http://sources.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Buchanan%27s_Speech_to_1992_GOP_Convention)