Changing Demographics Spelling the End of Culture Wars

From same-sex marriage to marijuana, millennials are changing our culture as their proportion of the population increases.
June 2013

New York -- On a recent trip to New York City, I made a pilgrimage to the Avenue of the Americas to walk among the buildings that are the headquarters of broadcast giants ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. Of the four, Fox did not exist when, as a kid growing up on the Canadian prairies, I tuned in to hear that signature opening, “From New York City ...” most evenings on cable TV.

But it was the Fox News Channel’s home in the News Corp. building with its wraparound news ticker that made me stop that Sunday afternoon. There, in the second floor studios in late March, conservative news host Bill O’Reilly capitulated on same-sex marriage after oral arguments were heard before the Supreme Court on the subject. “The compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals,” O’Reilly said. “That’s where the compelling argument is. ‘We’re Americans -- we just want to be treated like everyone else.’”

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If O’Reilly wasn’t declaring an end to hostilities, it sure sounded like a draw down after three decades of culture wars. Growing up, I could never make sense of Sunday morning television. The TV preachers spoke differently than the one at my family’s church. It was as if it was a different gospel. In fact, it was. “Don’t drink, dance or chew, or go with girls who do,” was core to the blue laws that made up much of TV preaching. It wasn’t hard to imagine their positions on other forbidden subjects, but the occasional messages on homosexuality and reefer madness filled in any ambiguity.

Political operatives exploited this pietistic earnestness and the two became conflated under the misnomer of the religious right. Its constituents celebrated election and courtroom wins until demography began to catch up with them. Millennials, or 18- to 32-year-olds, have seen their proportion of the population grow from the single digits a decade ago to more than a quarter (27 percent) today. Their world view is showing.

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A pair of surveys from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press help tell the story. In the last decade, support for same-sex marriage has risen from one-third in 2003 to almost half (49 percent) today. Among millennials, support is fully 70 percent. When asked about legalizing the use of recreational marijuana, fully two-thirds (65 percent) of millennials indicated support, far higher than other generations and up from 50 percent in only five years.

Demographer and historian Neil Howe reminds us that “laws against pot are part of a world view millennials don’t remember because they missed the counterculture.” Arriving after the height of the culture wars, they also don’t understand or recognize “old arguments about gay rights as asserting a right to be deviant,” says Howe. Instead, they now ask, “Why shouldn’t they be allowed to be normal?”

The political tensions these demographic changes are having on our culture can be viewed through a story I once heard from the late singer-songwriter and storyteller Harry Chapin, who championed social justice through music and activism.

Chapin’s grandfather told him “there are two kinds of tired.” One is that “bad tired,” which happens when you fight “other people’s battles, you lived other people’s days, other people’s agendas, other people’s dreams. And when it’s all over, there was very little you in there. And when you hit the hay at night, somehow you toss and turn; you don’t settle easy.” In bold contrast, he said a “good tired” comes when “you knew you fought your battles, you chased your dreams, you lived your days and when you hit the hay at night, you settle easy, you sleep the sleep of the just and say ‘take me away.’”

Our civics may be tired but, for many, it is in a good way. Our politics are tired too but in a different, less hopeful way. They can be excused for needing to toss and turn.

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