Culture Wars Go Global

IWMPost Article

How do we globalize our conversations? Why is conservative discourse successfully appropriated in so different local contexts? Milla Mineva interprets the globalization/localization of culture wars as a specific form of identity politics, in which global fears are locally translated to produce social mobilizations that aim not at changing the social order but at policing the status quo.

In the early 1990s, James Davison Hunter used the term “culture wars” to describe the ideological polarization of American society. Today, culture wars are increasingly global, and the term no longer describes American specificity but the ideological polarization of the planet, marked by common ideas and fears. Culture wars are particularly interesting in the peripheries of the global world. Eastern Europe, for instance, is haunted by specters like the fear of gender ideology, political correctness, and cancel culture.

Conservative discourse spreads more successfully in the peripheries, where the critique of political correctness as a form of censorship prevails over the battle for a more inclusive language. Scarecrows like censorship, hypocrisy, and restriction of free speech float freely through the public spaces of Eastern Europe. They are introduced through various channels: conservative American vloggers, weaponized memes, Russian translations of conservative arguments, or fragments of Viktor Orbán’s speeches. It is the interplay of the different channels that amplifies the conservative discourse, turning it into common sense, a “natural attitude” that hides its conservative bias.

Nevertheless, conservative prejudice only takes root in localities where there are local actors—let us call them moral entrepreneurs—who can see their self-interest in the use of these discursive figures. Usually, the role of local actors who amplify conservative critiques, is played by local nationalists—that is, conservative “natives”—who simultaneously construct themselves as such through the imported discourse.

Why do nationalist parties need to localize global culture wars? Why do patriots need to fight foreign battles? The main battle, the local actors argue, is the one against the “liberal West” but, paradoxically enough, it is fought in the name of the true “Western civilization.”

Let us briefly tell this story in the voice of one such local actor from Bulgaria, Alexander Urumov, a civil servant and member of a nationalist party. According to him, a “behind-the-scenes elite in Brussels and Strasbourg” is trying to usurp the power of the old nation-states and it is Eastern Europe that can heroically oppose this “liberal elite” and defend “the interests of the family, traditional values, Christianity, and the nation.” In fact, Urumov argues, Western Europe is “in a helpless state,” “in a waking coma,” and this is precisely why the “common sense” of Eastern Europe can preserve the “natural order of the world. Thus, Eastern Europe turns out to be not just different but also more valuable because it is called to become the guardian of the true nature of the “Western civilization.”

In fact, local entrepreneurs weaponize the old dividing line between East and West (here, more precisely between Eastern and Western Europe) while shifting positions of symbolic power. In his famous work Inventing Eastern Europe, Larry Wolf points out the history of how the region has been seen as an area in need of civilization and as an experimental field for the political ideas of the Enlightenment. The new conservative entrepreneurs reverse both arguments. First, it is the West that is going through experiments today, leading it away from its true nature. Second, it is the East that is going to export back the true civilization to the West, and the East will become the guardian of the true Western, Christian civilization.

Through the translation of the culture wars local, actor-entrepreneurs are able to construct a new local identity that is visible on the global stage and thus fight for recognition. “Traditional,” “family,” and “Christian” values become global empty markers into which identity circles can be inscribed without tension. In short, culture wars in the periphery are used as tools in identity politics oriented toward the reworking of “national” identity in global contexts.

There is one important twist here. When we talk about identity politics, we imagine claims for recognition by marginalized social groups. This provokes the indignation of conservatives, who tend to invert the demand for equal recognition into a demand for privileges. Thus, local conservative entrepreneurs delegitimize the demands of socially marginalized groups but simultaneously in the global context they construct the “conservative people” as a group marginalized and threatened by liberal elites, making claims for its equal recognition as the savior of “true Christian civilization.” Identity politics, according to them, should be abolished within the nation-state but fought relentlessly at the global level.

Why do conservative entrepreneurs need to mobilize social groups through fear about the loss of supposed traditional values? In The Phantom Terror, Adam Zamoyski shows how the history of Europe after the French Revolution was dominated by the fear of conservative elites that revolution might break out again. This fear produced narratives of conspiracies, stories that secret forces threatened not just the social and political order but also “the moral fabric on which that order rested” (p. 13). This imaginary fear was in fact maintained by governments and acted in their interest, leading to “restrictions on the freedom of the individual by measures meant to protect him from the supposed threat” (p. 14).

Are culture wars today producing new imaginary fears in order to once again maintain social order in an age of crises? Let us hear now another conservative voice: Kuzman Iliev, a Bulgarian economist and parliamentary candidate for a patriotic party. In his critique of political correctness, he shares his fears that it is “raging all around the world” and that the left “is gaining momentum and preparing for a powerful attack,” expressed in “a widespread struggle against inequalities.” He goes on to say: “For the right, inequalities are natural and useful, they even are the basis of civilization and progress…. Economic interventionism, unfair redistribution, cultural victimization…, all these corrupt social attitudes. So dangerous is the leftist worldview that, if it becomes deep-rooted in culture and economics, the threat literally concerns the future of civilization as we know it.” Against this dangerous left attitudes, a new right-wing populism has to be invented: “a message, close to the people, simple, and as inclusive as possible. Everyone loves their home and their families and wants to protect their own property. Culturally conservative—preserving and conserving—is the most bounded yet most progressive credo—to prosper, you must have a solid foundation to build on.

We can see here an attempt to retell the neoconservative consensus in a cultural key. In such discourses in the peripheries, the economic selfishness, the denial of redistribution, and the social inequalities are all presented as “natural” traditional values and even the foundations of Western civilization. In times of crises, cultural and political mobilizations are constructed as moral panics, and economic consensuses are protected and safeguarded as “natural.”

Global audiences discuss similar subjects in completely different contexts. What we see through the interpretation of the Eastern European case is the shifting of the debate in a right-wing, conservative direction—right-wing interpretations being the narratives through which particular crises are thought and told. And, paradoxically, the globalization of discourse occurs through the local enactment of panic-oriented plots to consolidate the social order.

Alexander Urumov, “The War against the Family,” Trud, January 3, 2021. 

Adam Zamoyski, The Phantom Terror, Basic Books, 2015.

Kuzman Iliev, “The Strategy for the Right,” Annual 2020 of the magazine Conservative, 2021.

Milla Mineva is an assistant professor at the Department of Sociology at the University St. Kliment Ohridski and program director at the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia. In 2022–2023, she was a visiting fellow at the IWM.