Robert O. Self: The Antisocial Contract

Roundup: Historians' Take

Robert O. Self is an associate professor of history at Brown and the author of the forthcoming book “All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s.”

WHEN the Republican Party meets in Tampa, Fla., this week, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey will deliver the keynote address. He promises “hard truths.” Twenty years ago, the Democrat-turned-Republican Phil Gramm had that job. Warning to Governor Christie: no one remembers anything Mr. Gramm said. What we do remember from the 1992 convention in Houston is the jeremiad delivered by Patrick J. Buchanan, the former speechwriter for Richard M. Nixon who won nearly a quarter of Republican primary votes that year. With his invocation of a “cultural war” for the “soul of America,” Mr. Buchanan brought down the house.

His fulminations against abortion, homosexuality and other hot-button “cultural” issues exceeded tolerable political rhetoric and likely hurt President George Bush in the general election. But Mr. Buchanan nonetheless set the tone for the Clinton years, and “culture war” became shorthand for the battle between Red and Blue in the 1990s.

With Mitt Romney trying to keep the focus on the economy, Mr. Buchanan’s outrage is not the preferred Republican template for 2012. But the primary season and Mr. Romney’s selection of Representative Paul D. Ryan as his running mate are evidence that the culture wars are still raging. Controversies over transvaginal ultrasound, birth control, Mr. Ryan’s strict anti-abortion views and, perhaps most spectacularly, the notion of “legitimate rape” put forward by Representative Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for Senate in Missouri, indicate that cultural issues remain front and center....

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