When the MLB moved its All Star game out of Georgia after state legislators passed a new restrictive voting law, conservative fury was immediate. Mitch McConnell said corporations need to "stay out of politics." Georgia Governor Brian Kemp called the MLB's reaction "cancel culture." And Texas Senator Ted Cruz said that Republicans need to consider removing the league's anti-trust exemption.
But this isn't the first time that sports leagues have led the charge on political activism. In the early 1990s, the NFL removed its Super Bowl from the state of Arizona, after voters failed to pass a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday via state referendum. A few years earlier, then-Governor of Arizona Evan Mecham had canceled the state's MLK holiday, telling a group of Black local leaders, "You folks don't need another holiday. What you folks need are jobs." In response, the NFL boycotted Arizona.
It was effective: The year after losing the Super Bowl, Arizona voters passed a referendum to install a MLK holiday, becoming the last state in the union to do so.
Indeed, the current boycott of Georgia and the successful boycott of Arizona are just two examples of a much larger phenomenon: Conservatives continue to lose the battles of America's cultural wars. It's an interesting puzzle: Conservatives hold immense political and economic power in the United States, but have repeatedly lost on cultural issues such as abortion, minority rights, and religion.
The reason is buried in the most important conflicts in U.S. history, in the Civil War and World War II. These conflicts fundamentally changed American society and altered the long term balance of political power within the country. The U.S.' opponents in these conflicts—the Confederacy and the Axis powers—represented violent authoritarian societies with strict racial hierarchies. Both the Confederacy and Nazi Germany opposed mass political participation, restricting political access to a select few white elites. Racial minorities were violently subjugated and dehumanized through a variety of means. Political dissent was not permitted.
Luckily, the U.S. was on the winning side of both conflicts. But beyond the victories, each war had an immeasurable impact on American life afterward. In both cases, America became more majoritarian and more inclusive, fashioning itself as the opposite of the nations it had paid a great cost to defeat. America's political elites decided that the political ideologies represented by the Confederacy and Nazi Germany couldn't just be defeated abroad or in the South; they had to be repudiated at home.
Thus, the conflicts led to a host of Constitutional reforms and structural legal changes which transformed the U.S. from a system of minority political rule by wealthy white men to the modern majoritarian systems of today.
In the years after the Civil War, the United States passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the 14th Amendment mandating that all former slaves (and all persons born in the U.S.) were citizens, and the 15th Amendment prohibiting state governments from denying citizens the right to vote based on their race. After World War II, President Truman desegregated the military, a move which helped open the doors for the Civil Rights movement. And in the twenty years after the war, the U.S. passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Immigration and Nationality Act, all of which opened up new political, economic, and social rights for minorities that hadn't existed prior.
But the changes brought about by these two impactful wars weren't just political; they were cultural, too. The notion of what it meant to be American, and which types of views were acceptable, was inexorably changed after the conflicts. The decades after World War II in particular saw massive changes in American culture, as Black people began to play professional sports, Black musicians went mainstream, and Black actors began to play major roles in motion pictures.
The inclusion of minorities into the political arena changed the balance of power in the cultural sphere. This isn't to say that there wasn't backlash to the new political realities; after the Civil War, white southern political leaders rushed to end Reconstruction, curtail Black voting, and institute restrictive Jim Crow laws. Extrajudicial murders by groups like the Klu Klux Klan were not uncommon. After the Civil Rights Act passed a century later, conservatives mobilized through the southern strategy and the religious right to fight back against some of the new political rights given to minorities.
But in each case, the backlash failed. The rights given to racial minorities were not weakened, but strengthened over the long term as the state codified new protections and made commitments to increase inclusion in politics. And the reactionary movements failed because of how the U.S.' political institutions and political culture shifted toward majoritarianism after the Civil War and World War II.
Which brings us back to the current culture wars of modern times. These cultural battles are not new; they are repeated internal scuffles over which voices matter and who gets to take up space and be heard in society. They are simply the latest iteration of the American debate over a restrictive or majoritarian culture and politics. And the trajectory is clear: History is marching against the conservative view.
This majoritarian framework has been etched into the country's ethos, changing U.S. political culture in a way that isn't easy to change back. Winning the Civil War and World War II against deeply exclusionary societies created a cultural preference for inclusion in the U.S. This preference has become embedded in institutions and has become self perpetuating.
It is this cultural preference for inclusion that prevents conservatives from winning the culture wars in this country. To win the culture wars, conservatives would have to fundamentally shift U.S. political culture away from inclusion toward exclusion (which, to be fair, some openly argue for doing). But this is extremely difficult to do in practice. It would require rejecting the cultural narratives that the U.S. has long told itself about its past conflicts and reorienting how its political institutions work.
In practice, this means that just as generations ago, Blackface, minstrel shows, and segregation got "canceled," today, NFL and NBA players can kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Women no longer have to bring a man with them to get a credit card. Asian Americans can protest against racism and stereotypes.
As long as the country has a bias toward inclusion, the voices of marginalized groups will get louder. And while conservative have had some big wins on the economic front, the trajectory of the U.S. will not easily allow them a cultural win again.
Marcus Johnson is a PhD student at American University who studies how political institutions impact the racial wealth gap.
The views in this article are the writer's own.