Real-life conditions that promoted conservative culture-war themes were important in the rise and reign of Ronald Reagan.
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

If you spend a lot of time following politics, it often seems as though battles between Democrats and Republicans occur across a constantly evolving landscape of public opinion in which smart and not-so-smart party strategists duel, with not a lot of long-term coherence or meaning.

But from a historical context, recent American politics is best understood as a perpetual war between two roughly equal coalitions of progressives and traditionalists in which virtually all issues are “cultural” in the sense of reflecting deeper currents of values, hopes and fears along with tangible…

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