CZECH JOURNAL OF POLITICAL SCIENCE / POLITOLOGICKÝ ČASOPIS 2/2021
Three Types of Culture Wars
andthe Populist Strategies
Zor a Hesová**
Since the ‘migration crisis’ in 2015 at the latest, the politics of abroadly conceived Central Europe
has been marked by conicts over symbols, values and norms. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia,
Austria, and the Czech Republic have witnessed divisive debates and campaigns over refugee quo-
tas, women’sand gay rights, abortion laws and public monuments. As the term ‘culture wars’ was
becoming ubiquitous, it remained ambivalent in its meaning and usage. The aim of this article is to
identify apolitical logic of recent Central European cultural conicts without leaning solely on the
ideological explanation, e.g. the anti-liberal backlash thesis of Rupnik, and Krastev and Holms. By
borrowing R. Brubaker’sconceptualizations of identity and populism, the article contends that it is
possible to analyze culture wars as arepertoire of apopulist political style. To do so, the article de-
velops acritical perspective on culture wars, dened as polarizing conicts in the arenas of the pol-
itics of memory, politics of identity and politics of morality. Culture wars are analyzed as astrategy
of re-politicization of memory (especially of World War II), (civilizational) identity and public morality
and acode used in struggles for political and cultural hegemony.
Keywords: Populism; culture wars; Central Europe; culturalization; polarization
DOI: 10.5817/PC2021 -2 -130
As Central Europe (CE)1 closes its third decade aer the end of Communism with un-
precedented growth and stability, its public sphere abounds with arevolutionary, milita-
rized language and references to crises. Viktor Orbán’sFidesz has accomplished a‘revo-
lution at the polling booth’ and Jaroslaw Kaczynski’sPiS pursues ‘agreat transformation’
of the Polish state (Lang, 2018, p.80). ey both promise a‘cultural counter-revolution’
* is study is aresult of research funded by the Czech Science Foundation under the GAČR project
“Culture wars and national secularisation strategies in Central Europe” Nr. 18-18675S.
** Assistant Professor at the Institute for Political Studies, Faculty of Arts, Charles University, NaPří-
kopě29, Prague, e-mail: zora.hesova@.cuni.cz. ORCID: 000-0001-7760-7941.
(Krekó & Enyedi, 2018, p.45). Other occasional populists like Robert Fico and Miloš
Zeman join in to ‘defend’ Europe from migration, Islam, liberalism, and ultimately from
itself (Mark, 2019).
Even in countries that are not governed by populist parties, symbolic issues periodical-
ly dominate public debates. Mass demonstrations, national referenda and public debates
over Islam and migration, abortion, sexual education, same-sex marriages, and the Istan-
bul Convention have polarized publics in CE. Conservatives have challenged the previ-
ously dominant liberal, pro-European consensus. At times, the division of public opinion
between national-conservatives and the liberals, or between the cosmopolitan elites and
the ‘normal people’, has intensied to the point of resembling US-American ‘culture wars’.
Talk about ‘culture wars’ started already around 2013. Croatian Prime Minister Zoran
Milanović complained that aculture war was being waged against his socialist govern-
ment by an inuential Catholic coalition (Barilar, 2013); in 2014, the Polish centre-right
minister of education opposed widening the role of religion in schools claiming fear
of ‘culture wars’ (Grabowska, 2014, p.5). In Hungary, ‘culture war’ is critically thema-
tized by some academics (Ágh, 2015) but also apologetically claimed by others (Furedi,
2018). In Austria, areturn to political polarization has been discussed as aKulturkampf
‘Culture wars’ over social norms, national values and historical symbols have since
become ubiquitous: they were waged both during electoral campaigns by populist leaders
like J. Kaczynski, V. Orbán, R. Fico, M.C. Strache and M. Zeman and they went on aer
populist parties achieved electoral successes in Hungary and Poland. Even during the
recent pandemic, ruling populist parties continue to ‘exploit the culture war’ (Kováts &
Most explanations of the CE culture wars highlight their ideological content. Furedi
(2017), Mark (2019) and Krastev and Holmes (2019) variously develop the thesis of atra-
ditionalist backlash against liberal values, or of anativist reaction to the failures of neo-lib-
eralism. Yet they can be also explained instrumentally, as ashi in political strategy per-
formed by neo-nationalist populist parties and other political entrepreneurs who adopted
aconfrontational style of politics. In short, cultural wars may be asign of adeeper social
and political change, or atool of (mostly but not always) populist politics.
e perspective of this article is sceptical and cautiously instrumentalist. It aims to
show that ‘culture war’ is aslippery concept that cannot be analyzed on its own terms, that
is, as an ideological confrontation. Instead of dwelling on the content of recent Central
European culture wars, the aim is to look into their political logic. By establishing various
types of culture wars in CE and exploring the link between culture wars and populism,
culture wars will be analyzed as apolitical tool in apopulist repertoire, or atactic used to
culturalize political conict in astruggle for symbolic and political hegemony.
e article will proceed as follows: e rst part will dene culture war and populism,
and establish alink between populist successes and culture wars; the second will propose
ageneral typology of the CE cultural wars. e third part will attempt to dene the power
logic behind the CE culture wars, and the nal part will explore the performative eects
of culture war.
CZECH JOURNAL OF POLITICAL SCIENCE / POLITOLOGICKÝ ČASOPIS 2/2021
2. Culture wars and populism in CE
In the politics of the countries of Central Europe, ‘culture’ has not mattered so much in
generations. e Austrian journalist Walter Hämmerle described the ‘new struggle for
Austria’ as arepetition of the historical ‘civic wars’ (Bürgerkriege) in anew form. Whereas
in the interwar period, Marxist socialists opposed conservatives on class and religion,
the current dividing line is about ‘culture’. It is aconfrontation between those who look
towards Europe and want to face global challenges, and those who prefer to look back
and cherish their national courtyard, its past and local specicities. According to Häm-
merle (2018), Austria’scurrent polarization has come about with the reappearance of
the national-conservative camp that was marginalized aer 1945. No longer promoting
ethno-nationalist politics, the populist Freedom Party now leads aculturalist reaction to
the Europeanization and globalization of Austria.
Asimilar characterization could be oered for other CE populist projects. Successful
populist parties were able to renew national-conservative projects by articulating new
political conicts as cultural. Culturalized politics, however, is not an exclusive feature
of right-wing populist parties. Liberals have also played the culture card, especially when
incapable of proposing any substantial political programme. R. Matyja has portrayed Po-
land as aduopoly of a‘liberal camp’ (Civic Platform) and conservatives (PiS) who are
locked in ‘mutual antagonism over political and social symbols’ (Matyja, 2020, p.39) and
in fact need each other. Also, cultural conicts could not be sustained without thriving
in abroader civil society. e question is: is the success of populist parties areection of
aculturalized politics or are they amotor of culturalized politics?
2.1. Culture in populist politics
In populist politics, culture matters agreat deal. Successful populists understand their
politics as a cultural project. Poland’s J. Kaczynski pursues a ‘conservative revolution’
(Dabrowska, 2019). Viktor Orbán explained in 2018 that he and Fidesz ‘have been man-
dated to build anew era. An era is always more than apolitical system. An era is aspecial
and characteristic cultural reality. We must embed the political system in acultural era’
Culture also matters in understanding populist successes. As established by Inglehart
and Norris (2016), these cannot be explained by economic grievances alone. Populist par-
ties are strengthened by fears of migration, mistrust towards global governance structures
and by people’s authoritarian values. Inglehart and Norris talk of abacklash: populists
have harnessed the political potential of ademographic group that is most threatened by
ashi towards post-materialist values. K. Stöckl links today’sculture wars to a‘fatigue’
with the European Union which came to be perceived as ‘aliberalising and secularising
actor in the region’, and by ‘areaction to the “cultural revolution” of the 1990s’ (Stöckl,
2019). According to J. Rupnik, the erosion of aliberal consensus aer the rst two dec-
ades of anti-communism made authoritarian populism attractive. ere is a‘decoupling
of liberalism and democracy’ (Rupnik, 2017, p.25); the democratic transformation failed
to ‘capture the “habits of the heart” for liberalism’ (Rupnik, 2007, p.19). Finally, the na-
tionalist-conservative backlash is a‘humiliation-driven repudiation of liberal ideas and
institutions’ (Krastev & Holmes, 2018a, p.119). But for Krastev and Holmes (2018a), il-
liberal populism is also asign that the post-communist countries outgrew Western tute-
lage, rejected the imitative transformation model, and started to dene their own destiny.
e British-Hungarian sociologist F. Furedi has defended Viktor Orbán by arguing that
‘populism’ is a Western label for those who challenge the EU’sneo-colonial inuence.
Orbán’spolitics would be the armation of national sovereignty and historical identities
against the European version of a‘denationalised’ identity (Furedi, 2018, p.51).
e backlash theory is interesting insofar as it helps to place the national-conservative
moment within the context of CE’spolitical complexities. But it is less helpful as an ana-
lytical tool. Speaking of abacklash necessarily entails an evaluation: for some abacklash is
anegative but only temporary development (Ingelhart), for others it is both durable and
deplorable (Rupnik). Others yet see it as ajustied defence (Furedi) or even an emancipa-
tory act (Orbán). is valuation is itself amatter of controversy. Hence culture as asystem
of meanings has become abattleeld in its own right. It is not surprising that conservative
intellectuals like Frank Furedi and Marek Cichocki, and academics turned MEPs, such as
György Schöpin and Ryszard Legutko, have engaged in the intellectual side of apolitical
Analyzing culture wars is thus fraught with diculties. First, it is hardly possible not
to adopt one or the other perspective. e concept of ‘culture wars’ is simultaneously an
analytical and apractical category, as much as identity in Rogers Brubaker’sperspective
(Brubaker, 2000). e term culture war is oen used as aderogatory term and as amobi-
lizing slogan. Further, there arisk of essentialization. Echoing the actors’ representation
of cultural polarization only solidies the image of two large opposing camps. More fun-
damentally, explaining acultural confrontation by acultural backlash hardly helps to get
away from the conundrum. It is therefore necessary to work towards aworkable denition
of culture war.
2.2. Dening ‘cultural war’
‘Culture war’ is alean word from US American politics referring to political conict be-
tween Christian conservatives and liberals over segregation, reproductive and minority
rights, and migration. Coined nearly thirty years ago by the sociologist J. D. Hunter, the
term originally referred to ‘political and social hostility rooted in dierent systems of mor-
al understanding’ (Hunter, 1991, p.42). e context was the conservative backlash against
the social liberalization of the 1970s. Speaking of ‘culture war’ invites one to think of
apublic deeply divided between two camps opposed on value positions. But J.D. Hunter
himself has warned against this shortcut, ascribing culture war to polarized elites, their
cultural ‘warfare’, and to public discourse technology (Hunter, 1991, p.135).
Polarizing struggles over social norms and national values appeared in the late 2000s
in Western Europe, too; aer 2012, such conicts entered the mainstream and intensied.
CZECH JOURNAL OF POLITICAL SCIENCE / POLITOLOGICKÝ ČASOPIS 2/2021
Criticism of apermissive multiculturalism, increasing cultural framing of migration, and
resistance to liberal reforms of sexual and reproductive rights, have led to massive pub-
lic mobilizations. In France it was the anti-gay marriage demonstrations of 2012–2013, in
Germany the PEGIDA movement, and everywhere the anti-Muslim rhetoric of 2012–2016.
Cultural confrontations appeared to matter in CE once EU integration was completed.
With the consensus around European integration crumbling, many issues became con-
troversial: the national past, migration, global security and cultural diversity. By the mid-
2010s, many of the contested issues were culturalized: ‘identity politics or value wars–
that is, enduring debates on national identity and other collective identities, controversy
about moral norms, and accompanying conicts between traditionalists and moderniz-
ers– have superimposed other conict dimensions such as the socioeconomic one aer
the initial phase of transformation’ (Minkenberg, 2017, p.21).
e rst conicts revolved around sexual education, the Convention on preventing
and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the so-called Istanbul
Convention), and gay marriage in Poland and in Croatia in 2012 and 2013. Catholic con-
servatives succeeded in bringing morality issues to the media, parliaments, and courts;
four referenda on preventing same-sex marriages were organized at this time in post-com-
munist EU member states. In parallel, World War II commemorations have caused divi-
sive debates, especially in Poland and Croatia. en, in 2015–2016, the ‘migration crisis’
led to ageneralized backlash against immigration, Islam, and European asylum policies.
2.3. Approaching culture wars and populism
What is specic for CE is that the new culture wars made inroads into the region roughly
around the same time as the rst real successes of populist parties. Aer 2010, popu-
lists started to win elections, enter governments, and impose themselves as leading po-
litical forces. Migration and Islam were central issues of populist electoral campaigns: in
Poland (2015), Slovakia (2016), and in the Czech Republic and Hungary (2018). In the
2018 campaign, Orbán made ample use of migration, European Christian identity, and
Brussels’ liberalism (Krekó & Enyedi, 2018, p.48). In 2015, populist leaders in CE rallied
within the Visegrád Group against European migration policies and Brussels’ ‘decadent’
multiculturalism. In populist discourse, sovereignist positions on migration, pluralism,
minority and women’srights were pinned on the cultural dierence between the V4 and
Western Europe. Yet despite many parallels in content and timing, cultural claims were
born out of dierent ideological constellations: Orbán’silliberal nationalism, conservative
Christianism in Poland, the identitarian radical-right of H.-C. Strache, and mere populist
opportunism in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
If cultural confrontations are not easily dened beyond such family resemblances,
neither is populism. Populism continues to be ‘acontested concept’ in debates about its
essence and its emancipatory or reactive character (Mudde, 2004). Rather ‘thin’ in ideolo-
gy, populism stands out through political style and strategy (Brubaker, 2017a). Populism
is most generally dened around the anti-elitist core element: populists claim to speak
and act in the name of ‘the people’ and against ‘the elite’ (Mudde, 2004; Brubaker 2017a,
2017b; Mueller, 2018). As Brubaker adds, they claim to speak for the people (the demos)
against acorrupt elite, and for the people (the ethnos) against an external threat. ese
two perspectives intersect when the elite (or athreatening bottom) can be linked to an
outside power (e.g. the EU, international capital etc.). Brubaker denes populism as a‘dis-
cursive and stylistic repertoire’ for apolitical practice (Brubaker, 2017a). It does not mean
that adiscursive repertoire fully exhausts the phenomenon, but rather that the anti-elitist
claim is an element that various actors adopt and use in connexion to other, ‘thicker’ ide-
ological positions (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017, p.6).
Asimilar analytical perspective may be adopted towards culture wars. If the ideational
content of ‘culture wars’ is put aside, it becomes possible to analyze conicts over social
norms and symbols as moves in the struggle for political dominance. Culture wars have
indeed oen been waged by populists to mobilize their support base, to deepen and use
social cleavages and historical traumas, and to capture an electorate. In order to analyze
them as political tools, it is necessary to rst identify various kinds of cultural wars and
secondly to explore their use in political struggle.
3. Three theatres of Central European culture wars
If we put aside the focus on ideology and consider ‘culture’ as aeld of political compe-
tition, it is possible to specify cultural elds in which culture wars have been waged. In
CE, there have been three principal battleelds in the past decade: the politics of memory,
the politics of identity, and the politics of morality. Jacques Rupnik has identied two:
conicts over history and about collective identity (Rupnik, 2017). Considering the con-
tinuing mobilization around abortion and gender, morality politics has emerged as athird
important arena of cultural confrontation. e specicity of CE’sculture wars consists in
the conation of historical revisionism, civilizationism and religious conservativism in
the populist repertoire.
3.1. Politics of memory
Conicts over memory practices are not new in CE but they have intensied in the past
ten years. Indeed, there has been an ‘explosion of the politics of memory’ in CE since the
twentieth anniversary of the end of communism (Bernard & Kubik, 2014, p.2). Revi-
sionist groups, nationalist movements, various public personalities, and populist parties
have re-politicized commemoration events and sites throughout CE. Poland and Croatia
are countries in which ‘remembrance wars’ (Raos, 2016) are among the primary cultural
confrontations, followed by Slovakia and Hungary.
In the immediate aermath of 1989, history was important, but not central to po-
litical conicts. CE had liberated itself from acommunist-imposed historiography and
adopted anew politics of history: streets were renamed, statues were toppled and erected,
and heroes were rehabilitated. CE historians have opened problematic periods of national
CZECH JOURNAL OF POLITICAL SCIENCE / POLITOLOGICKÝ ČASOPIS 2/2021
history to critical scrutiny. If during the 1990s and early 2000s the future counted more
than the past, in the last decade history again became politically debated.
e recent surge in the politics of memory signalled aturn in the post-communist
trajectory of CE states. Namely, the European integration process went hand-in-hand
with adopting aEuropean memory frame, which places the Holocaust at the centre of
the European peace construction and of modern liberalism itself (Subotić, 2018, p.297).
National conservatives have, in contrast, insisted on valorizing the national past from the
vantage point of national sovereignty and historical continuity. By challenging the geno-
cide-centred narrative, they created apublic demand to ‘emancipate’ national narratives
from the European memory frame.
PiS, Fidesz, and other CE national conservative groups have worked towards ‘atra-
ditionalising historical narrative’ (Ágh, 2016, p.36), aiming to promote ‘an “armative”
approach to national history and patriotism, in opposition to what they called a“critical
approach” championed by the liberal camp’ (Szeligowska, 2014, p.148), and ‘to legitimise
their positions through aconictual historical politics’ (Trencsényi, 2014, p.150). e
nation-centric narrative– constructing aglorious, betrayed past– is a priority for the
Polish and Hungarian populist projects (Stobiecki, 2008; Laczó, 2020) and of ahost of
revisionist groups in Slovakia and Croatia. For Bernard and Kubik, the politics of memory
is ‘about the reformulation of collective identities and the introduction of the principles of
legitimising power’ (Bernard & Kubik, 2014, p.2). e politics of memory is pursued by
so-called mnemotic actors, ‘political forces that are interested in aspecic interpretation
of the past. ey oen treat history instrumentally to construct avision of the past that
they assume will generate the most eective legitimation for their eorts to gain and hold
power’ (2014, p.4).
e implications are political: dening the ocial memory is key to conceptualizing
‘the cohesion of political community and political legitimacy’ (Trencsényi, 2014, p.141)
and to imposing this vision against the will of populism’srivals. Recent activist usage of
history has been accompanied by aseries of novel, sometimes revisionist remembrance
practices aimed most oen at re-appropriation of the memories of World War II.
Some confrontations were caused by intentional provocations against the existing
memory regime: in Poland, crosses installed at Auschwitz caused apublic controversy
(Stanley, 2016). In Slovakia, the populist party’smayor of Žilina installed astatue of Slo-
vak wartime leader Tiso, who was responsible for the deportation of Jews; the neo-fascist
Marián Kotleba sported Nazi-like symbolism during his tenure as regional governor. In
Croatia, recurring provocative usage of Ustaša symbols by revisionist groups polarized the
public and put governments under pressure (Pavlaković & Pauković, 2019). In the Czech
Republic, provocative acts by populist politicians (such as attending Russian World War II
commemorations in Moscow during the Ukraine war) and Catholic priests and activists
have stirred controversy over hitherto dormant issues.
Other confrontations over the past were initiated by populist parties in power in pur-
suit of asymbolic domination over memory. Fidesz’spolitics of memory, for example, had
aclearly domineering tendency: erecting monuments in a‘frenzied metamorphosis’ of
Budapest dislocated previous memory regimes (Benazzo, 2017). e PiS has attempted to
ban use of the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ by outlawing unfavourable historical portrayals
of Poland during World War II in alaw on the Holocaust, causing widespread controversy
3.2. Politics of identity
In 2015–2016 the ‘migration crisis’ reached CE, aecting Hungary, Croatia, and Slove-
nia, and more durably Austria; other countries were only indirectly touched. Yet in all
of CE, anti-Islam and anti-migration rhetoric entered the mainstream discourse and at-
titudes to Islam, migration and EU asylum policies became major dividing issues in all
CE countries. Populist parties made extensive use of them. In adeparture from older na-
tionalisms, which were based on ethnic dierences, contemporary populist leaders have
adopted acivilizationist perspective, based on larger cultural and religious dierence. e
issue of Western identity became the basis for acultural oensive in 2015 and 2016 (Kal-
mar, 2020). Discourses targeting Islam as incompatible with ‘Christian Europe’ entered
parliaments, the media, and populist political programmes. Together with right-wing,
anti-Islamic groups and conservative civil society, large coalitions formed at times under
the leadership of populist gures. e PiS, Fidesz and Miloš Zeman successfully used
the migration card in elections in 2015 and 2018, while the migration scare did not help
Robert Fico in 2016.
During 2015–2016, migration and asylum issues were thoroughly culturalized. e
governments of A. Babiš and R. Fico expressed more inclination to grant asylum to Iraqi
Christians than to accept Muslim refugees. Kaczynski and Orbán highlighted the Chris-
tian, European, Western identity of their nations. ey reactivated the bulwark of Chris-
tianity myth and styled themselves as eternal defenders of aChristian civilization at her
boundaries (Kalmar, 2018, p.6). In doing so, they invested their nations with amission:
rescuing the real, Christian Europe from aEurope decadent with liberalism and the mix-
ing of cultures (Mark, 2019, p.290). is, in turn, became aplatform on which the coun-
tries have resisted common European migration and asylum policies and built up their
sovereigntist Visegrád positions.
e civilizationist perspective has fuelled massive public expressions of Islamophobia
and xenophobia in the Visegrád Group and deep mistrust of Europe and ‘liberal’ elites,
‘welcomers’ and ‘do-gooders’. During the 2015–2016 crisis CE countries experienced an
unprecedented polarization between those who joined populists in rejecting migration
and Islam and embracing the ‘Christianist’ position (Brubaker, 2017b) and those who
advocated amore constructive or humanitarian approach.
3.3. Politics of morality
e latest type of culture war presents itself as aconservative challenge to liberal legal
norms. If memory wars are episodic and the identity wars have subsided, divisive issues
of public morality have been on the rise since 2013. e politics of morality, or morality
politics, has been an established concept since the 1990s (Mooney, 1999). It referred to
CZECH JOURNAL OF POLITICAL SCIENCE / POLITOLOGICKÝ ČASOPIS 2/2021
political subjects pursuing ‘atypical’ morality issues in post-industrial societies (Engeli
& Green-Perdersen, 2012, p.1). Actors carrying out politics of morality usually seek to
change regulative norms to set conservative breaks on socially progressive reforms. In
confrontations around values and norms, conservative civil society groups, Christian ac-
tivists, and some politicians have allied to defend ‘traditions’ that they see as being under
threat from the advancement of individual reproductive and sexual rights.
Morality wars rst broke out with public opposition to the Istanbul Convention in
Poland in 2013, where conservative politicians (including the later Prime Minister Beata
Szydlo), formed aparliament committee called ‘Stop gender-ideology’. Gender went on to
become the word of the year in Poland in 2013 and the ratication of the Istanbul Conven-
tion was subsequently challenged in most countries on account of it mentioning ‘gender’.
In parallel, Croatia’ssuccessful replication of the French anti-gay marriage Lamanif pour
tous mobilization led to the gathering of 750,000 signatures for areferendum on aconsti-
tutional denition of marriage. Eventually, across Central and Eastern Europe, four ref-
erenda took place with the aim of changing laws or constitutions to preclude homosexual
marriage. ey succeeded in Croatia (2013) and Slovenia (2015) and failed in Slovakia
(2015) and in Romania (2018). Still, the petitions managed to mobilize 10 to 20 percent
of the electorate, polarized the public, and made opposition to so-called ‘gender theory’
Pro-life, anti-abortion mobilizations keep growing in all of CE: in the Czech Republic,
they gained the support of the Catholic hierarchy and populist politicians. In Slovakia,
pro-life marches gathered more than 80,000 and 50,000 people in 2013 and 2019, respec-
tively. In 2019 and 2020, several laws aiming to restrict abortion were proposed to Par-
liament. In Poland, polarization was very palpable during amassive liberal ‘Black protest’
that succeeded in stalling adra law, led by PiS, aiming to impose atotal ban, going
beyond the already extremely restrictive regulation of abortion.
ese new morality wars may come as asurprise, considering that abortion and wom-
en’srights were taken for granted in post-communist Central Europe, aside from Poland.
Yet pro-life and traditionalist campaigns are in fact linked to the wider European and US
culture wars. ‘National pro-life marches’ and petitions against same-sex marriage have
been organized by newly professionalized and coordinated conservative civil society
groups, oen with help from US sponsored advocacy groups (Kuhar & Paternotte, 2017;
Datta, 2019). Learning from US groups appears to have enhanced their professional com-
munication: the new politics of morality is based on supra-confessional strategies, framed
in asecular language of rights (of families, of the majority) rather than in religious insist-
ence on sin, and the activists present themselves as aminority persecuted by legal and
political institutions (Castle, 2018). Populist parties, especially PiS, but also Fidesz, SMER
and smaller national-populist parties, have all adopted elements of morality politics. eir
rejection of socially liberal attitudes and laws (symbolized by same sex-marriage, adop-
tion of children by gay couples, and transgender rights), the demonization of ‘gender’, and
the criticism of the permissive legacy of 1968 have been explicitly motivated by natalist
policies and legitimized by aresistance to liberal ‘impositions’ from Brussels.
To sum up, the typology of CE culture wars allows us to formulate several remarks.
First, culture wars in CE are specic to the region. If CE shares an issue with the USA,
it is broader, and rmly inscribed in the dynamics of post-communism and Europe-
anization. Upcoming populist elites pursue projects of political dierentiation from the
transformation consensus. History, identity and community norms are at stake in this
struggle. Yet CE culture wars do not actually revolve around aclear ideological divide:
the perspectives of liberalism and national-conservativism do not extend to all the con-
troversial issues, and individual conicts have their own, local dynamics. Further, cul-
ture war is not primarily apopulist or a political tool: many of the above-mentioned
confrontations were instigated by various civil society organizations, advocacy networks,
media, and public personalities, both conservative and liberal. Despite the complexity
of the issues and actors, apolarization into militant liberal and national-conservative
publics has repeatedly emerged as recently as during Slovak elections (2019 and 2020)
and Polish elections (2020). Political leaders used or resisted, fuelled or moderated such
wars, and some of them resorted openly to culture warfare to polarize the population and
4. Struggle for cultural hegemony
Framing divisions in ideological terms is useful for descriptive reasons but has little ex-
planatory force. Namely, labels used in aculture war– ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, ‘tradi-
tional’, ‘populist’ are themselves used as tools in apolitical struggle. In order to analyze
culturalized confrontations, it is necessary to develop amore precise analytical concep-
tualization. Aquick overview of the puzzle shall help to narrow the questioning down to
auseful perspective on ‘culture wars’ and their political logic. e perspective proposed
here relies on adistinction between occasional political instrumentalization on one hand,
and systematic political strategy in the attempt at challenging apolitical hegemony by
using cultural codes on the other.
4.1. Escaping the conceptual ambiguity of ‘culture wars’
Cultural confrontations lend themselves particularly well to political struggle. Because
they are fought over values and identity, they allow for little compromise or negotiation.
When migration became astake in aculture war, instead of debating modalities how to
manage migration, the public split into for migration and against migration positions, cod-
ed in defence of either liberal or of nativist values. Because values are subjective– more
than the intricacies of European asylum and migration policies or global migration fac-
tors– culturalized framing tends to politicize parts of the public who feel le behind by
technocratic governance. And because identity and social norms are framed as threatened
or threatening, cultural issues have ahigh mobilization potential. But populists hardly
have amonopoly on instrumentalizing culture war.
National-conservative populist governments have made ample use of culture wars,
but so have opportunistic centrists with populist tendencies. e Czech and Croatian
CZECH JOURNAL OF POLITICAL SCIENCE / POLITOLOGICKÝ ČASOPIS 2/2021
centre-right governments, led by the populist PM Babiš and the independent PM Oreš-
ković, took advantage of support from cultural warriors (e.g. the populist SPD Party in
the Czech Republic, and pro-life groups in Croatia) but have backed o from allying with
them in aformal coalition for fear of losing their ‘civic’ identity. Others have made ample
use of identity and migration issues but not always to their advantage: the nominally so-
cialist Slovak leader Fico resorted to conservative policies (restricting abortion and mar-
riage), the Islam-scare, and an alliance with nationalists, but could not retain his majority.
In the Czech presidential elections in 2013 and 2018, playing the history and migration
cards worked for the populist Zeman, but in the Slovak presidential elections of 2019 it
did not: SMER’s candidate could not push Zuzana Čaputová into an apologetic liberal
corner the way Miloš Zeman succeeded in pushing his opponent.
Furthermore, it is dicult to independently analyze two related aspects of culture
wars: the instrumentalization of existing culture wars and the instigation of them. Wag-
ing culture war appears to be atactical tool, oen used when labelling one’sopponent as
‘liberal’ or unpatriotic brings political advantage. Also, starting asymbolic conict oen
helps deect public attention from policy shortcomings to some secondary but symboli-
cally charged issue. But do populists merely use aculturalized context, or do they produce
it? If populists such as Orbán, Kaczynski and Zeman have been masters of cultural poli-
tics, ‘liberals’ have also thematized cultural issues and added to the polarization.
Finally, the very term ‘culture war’ is anegative label. Nobody wants to be openly wag-
ing aculture war. Liberals accuse the conservative populists of fomenting acultural war
(Laczó, 2020) and conservative apologists argue that the very term ‘populism’ is aweapon
in the liberals’ cultural war against them (Furedi, 2017). Both parties to the conict see
the other as acultural warrior who uses symbolic violence against them. Like ‘populism’,
‘culture war’ has been used as a‘Kampegri’ to discredit the opponent (Mudde & Kalt-
wasser, 2017, p.1), and has therefore shared the fate of other formerly critical terms such
as Islamophobia and political correctness.
Rogers Brubaker has reected on the conation of the analytical and political uses
of the term ‘identity’ (Brubaker, 2000). He has attempted to avoid conceptual confu-
sion by concretizing and conceptualizing the various meanings of ‘identity’. Borrowing
from Brubaker, we may attempt to extricate ‘culture wars’ from its denitional ambigui-
ty. Brubaker denes populism as a‘discursive and stylistic repertoire’ articulated around
amain strategy, the distinction between the ‘people’ and elites, along with their inner and
external allies, including an additional set of tools or tactics. Brubaker has listed ve of
these tactics: antagonistic re-politicization of forms of decision-making, sovereignty etc.,
majoritarianism, anti-institutionalism, protectionism, and acommunication style using
simplicity and directness (Brubaker, 2017a).
Form all the above, antagonistic re-politicization stands out. In the culturalized poli-
tics of the 2010s, political challengers– especially the FIDESZ and PiS parties upon their
return to power– re-politicized issues ranging from national history to public morality
to demarcate themselves from adversary elites. Once in power, they sought to consoli-
date their electoral victory by imposing acertain cultural vision, vocabulary, and aset of
symbolic policies which mobilize their supporters against their adversaries and ‘deepen
cultural and political polarization’ (Krastev, 2018b).
For J. D. Hunter, culture war is apower for cultural hegemony. Populists do frame their
ght for political domination as asymbolic struggle for cultural hegemony. For Balasz
Trencsényi, culture wars are ‘projections of certain intellectual subcultures that seek to
realize their wish for cultural-institutional hegemony by opting for asymbolic-political
discourse of fundamental renewal in which anew hierarchy will put an end to the period
of liminality characterizing the transition’ (Trencsényi, 2014, p.151). e key to the logic
of aKulturkampf is that ‘achieving cultural hegemony … is apreeminent means of domi-
nation’ (Trencsényi, 2014, p.140).
If culture wars are struggles for cultural hegemony, do they exhibit features of ‘cultural
warfare’? J. D. Hunter has analyzed various ‘technologies of public discourse’ (Hunter,
1991, p.135). e warfare in CE may also be analyzed as aseries of tactics and as apower
strategy. Politicizing cultural issues can be both short-term populist tactics– such as la-
belling the opponent, deecting attention to symbolic issues, building coalitions during
elections– or asystematic power strategy– such as ameans to challenge, gain, and main-
tain inuence through displacing one narrative and imposing another and thus forming
the attitudes of people (Ágh, 2016, p.39). It is the second, more substantial culture warfare
that will be analyzed here. In this perspective, culture wars are conicts over discursive
and cultural hegemony waged by challenging elites against the established elites by (re-)
politicizing accepted national history regimes, the framing of national identity and col-
4.2. ‘Anti-hegemonic’ strategy
e ideological bases of cultural wars– Christianism, national-conservativism, patriot-
ism– all share one commonality. ey are presented as anti-hegemonic– i.e. as mobi-
lizations against an overwhelming power. Kaczynski and Orbán frame their policies as
restorative revolutions in which they reject the liberal hegemony that has marked the
post-communist transformation ‘on the basis cultural, political, and socioeconomical ar-
guments’ as they seek to replace it with an alternative ‘ideological framework’ (Trencsényi,
2014, p.142). Populist leaders mobilize against a narrative they present as dominant,
and they do so from adeclared position of weakness: ‘e ideology of the Kulturkampf,
as formulated by the right-wing challengers, targets the alleged hegemony of the Le’
(Trencsényi, 2014, p.149). In their view, liberalism betrayed the cause of national sover-
eignty because it was imposed as the only game in town by liberal elites under the tutelage
of Western democratic reformism; their national conservativism is adefensive project.
Against the accepted notion of a(fragmenting) liberal consensus (Krastev, 2007), ‘liberal
hegemony’ is erected into aforceful dominance by conspicuously reframing the usual
ideological narratives and by systematic use of rhetorical means.
Conservative civil society organizations actively participate in presenting liberalism as
both hegemonic and repressive. Liberalism’sbetrayal is aprominent subject of conserv-
ative public gures such as Roman Joch and Ryszard Legutko: in their view, the initial
liberal defence of freedom morphed into an ideology of progressivism that suppresses
dissent in the courts and imposes political correctness (Joch, 2019; Legutko, 2020). For
CZECH JOURNAL OF POLITICAL SCIENCE / POLITOLOGICKÝ ČASOPIS 2/2021
Catholic cultural warriors such as Gabriele Kuby, liberalism is the product of ‘a global
sexual revolution’, an imminent threat to the traditional family, and adictatorship of the
politically correct (Kuby, 2014). To reverse major cultural narratives, ‘progressive’ issues
are portrayed as results of ‘totalitarianism’ and ‘cultural Marxism’; the concept of gender is
portrayed as a‘worse threat than Nazism and Communism’ (Sierakowski, 2014).
In aperformative construction of hegemony, targeted provocations push opponents to
‘enforce’ liberal norms. e Czech populist President Zeman perfected the art of provoca-
tion by breaking liberal taboos and committing gross acts of political incorrectness– such
as mock-shooting critical journalists or inviting an open Islamophobe to the stage during
aVelvet Revolution commemoration. By breaking the norms of decency, Zeman regularly
forced his liberal opponents to express misgivings and criticism, which was in turn con-
strued as intolerant and domineering on their part. Populist leaders have generally been
able to walk the tightrope between politically barely acceptable and morally abhorrent.
President Zeman’sattacks on the media, Andrej Babiš’sopen abuse of the EU subventions,
and Viktor Orbán’swar on the Central European University– none of those ‘misdeeds’
weakened their popularity because every time they managed to portray the injured party
as apowerful opponent.
Further, self-victimization is arecurring gure in culture war narratives. In Poland,
the PiS government keeps the Smolensk trauma painfully alive, insisting on Polish vic-
timhood and foreign conspiracies. In Hungary, Orbán systematically claims to be ghting
the conspiracy of apowerful international network, represented by Soros, that ‘organises
migration’ to Europe (Orbán, 2019). His battle against ‘the liberal zeitgeist and liberal
internationalism’ is portrayed as ‘adicult struggle’ and ‘an uphill battle’ (Orbán, 2019).
Self-victimization is instrumental: by presenting Hungary as weak, asmall ‘country of ten
million’ ghting against an overwhelming enemy, Orbán engages in a‘peacock dance’;
he has admitted resorting to double speech when facing his enemies (Magyar, 2019). He
adopts pro-EU language for the international public but says the opposite to his domestic
audience (Ágh, 2016, p.39).
On adiscursive level, the rhetoric of reversed power relations produces striking phras-
es such as ‘the oppressed majority’, ‘the dictatorship of minority rights’, the ‘criminaliza-
tion of those who dare discriminate’, the ‘endangered species’ of the white heterosexual
male etc. Concepts are intentionally blurred by paradoxical associations and transformed
into negative labels: liberalism was linked with ‘cultural Marxism’, and political rivals were
labelled foreign agents. Populist leaders and conservative activists use ridicule, spectacle,
and confusing phrases to undermine and discredit liberal positions. In the late 2010s,
ironic or derogatory discursive ‘codes’ for anti-liberal positions became widely used. e
‘do-gooders’, ‘welcomers’, the Czech ‘sunshines’ or the German Gutmenschen, were viral
ironic replies to liberal labels such as ‘hate speech’, ‘racist’, and ‘Islamophobe’. Ironic labels
function as codes through which leaders nod to their supporters and mobilize them: Or-
bán operated with the slogan ‘We shall not let Soros have the last laugh’ (Keszthelyi, 2017),
while Miloš Zeman ceremoniously burnt giant red underpants, aliberal anti-Zeman logo
that was intended to ridicule him (BBC, 2019).
4.3. Discursive and institutional takeover
Using codes is more than arhetorical device: it is also an instrument of power in amore
direct sense. Besides the discursive aspect of the struggle for hegemony, there is the insti-
tutional dimension. If reference to certain codes (historical, social, discursive) helps delin-
eate between groups, it also serves to dierentiate the new from the old elite, the ‘us’ and
‘them’. Codes help dene one’sbelonging: from the ‘sense of being involved’ and represent-
ed in politics (Gdula, 2020, p.90) to increasing chances of being involved quite literally. Ac-
cording to the liberal historian Anne Applebaum, one such code is the so-called ‘Smolensk
conspiracy’. Professing this belief denes ‘atrue patriot– and, incidentally, might well qual-
ify for agovernment job’ (Applebaum, 2018). Hence, using certain codes helps designate
groups that are opposed on symbolic grounds, to polarize people into those groups and
eventually also to replace one group in leading institutional positions by another.
e latest type of culture war– conservative morality politics– shows well how cul-
ture wars spread and the institutionalized use of conservative codes. In the anti-same-sex
marriage campaigns, the stakes were symbolic demands rather than substantial policy
projects. Churches and conservative NGOs engaged in campaigns for aconstitutional
denition of heterosexual marriage in countries where marriage was already dened as
between aman and awoman. In Slovakia, the parliament had adopted aconstitutional
change to this eect even before the referendum (with an extended set of questions) took
place. e same applies to anti-abortion mobilizations: so far, they have no real chance in
succeeding in any post-communist country (apart from Poland, where on-demand abor-
tion was criminalized in 1993). If the mobilizations failed on alegislative level, they never-
theless provoked discursive shis in public debates and led to serious practical limitations
on abortion access in Slovakia, Hungary, and Croatia and changed public articulation of
women’srights, family models and cultural dierences.
Astriking example of an accomplished discursive change came in the wake of the
so-called anti-gender campaigns. In CE, the concept of ‘gender’ has almost entirely fallen
victim to atakeover by conservative mobilizations. From the reserved domain of aca-
demic and expert social policy discourse, ‘gender’ was singled out by Catholic conserv-
ative publicists and made into an object of moral panic (Kuhar & Paternotte, 2017). In
2013, the Bavarian Catholic publicist Gabriele Kuby and an array of conservative NGOs
campaigned to introduce the notion of ‘gender theory’ or ‘gender ideology’ (Kuby, 2013)
throughout CE. is hostile interpretation of the concept of ‘gender’ is motivated by the
Vatican’srejection of acritical perspective on gender relations. In the ‘gender-ideology’
compound, the notion of ‘gender’ is reinvested with an entirely dierent meaning to in-
clude the absurd idea of arbitrariness of sexes (Kuhar & Paternotte, 2017). Besides Catho-
lic activists and Church ocials, the public oensive has involved media, conservative
politicians and populist parties. By 2013, anti-gender campaigns succeeded in spreading
the hostile rendering of ‘gender’ in public (Bracke & Paternotte, 2016).
Because ‘gender ideology’ was linked to the purported liberal project of revolution-
ary social change, conservative and populist groups could mobilize against it in order ‘to
create an us/them divide’ (Kováts, 2017, p.178). Liberals were dened as those who agree
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with ‘gender mainstreaming’ and with same-sex couples adopting children, while con-
servatives were seen as those defending the ‘traditional family’ against ‘LGBT ideology’
and promoting ‘family mainstreaming’. In the antagonized public atmosphere, it became
dicult to sustain nuance or to debate matter-of-factly the core issues of rights equality
and gendered violence.
On the other hand, it became very easy to publicize one’sposition. Using codes such as
‘gender-ideology’, ‘migration’, ‘Western civilization’, and ‘traditional values’ made it possi-
ble to politicize expert and administrative advisory board positions, media boards of trus-
tees, municipalities etc. Ahundred Polish municipalities adopted the status of ‘LGBT-free
zones’ (Ciobanu, 2020), and Czech Republic’snew ombudsman refused to cover minority
rights. Aer the populist victory in Slovakia in 2020, the ombudswoman was shunned by
parliament for her defence of sexual minorities, and ahigh ocial of the Labour Ministry
quit because the new Labour Minister ‘force[d] us to accept the comments of the Confer-
ence of Bishops of Slovakia, who are trying to erase gender equality from the vocabulary
altogether’ (Spectator, 2020).
Besides the co-optation and capture of institutions, populists in power tended to secure
their domination by seizing control of sources of cultural inuence: public media, univer-
sities, regulative bodies, museums, citizen’sorganizations etc. e Polish and Hungarian
governments have reassigned public funding to conservative civil society and attempted to
inuence historical studies, either by legally limiting their scope, as in Poland’slaw on the
Holocaust controversy, or by closing, defunding, and restructuring academic institutions,
as in Hungary. Positions on national history, LGBT, ‘gender-ideology’ and ‘family main-
streaming’ became very unambiguous codes for attempts to inuence public institutions:
those who subscribe to the new cultural code are promoted, others hindered. One glaring
example is Orbán’sindirect but obvious targeting of gender studies departments and the
liberal Central European University. In Slovakia, the parliament’snew populist-conserva-
tive majority used socially conservative vocabulary to disrupt the work of the ombudsman
and to eect personnel changes (Gehrerová, 2020).
5. Performing culture wars
If we analyze culture war as an instrument of political mobilization and elite replacement,
parallels between Central Europe and the current US culture wars rise to the surface,
both in their outward forms and in their fundamental ambivalence. If US ‘conservatives’
have fought ‘liberals’ on cultural issues since the 1980s, adeep polarization is not nec-
essarily asociological reality. People rarely oppose each other on ahomogenous set of
issues (omson, 2010). J. D. Hunter argued in 1991 that the polarizing motor was ‘public
discourse’ (Hunter, 1991, p.43). e two US political parties have indeed sorted them-
selves around cultural positions and this division has increasingly reected racial, spatial
and demographic splits between small town white America and urban conglomerations.
Ideological polarization has then increased to the point of obliterating bipartisanship in
federal politics (Klein, 2020).
Asimilar phenomenon of self-perpetuating polarization appeared in CE: divisive con-
icts have rearranged political landscapes and eventually polarization cemented through
institutionalization, clientelism or authoritarianism; this is how Palonen renders the per-
formative generation of apolarized nation (Palonen, 2018). In CE, as in the US, judg-
es, public broadcasting board members, ombudsmen etc. increasingly compete less on
their expertise and more according to their ideological position. In aparty system that no
longer operates on the right/le divide, culture war codes have replaced partisanship and
have become atool of political mobilization and of militant governance.
Viktor Orbán is aprime example of such an oensive model of governance (Trencsényi,
2014, p.144). In the last of his annual programmatic speeches at the Tusnádfürdő sum-
mer camp, he described his long political trajectory as aseries of achievements reached
through war: ‘We’ve lived through the last nine or ten years with abricklayer’strowel in
one hand and asword in the other. We needed to build while at the same time continuous-
ly ghting. […] We’ve had to repel attacks which have sought to question the international
acceptance of the national system we’ve developed’ (Orbán, 2019). Orbán gave such war
acultural meaning: his Fidesz Party had stood up to liberal internationalism, ‘blocked
George Soros’scandidates’, prevented ‘ideological guerrillas’, engaged in ‘struggle within
the institutions’, and returned ‘attacks launched’ by the European Commission and courts.
His stated aim was to ‘reject migration, to protect families, to defend Christian culture,
to announce aprogramme of national unication and nation-building, and to create an
order of Christian freedom’. Fidesz built ‘this new national system step by step, achieving
success while at the same time maintaining and regenerating mass support’ (Orbán, 2019).
Polarization is acrucial element for such a‘maintaining and regenerating [of] mass
support’. With Benjamin Mot, we could suggest that populists discursively produce po-
larization. By acting as if there was areal divide and an entrenched culture war between
liberals and national-conservatives, they ‘perform’ aculture war by ‘identifying’ war par-
ties, ‘framing’ the people and the enemy, ‘elevating’ their struggle into an defensive, an-
ti-hegemonic war of civilizational importance, and ‘propagating’ their leadership role in
it (Mot, 2015). At moments of a conuence of several issues – such as divides over
WWII history, Islam, and public morality– opposing groups have overlapped and formed
two large opposing camps. In Croatia in 2016, there was ‘the liberal, urban, metropolitan
camp, which is historically critical, more secular, and more socially liberal, and the con-
servative camp, which is historically nationalist, more religious, more socially conserva-
tive’ (Raos, 2016). Similar examples are Austria and Poland in the elections of 2016 and
2020. When such super-polarizations occur, public voices get sorted from all cultural or
ideological questions into two opposing publics.
Yet these super-polarizations appear to be more or less durable constellations in which
the cultural divisions and political interests of major parties align for acertain period
of time. In Croatia and Slovakia, massive petition campaigns have aected subsequent
elections but did not sustain themselves for much longer. e very successful organizer of
the Croatian 2013 referendum petition, Željka Markić, attempted to initiate another ref-
erendum on nationalist grounds and to run for oce. Her moves were stalled by the very
beneciaries of the rst mobilization, the right-wing Croatian Democratic Community
(HDZ). Aer HDZ returned to power in 2015, amoderate leadership dissociated itself
CZECH JOURNAL OF POLITICAL SCIENCE / POLITOLOGICKÝ ČASOPIS 2/2021
from the most radical entrepreneurs in morality and memory politics. Without centrist
backing, conservative civil society alone was not capable of producing super-polariza-
tion. In Slovakia’s2019 presidential elections, the candidate of the centrist SMER failed
to re-create the conservative momentum in playing the anti-LGBT card and using the
vocabulary of the 2015 referendum; it turned out that the context had changed aer the
murder of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak. Super-polarizations are episodes or
swerves, as Bustikova and Guasti call them (2017), that last as long as they are sustained
by an eective mobilization. e mobilizing force of acultural war tends to wear o unless
it is sustained by asense of perpetual crisis or by escalation.
Populists in power have been observed fuelling polarizing confrontations. According
to Ben Stanley, the PiS is ‘very keen to promote asense of constant threat’ (Gosling, 2019).
In Poland and Hungary, the momentum seems to have lasted due to continuing cultural
war that is waged from the position of power, and especially through media control. For
Kaczynski, and even more explicitly for Orbán, politics is a‘freedom ght’ (Buzogány,
2017, p.7) that starts at electoral boxes but that is sustained on broader battleelds. Orbán
himself has used all three scenes of the culture wars: in building historical monuments
in Budapest and the ‘wall’ against migrants, and by campaigning against internationalist
liberalism (Soros) and gender. So did PiS, in politicizing ‘gender’, WWII, Islamophobia,
abortion and the LGBT-scare most recently.
e ‘target group’ of aculture war is not necessarily very broad. For Attila Ágh, in Hun-
gary’s‘velvet dictatorship’ the populist strategy of cultural domination is not to convince
the majority. Rather, its aim is mobilizing asmall but ‘stubborn minority’ and ‘silenc-
ing/pacifying the majority’ by forming aconsensus around the dominant narrative (Ágh,
2016, p.39). Anational-conservative ‘parallel polis’ thus emerges in competition with the
previous cultural elite, with ‘parallel channels of communication, rituals, and particular
patterns of sociability and solidarity’ that ‘keeps their membership in apermanent state of
mobilization’ (Trencsényi, 2014, p.151).
Hence, rather than reecting adeep polarization or asubstantive cultural change, cul-
ture wars are aproduct of astrategy of political mobilization and elite replacement. So
far, they have been dependent upon aconstant performance of polarization. It may nev-
ertheless become durable in some countries like in the US, if cemented into institutions,
discursive and cultural hegemony and graed upon demographic cleavages.
Culture wars reached Central Europe in full in the mid-2010s. Large public mobiliza-
tions, divisive debates, and adeep polarization over symbols and norms were symptoms
of asuddenly culturalized politics. If Islamophobia and xenophobia were the most sa-
lient features of the CE culture wars, they were not the only battleelds. An analysis of
various polarizing mobilizations over symbolic, non-policy issues identies three main
theatres of CE culture wars: the politics of memory, the politics of identity, and the politics
of morality. While CE countries earlier experienced conicts over historical issues and
national identity, only in the past decade have these issues led to mass mobilizations and
deeply polarizing events and debates. Nativist, national-conservative politics has gained
an unprecedented salience in the past decade, especially in countries in which populist
parties gained power: Hungary, Poland, and Austria. It has been argued that the populist
phenomenon corresponds to an erosion of the liberal-democratic consensus and to ana-
tionalist and traditionalist backlash against imported liberalism.
is article has attempted to explore adierent perspective. In abroader diagnosis, CE
is witnessing aculturalization of political divides where terms such as ‘liberal’ and ‘illiber-
al’, ‘populist parties’ and ‘traditional parties’ have become tools of political conict. Avoid-
ing explaining culturalization by cultural or ideological shis, this article has argued that
culturalization may be analyzed as aconsequence of apolitical strategy. Culture wars are
conicts over cultural and political hegemony, i.e. struggles over who will dene the basic
parameters of adiscourse, of apolitical community, of the nation’spast. ese sensitive is-
sues have been re-politicized by anew elite organized around new, divisive cultural codes.
e tactics of culture war include a‘construction’ of athreatening hegemony, provocative
challenges and discursive undermining and reversals, blurring of accepted notions and
takeover of the sources of cultural production and institutional inuence.
Cultural wars have been fought by various actors. If recent cultural warriors are mostly
conservative, ‘liberal’ and progressive camps are not above entering cultural conict. In
fact, engaging in aculture war produces conict– when leading politicians act as if people
were culturally polarized, polarization sets in. Populist challengers have nevertheless used
culture wars most systematically. As apolitical strategy, culture war has provided codes
helping to divide and mobilize the public and to replace political and cultural elites.
Until now cultural wars have indeed been episodes of varying duration. ey have
proved most lasting in countries in which populists have occupied the political centre,
gained power, invested in the media and used culture wars for sustained polarization and
base mobilization– that is, in Hungary, Poland and partly in Slovakia. Elsewhere, such as
in the Czech Republic, Austria and Croatia, culture wars have hitherto been rather inter-
mittent swerves. e question is whether cultural polarizations can be institutionalized
and become apermanent tool of governance.
1. For the purpose of this article, Central Europe includes the Visegrad countries and Austria, Slovenia
and Croatia– all are countries with ashared Catholic tradition, and arecent history of culture war
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