Culture wars have long existed in the United States. Historian Stephen Prothero defined culture wars as, “pitched battle(s) with a lot of militaristic rhetoric ... about moral, religious and cultural questions that (touch) on the meaning of America.”

In the 1840s, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant fervor was sweeping the country. Many Americans saw Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany as political juggernauts and threats to the American way of life. This sparked both a culture war and a political party known as the Know Nothing party.

The xenophobic culture war waged against Catholic immigrants did nothing to unite the country and led to short-term political gains for the Know Nothings. Only 16 years after its creation, the Know Nothing party collapsed into irrelevance. The culture war started by the Know Nothings failed politically, but it did succeed in stirring up violence. 

The Know Nothings represent the harmful effects of choosing to fight culture wars over fighting for principles. Know Nothings believed they were fighting for “real Americans,” but their actions strayed far from the principles and ideals envisioned by the Founding Fathers. The ideals that all men are created equal and freedom of religion were just two of the constitutional principles completely ignored by the Know Nothings. 

To make lasting change in this country, principles need to be the guiding factors in our vote, not the latest culture war. The reason the ideals of the founders are so powerful, and hold up today, is because they are principled, they apply to everyone. The country has long struggled to make this vision possible for all, but in America, right matters, and if something’s not right, it can change.

Today, we see echoes of culture wars past. Anti-immigration sentiment shifted from Europeans to Latinos. Anti-religious sentiment switched from Catholics to Muslims. Today, we see President Donald Trump stoking fears of Muslims, migrant caravans and Black Lives Matter activists to make his supporters feel that their lives depend on voting for President Trump.

If voters base their vote off a fear of Muslims, are they truly abiding by the American principle of freedom of religion? If someone bases their vote off of the fear they feel toward those protesting for better treatment of Black people, are they truly abiding by the American principle that all are created equal?

In the 1960s, the country saw the civil rights movement transform what it means to be American. The Black Americans leading this movement based their movement on principles of the Constitution, that all men and women are created equal. Some white Americans, feeling that “their” American way of life was threatened, stoked a massive culture war in response. Any success for those against the civil rights movement was fleeting, as opposition fueled by culture wars will never ultimately be successful.

The civil rights movement continues to this day, continuing to give greater voice and freedoms to Black Americans. One driving force of this movement is its foundation set on the constitutional principles of freedom and equality, something its opponents do not have.

While there are competing ideas over what it means to be American, what unites all of us is our Constitution. Our Constitution secures the rights that Americans treasure so dearly. The numerous variations of culture wars come and go, but our country’s principles and ideals found in the Constitution remain the same. The Know Nothings demonstrated that lasting political impact cannot endure if it is fueled by a culture war. Good and lasting political impact can happen if it is guided by voters who are grounded in constitutional principles and ideals.

Bryant Holloway is a program associate for the pro-democracy organization, Stand Up Republic.