Culture Wars and City Politics, Revisited: Local Councils and the Australia Day Controversy

By Rachel Busbridge (Australian Catholic University) and Mark Chou (Australian Catholic University)

The so-called ‘culture wars’ – conflicts between progressives and conservatives over morality, values and identity – are often considered purely national in scope. When James Davison Hunter first popularized the concept in the early 1990s, he had in mind a clear vision of an all-encompassing conflict between the forces of orthodoxy and progressivism over the ‘meaning of America’. Yet the fiercest manifestations of culture war conflicts very often occur in localities, turning ostensibly national debates into issues that cities and towns have to deal with. Indeed, recent events – the murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests, the COVID-19 pandemic – have only served to underscore the increasingly localized dimensions of culture war skirmishes and the challenges they present for local and municipal governance.

Such conflicts have traditionally escaped the attention of urban political science, with research tending to emphasize material interests over values. However, since the mid-1990s there has been growing interest in the implications of culture war conflicts for local politics and policymaking, a charge led by the American political scientist Elaine Sharp. Sharp’s pioneering work on culture wars and city politics, first published in Urban Affairs Review and which remains the cornerstone scholarship on this topic, systematically categorized the variety of roles local governments can play in cultural and moral controversies.

Sharp demonstrated that local governments are often faced with little choice but to adjudicate culture war conflicts when they erupt in their jurisdictions, because not doing so can have potentially substantial consequences for local officials and the communities they serve. How local governments respond, however, can variously quell, suppress, or fan the flames of conflict, both in their own communities and beyond. Sharp understood that to develop a clearer picture of how local governments contribute to culture war conflicts, scholars had to identify and map the range of local governmental responses and the conditions in which they occur.

Our article in Urban Affairs Review returns to Sharp’s foundational work as an effort to rejuvenate research on local government and the culture wars in light of contemporary developments. Following Sharp’s own methodology of ‘conceptual clarification’, our article sought to examine whether her established typology of local government responses and explanations to culture war conflicts still constitutes ‘a comprehensive listing of governmental roles in such controversies and whether the conceptualization of any of the roles requires refinement’.

In undertaking this task, we wanted to extend this rejuvenation in research to local politics and culture wars beyond the American context – in part because so much of the literature remains focussed solely on the American experience. Those who live and work outside the United States know full well that America is not the only country where culture war conflicts have presented local governments with thorny policy dilemmas. Different as these contexts and debates may be, cross-national comparison can broaden empirical and theoretical understandings of cultural controversies and how they play out in different federal political systems. In a rapidly globalizing world, many of the culture war issues that local governments must deal with are global in scope (i.e. climate change) or have parallels in other countries (i.e. same-sex marriage). As such, adding comparative scope allows scholars and practitioners to draw potentially instructive insights from other contexts dealing with similar struggles and issues.

This was why we turned our focus to an ongoing culture war conflict closer to our home, in Australia: the debate over the Australia Day national holiday, celebrated annually on January 26. Marking the arrival of the British First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788, January 26 has long been a point of contention for progressives and conservatives, the former seeing it as a day of invasion and the latter as a legitimate marker for national celebration. Much like the debate over Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day in the United States, Australia Day has been the target of a campaign to ‘Change the Date’, that is, to recognize that the day marks the beginning of colonization for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and find an alternative day on which all Australians can celebrate.

Significantly, local governments across Australia have risen to become an unlikely protagonist in this contentious debate. Since 2013, an increasing number of local councils have weighed into the Australia Day culture wars, stoking conflict within council chambers and in the wider community by variously affirming their commitment to January 26, supporting the Change the Date campaign or, most controversially, cancelling Australia Day events altogether.

We interviewed 17 councillors from local governments that were reported in the media as taking action on, or debating, the Australia Day controversy. For the most part, Sharp’s typology was apt in capturing the variety of roles Australian local councils have played in the debate to date. Notably, the fact that only a small minority of Australia’s 537 local governments have either directly or indirectly confronted the issue lends significant support to Sharp’s hypothesis that evasion is the most frequent response of local governments when faced with culture war conflicts.

Still, five cases in our sample did not neatly fit with the picture of local governmental roles in culture war conflicts that Sharp’s typology lays out. We argue that this suggests that we should revisit certain assumptions about the peculiarities of culture war conflicts and the different ways local governments and government officials can be implicated in them. Specifically, our research indicated two key things.

First, there is an important need to recognize that local government responses to culture wars are very often characterised by ambiguity. Whereas Sharp tends to see that cities are either responsive or unresponsive to culture war challengers to the status quo, our research indicates that many responses cannot be easily categorized on one side or the other. In fact, it is precisely because culture wars are so politicized they have their own logics which can (1) heavily constrain local governments’ capacity or willingness to publicly settle on one side or the other and (2) draw local governments into their orbits in unexpected ways. In our sample, we had councils that responded to the Australia Day controversy incrementally, which were not formalized but happened behind the scenes as a way to avoid backlash or institute change slowly and gradually. Other councils adopted seemingly contradictory policy decisions that were both non-responsive and responsive, in the sense that they had to appease multiple stakeholders and were often constrained by their comparatively limited powers in the federal hierarchy. Still others had no intention of responding to the Australia Day culture war but were unintentionally implicated in it by virtue of earlier actions and decisions.

Second, we need to think about how changes in contemporary local governance have shifted the types of roles cities can play in culture wars. Sharp’s typology tends to regard local government actions in reactive terms as largely independent entities separated from the local activists who push culture war controversies onto the local government agenda. However, as federal systems have seen a ‘drifting downward [of power] from the nation-state to cities and metropolitan communities’ and ‘horizontally from government to networks of public, private, and civic actors’ (Katz and Nowak, 2017: 1), an increasing number of local governments and officials see themselves as empowered to tackle big issues, both through formal and informal means and networks. In our research, it was the actions of one councilor that were more akin to a form of local activism that could not be explained within the terms of Sharp’s framework. While this means that our empirical evidence base is quite limited in this instance, we submit that it points towards an as-of-yet understudied shift in how some local officials view their roles in cultural, moral, and ideological controversies.

As Sharp’s research first highlighted more than two decades ago, our study demonstrates the culture wars are alive and well in local politics. Particularly when national political leaders and parties prove themselves increasingly incapable of addressing today’s key political, economic, social, and environmental challenges, localities will increasingly find themselves thrust into ‘the eye of a firestorm’, as Sharp put it. In the age of populist politics and COVID-19, these dynamics will likely become more, not less, prevalent.


Katz, B. & Nowak, J. (2017). The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive In the Age of Populism. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Ethan Ou on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Rachel Busbridge is sociologist specialising in nationalism, settler colonialism, cultural diversity, and urban politics. She is commissioning editor of Thesis Eleven: Critical Theory and Historical Sociology and the author of Multicultural Politics of Recognition and Postcolonial Citizenship: Rethinking the Nation (Routledge).

Mark Chou is a political scientist who researches democracy, local government, and cultural politics. He has authored six books and numerous articles and is co-editor of the Palgrave Macmillan series in The Theories, Concepts and Practices of Democracy.