On Election Day, the world changed. A president whose first administration had been unable to bring the nation out of the economic doldrums, and had promoted a divisive health-care law, was handily re-elected, and three states endorsed same-sex marriage. Millions of conservatives found themselves citizens in a nation on an express train going over not just a fiscal, but a political and moral cliff.
What went wrong? Were demographics against us? Did we have the wrong candidate? Had we reached a tipping point where more Americans were learning to stop worrying about big government and love deficit spending?
An article in National Review Online suggests that underlying all these reasons was the simple fact that liberals had been telling the nation its stories through an ideological prism so long that hearts and minds had absorbed those cultural values.
Authors Lee Habeeb and Mike Leven note that “the dominance of the Left in the storytelling arena is making a difference at the polls. . . . The fact is, it’s easier to sell a political narrative to America when it comports with the cultural narrative we see and hear every day.” They argue that conservatives should learn to tell their stories in order to transmit their values in a way that would appeal to the imagination of the American voter. A generation raised on “Will & Grace” is more open to the idea of same-sex marriage, so what if conservatives created a counterculture that could reshape the attitudes of the audience?
“What we don’t have is an alternative to NPR,” write Habeeb and Levin, “or The Daily Show. Or 60 Minutes. Or The Charlie Rose Show. Or Frontline. Or Ken Burns. Content that doesn’t scream its politics at the audience but that lures America in with great storylines, not lectures.” As conservative blogger Rod Dreher insightfully pointed out a few months ago, “Yes, Liberals DO Control Culture.”
As appealing as this challenge might sound, there are reasons why it would be quite difficult and indeed, ill-conceived. Before we start working on conservative alternatives to “Modern Family” (“Pre-Modern Family”? “Father Still Knows Best”?), an exploration of culture building is in order.
First of all, working to impart one’s political views through entertainment outlets assumes the same motive on the part of one’s liberal opponents. It assumes that Alec Baldwin, Ben Affleck, Jon Stewart, Barbra Streisand, and so many more outspoken left-leaning stars see their careers primarily as a means to indoctrinate the public, rather than the fulfillment of a long-held desire to find their place in the entertainment spotlight. Entertainers often work from childhood to develop whatever talents they have, and go through years of arduous dues-paying, facing years of rejection, working menial jobs while pursuing endless auditions and practicing their craft.
Jon Stewart knows comedy in his bones; he happens to be liberal, whether by passion or fashion, but he mainly wants to make people laugh. When conservatives start telling stories to express their ideology, they have missed the motive that will sustain them through the years of frustration and setbacks common to anyone in the entertainment industry. Any product that comes out of this motivation is likely to be so obviously designed to deliver a message that audiences will smell the politics right away, because the message is prioritized over the art of entertainment.
That’s what happened in 2007 when Joel Surnow, a conservative and veteran television producer (of “24,” among others), put together “The ½ Hour News Hour,” a challenge to “The Daily Show” for Fox News. With a faux news set, just like Jon Stewart’s and “Saturday Night Live’s,” the two co-hosts spoofed liberal ideas. But though they understood the sacred cows they were trying to mock, their jokes weren’t very funny, and it was obvious they were all setup and no punchlines. The series lasted 17 weeks and was gone. Complaining is easy, comedy is hard.
What it sounds like Habeeb and Leven are calling for is not entertainment, but propaganda that skews right while skewering liberals. With enough such content in broadcast, film, recordings, and so on, they hope that the ideological scale can begin tipping back toward their side, influencing public attitudes.
I must wonder if perhaps those agreeing with this project might be wanting a little—what’s the word—payback? After decades of seeing one’s values and positions mercilessly lampooned and misrepresented in mainstream media, a lot of us would like to see conservatives give as good as we’ve gotten. We want a big megaphone for equal time.
I understand the impulse. Conservatives are used to feeling marginalized by those whose talent they otherwise enjoy, but who feel just fine regularly insulting part of their audience. Or when an otherwise enjoyable story is interrupted by a plain bit of propaganda from the lifestyle left. On the recent “Doctor Who” Christmas special, “The Snowmen,” two female characters, friends of the time-traveling hero, were plainly shown to be gay and married and quite eager to smugly let shocked and dismayed (and stuffy, always stuffy) Victorians know of this arrangement. (And yes, one of the females was a green-scaled alien, but that’s not the point.)
As has happened before the series, homosexual content is interjected into the story from out of nowhere, to tweak conservatives in the audience in a self-congratulatory manner and to promote a cause. This otherwise brilliantly made series obviously has an agenda that compels the producers to insert public service announcements into the scripts.
But, as your mom used to tell you when you wanted to imitate your friends’ behavior, just because Johnny’s mother lets him throw rocks at the cat doesn’t mean that you get to. Conservatives don’t need to subordinate their artistic efforts to their ideological goals. If you don’t like it when they do it, do you think audiences will like it when you do it? Piggybacking causes onto the carrier wave of entertainment is a loser for both.
The belief that, if we just had enough signals going in the other direction, if we had enough people on our side out there in Hollywood and the news media, the culture would turn around in a few years and conservatives would win more elections, is a superficial view of culture. The deep currents that have run through our society didn’t start 10 or 20 years ago when the entertainment industry converged with Washington in an unholy alliance to brainwash the public. It’s been going on for far longer than that. Cultures are like aircraft carriers—they don’t turn around quickly. Politics reflects social attitudes that change gradually, often unnoticed until, bam!—we have an election like the last one and find out where the public really is.
Any effective efforts will have to arise from a set of principles and practices among professing conservatives that begin with culture, not politics. Moving beyond knee-jerk reactions and bumper-sticker slogans means rediscovering the philosophical sources of conservatism. A good place to start would be a look at the tenets of classic conservatism as articulated by Russell Kirk. These 12 Principles, studied and meditated upon, might bring some necessary soul-searching as to what we mean by conservatism. It’s more than a political platform: It’s an attitude of mind, a way at looking at everything. It includes the nourishment that faith brings to the way we conduct our affairs, both locally and on a broader scale. It is out of these deep currents that conservatism must express any cultural efforts.
Maybe conservatives, instead of trying to score political points, might try aiming higher, creating real art that touches people in their souls. One of the most popular books during the Civil War was Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, “Les Misérables.” Both the North and the South saw their respective values appealed to by the narrative’s transcendent themes of mercy and justice, oppression and salvation. The story has been filmed several times, and the internationally beloved musical adaptation has for over 25 years toured the world, appealing to all kinds of audiences. Now adapted into a wonderful film that opened Christmas Day, that musical continues to touch the hearts of audiences, both liberal and conservative.
Of course, most of what we may produce won’t rise to the level of such singularly great storytelling, but, rather than ideological point-scoring, perhaps it’s the kind of storytelling that we should aspire to. So tell your stories, lots of them, in various media, but tell them because you love stories that express what you believe is true and real.
Image copyright Michael Nagle for the New York Times.
Alex Wainer teaches communication, media, and film classes at Palm Beach Atlantic University.