Jonathan Chait of The New Republic, one of the smarted political commentators around (and a man with a wicked Swiftian sense of humor), has written an important article on the media culture wars—and on how the liberals have won them.
In an article entitled “The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy Is on Your Screen,” Chait notes that rightwing fulminations against Hollywood have all but vanished, in spite of the fact that most of what one sees on television and the movies has a liberal slant. Here’s Chait:
You don’t have to be an especially devoted consumer of film or television (I’m not) to detect a pervasive, if not total, liberalism. Americans for Responsible Television and Christian Leaders for Responsible Television would be flipping out over the modern family in Modern Family, not to mention the girls of Girls and the gays of Glee, except that those groups went defunct long ago. The liberal analysis of the economic crisis—that unregulated finance took wild gambles—has been widely reflected, even blatantly so, in movies like Margin Call, Too Big to Fail, and the Wall Street sequel. The conservative view that all blame lies with regulations forcing banks to lend to poor people has not, except perhaps in the amateur-hour production of Atlas Shrugged. The muscular Rambo patriotism that briefly surged in the eighties, and seemed poised to return after 9/11, has disappeared. In its place we have series like Homeland, which probes the moral complexities of a terrorist’s worldview, and action stars like Jason Bourne, whose enemies are not just foreign baddies but also paranoid Dick Cheney figures. The conservative denial of climate change, and the low opinion of environmentalism that accompanies it, stands in contrast to cautionary end-times tales like Ice Age 2: The Meltdown and the tree-hugging mysticism of Avatar. The decade has also seen a revival of political films and shows, from the Aaron Sorkin oeuvre through Veep and The Campaign, both of which cast oilmen as the heavies. Even The Muppets features an evil oil driller stereotypically named “Tex Richman.”
In short, the world of popular culture increasingly reflects a shared reality in which the Republican Party is either absent or anathema. That shared reality is the cultural assumptions, in particular, of the younger voters whose support has become the bedrock of the Democratic Party.
Before liberals crow that we’ve won, however, there’s a dark side to “winning” such culture wars. Pushback can occur, and I’m thinking of a point that Thomas Frank makes in his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas.
The question Frank sets out to answer is why middle class Kansans accede to their own economic degradation. After all, as I write in my book How Beowulf Can Save America, “they are filling the pockets of the wealthiest Americans, not their own, when they oppose the estate tax, labor unions, bank regulations, and progressive income taxes.” Frank’s answer is two-fold, and while his major point is that Democrats have abandoned their populist roots and so have become indisguishable from Republicans, his second point is that Kansans feel alienated and disempowered by Hollywood culture.
Feeling as though the world they see in the media, especially on television, is not their world, they lash out in Tea Party rage. Believing that their culture is dancing on the edge of the apocalypse–television, after all, can appear pervasive–they are willing to embrace nihilist politics and whacko end-times religious visions. Doing so gives them some sense of power in the face of profound alienation.
This is not to critique Hollywood–I have problems with its celebration of material culture but that’s another issue–or to lament the ascendency of the liberal social values it is espousing. I’m thrilled that media images are helping mainstream same sex individuals and powerful women and people of color. I’d just add that there is no victory without someone feeling left out, and we may now have an explanation for rightwing hysteria.
Resentment against the “counter culture” led to the vigilante movies of the 1970’s, to the election of Ronald Reagan, and to the emergence of rightwing wedge issues in the 1980s. Today, such resentment, combined with economic stagnation, has led to the dysfunctional national polarization we are seeing today.