The Difficulties of Winning the Argument in a Fragmenting Culture
In her assessment of this year’s CPAC, Melissa Clouthier laments:
Pardon me, but why are we kvetching over social issues when the nation is staggering under it’s own indebted weight? It would be one thing if there seemed to be a reasoned, respectful, fact-based argument around some of these divisive issues, but no. Instead, the right is being treated to the same sort of shrieking emotionalism that one is used to getting from the left. The misinformation and loping strawmen arguments have been embarrassing to watch. Why are average Americans, trying [to] pay their bills and scraping by, supposed to take the Right seriously? The Right certainly isn’t acting like they care about how the average person is faring. For more on this read Ben Domenech’s excellent piece on which issues should animate the Right.
Domenech’s points about self-employed, home-business or contracting moms are indeed great. But beyond that, Clouthier hits on something important: whether the issues that inspire, drive, and excite the average conservative are the same as those that inspire, drive, and excite voters as a whole. And part of the problem may be that there may not be that much of an “average American” anymore.
Our electorate, and the culture, feel really fragmented right now. You can be in a bubble and not know it. It used to be if you wanted to know what was on everybody’s mind, you watched the evening news and looked at the front page of the newspapers. Now to the extent these programs tell you what the “big news” and “big issues” are, they reveal what is on the mind of the rapidly aging audiences for those products; the rest of the population is scattered in a million different directions. There are very few moments where a lot of us are looking at the same place at the same time.
At its peak years of 1986 and 1987, “The Cosby Show” had an audience of 30.5 million people, out of a country of 240 million people — meaning about 12 percent of the population were watching each week.
The top show last week was “The Big Bang Theory,” which had an audience of just under 16 million people — in a country of about 314 million people — eaning about 5 percent of the population were watching.
Every day, you can discover some little subculture that a lot of folks dabble in, and some folks can get completely wrapped up in:
There are 211 million video-game players in the United States. For perspective, 130 million voted in last year’s presidential election.
About 35 million Americans and Canadians play a fantasy sport (fantasy football, fantasy baseball, etc.).
At least 31 million Americans are “foodies,” with an avid interest in food and culinary trends, as of 2008.
A site of “Bronies” — grown men and women who are really into “My Little Pony” — estimates that there are 7 to 12 million of them in the United states.
I don’t begrudge any of those interests (okay, the Bronies are weird*) but the point is that there is no common popular culture anymore, which makes it particularly tough for conservatives to start influencing that culture. If we’re Balkanizing into more and more niche subcultures, it’s easier than ever to live in an unrepresentative bubble without ever realizing that you’re in an unrepresentative bubble.
Mind you, the niche culture has been good for conservatives in a lot of ways. You could argue we’ve become a “niche” culture ourselves, with our own news channel (Fox News) and entertainment programming (“24”, the History Channel’s “The Bible” series, Sarah Palin’s reality show, some would argue “Duck Dynasty”), sports heroes (Tim Tebow, Jeremy Lin) , our own books, our own newspapers, magazines, web sites, morning newsletters . . .
But by becoming the well-cultivated niche, we’ve become this acquired taste, not always easily appreciated by newcomers and outsiders. Things that we think are absolutely vital, like the debt or Benghazi, end up being ignored by large swaths of the electorate, while things that seem absolutely unimportant to us, like the latest celebrity news, are given enormous attention and focus by millions of citizens who have a vote just like the rest of us. (Right now on YouTube, a guy getting punched by a street performer has 11 million views in three days. Remember, that’s about two-thirds of the audience of the most-watched broadcast television show last week.)
There are topics that we’re pretty sure are largely irrelevant to the voting electorate at large, but the speakers at CPAC go on at length about them because A) they think they’re important regardless of the public’s attention and/or B) they’re convinced their issues and views are popular, because everywhere they go, they encounter like-minded folks who agree with that assessment.
*My Libertarian side argues that as long as what you choose to do with your free time doesn’t harm others, it’s none of my business. But hearing about grown men dressing up like “My Little Pony” characters, I’m also reminded a bit of the Internet film critic Harry Knowles flipping out at the end of Toy Story 3, upon seeing the now-grown protagonist give away his favorite childhood toys.
If you are lucky enough to find a way to keep your favorite childhood joy in your life as an adult, good for you. Some kids who grew up loving “Star Wars” ended up working in Hollywood, I’m sure almost every professional athlete loved their sport as a child, and so on. But as one of Harry’s commenters pointed out, “not everyone has the luxury of holding onto their childhood.” Some people had to grow up and put their favorite toys aside and become farmers and lawyers and accountants and doctors and parents.
Some argued that when television was an endless succession of “Friends” clones, our culture was celebrating an extended adolescence — the carefree dorm-room life extending well into your 20s. Seeing grown adults almost obsessively embrace something designed for children exacerbates this sense that our culture is having a hard time groping with the concept of maturity.
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”