Politics & Policy

Hip Right

Do South Park Conservatives rule?

“No longer do the New York Times, the big networks, and the rest of the elite liberal media have an all-but-monolithic power to set the terms of the nation’s political and cultural debate.” So writes the Manhattan Institute’s Brian Anderson in his recent book South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias. And, as you can tell from the title of the book, this is not all necessarily your father’s kinda conservatism. Anderson recently talked to NRO editor Kathryn Lopez about his thesis, observations, the future, and, of course, South Park.

National Review Online: Let’s get the most important topic in your book taken care of first: What’s NRO doing right?

Brian Anderson: Five things. One phrase liberals use a lot these days is: “right-wing echo chamber.” I hate that formulation. It implies conservatives all think alike, and basically just sit around waiting to get their talking points from the RNC or Karl Rove or from some other dark force. Anybody who spends five minutes reading NRO–and this is thing one–will recognize how stupid that contention is, and how much vigorous, healthy disagreement, and intellectual energy exists on the Right. Second, NRO provides an impressive amount of new material every day, at a very high level. Third, it’s funny–especially The Corner. Fourth, I love the kill-the-zombies time-wasters that Jonah Goldberg keeps linking to, though they’ve made me slightly less productive and further desensitized me to violence. Fifth, it is a godsend at election time. The Kerry Spot, along with RealClearPolitics and a few other key sites, helped get me through the 2004 presidential race. And a sixth thing would be NRO’s sharp, functional design.

NRO: The “South Park Conservative” moniker makes some uncomfortable. Michelle Malkin recently noted she’s not one. What exactly is it and can you be a traditional-minded person, sometimes (or often/always) cringe at the SP humor, and still have a place at this table, if there a table?

Anderson: As I use the term, which I didn’t coin–Andrew Sullivan was speaking of South Park Republicans at least a few years back, as was Stephen Stanton, who writes for Tech Central Station–it loosely refers to an anti-liberal or an iconoclastic right-of-center type: someone who may not be traditionally conservative when it comes to things like censorship or popular culture or even on some social issues but who wants nothing to do with the dour, PC, and elitist Left.

This anti-liberal attitude, I argue in the book, runs through a significant strain of contemporary humor, above all through the show South Park itself, which though it satirizes the Right, too, and is filled with enough profanities and outrageous scenarios to anger some social conservatives, has really gone after liberals like nothing before it in the history of popular culture. As Trey Parker, the show’s co-creator, put it: “We hate liberals more than conservatives, and we hate them.” A rude anti-liberalism characterizes the attitudinal stance of many of the college students I interviewed for the book, too.

I don’t proclaim the existence of “South Park Conservatives” to be the future of the Right but one sign of a broader delegitimation of the Left that is resulting, at least in part, from the market- and technology-driven arrival of the new media of political talk radio, cable television, and the Internet, which are allowing right-of-center arguments and ideas and even creative visions to get a hearing in the broader culture. That’s the larger theme of South Park Conservatives, which offers a kind of brief, and I hope entertaining, history of new media.

I would readily agree Michelle Malkin is not a “South Park Conservative”–I don’t refer to her as one. But I think those conservatives who see South Park as one more sign of cultural breakdown should at least consider the significance of a show that has mocked hate-crime legislation, environmentalism, multiculturalism, and a host of liberal celebrities, winning a huge and enthusiastic following among younger Americans. What’s more, anybody who describes Hollywood the way Trey Parker did to Andrew Breitbart and Mark Ebner a while back deserves at least an ear from the Right: “Celebrities view themselves as the f***ing Mozarts of their time. Even f***ing Ray Romano thinks he is an enlightened individual. These people all think they are enlightened artists and therefore speak for the country. But I haven’t met one celebrity who wasn’t a little bit f***ed up. Actors and actresses are the worst, because they are just f***ing monkeys. Half the people in this country can do what they do, but for some reason they think their opinion matters.” That’s not the voice of Allan Bloom or William F. Buckley, for sure, but it expresses a powerful truth nonetheless.

NRO: When big publishers create conservative imprints, are they saying “conservatives can’t make it with the big kids” or are they investing in a huge book-buying market?

Anderson: The latter. The creation of superpower publisher conservative imprints–three now, Doubleday’s Crown Forum, which started releasing books in late 2003, Penguin’s Sentinel, which debuted last year, and most recently Simon & Schuster’s Threshold, which will launch in 2006–is a tremendously heartening development. These imprints join Regnery (my publisher), Encounter Books, ISI Books, and several other companies favorably disposed to right-of-center ideas. There’s no question about the size of the conservative book-buying market: just look at the bestseller lists, where a new right-of-center title seems to show up every week. With all these publishers out there now, there’s really never been a better time to be a conservative author. You’ve actually got a decent chance to find someone willing to publish and promote your book!

It makes good marketing sense for these publishers to establish separate imprints, since it creates in the reading public’s mind the expectation of a certain kind of book. I remember when I was in college and starting to become interested in conservative ideas and a new Free Press book would hit the bookstores–Roger Scruton’s Sexual Desire, say, or Pascal Bruckner’s Tears of the White Man. I’d immediately check it out and be predisposed to buy it, since Free Press (back then) had the earned reputation for publishing a certain kind of highbrow, exciting conservative book, in the same way Verso is known for left-wing books.

Even more important, having separate conservative imprints, staffed by relatively autonomous right-of-center editorial teams, also means the books published will be treated with enthusiasm–and an understanding of the conservative audience. New York publishing has long been a liberal encampment, so in the old days, even if a right-of-center author landed a book deal with a big publisher, there could be internal resistance to it from editors and staffers. To take one example, back in the early nineties, Judith Regan, who worked at Pocket Books at the time, acquired Rush Limbaugh’s first book, The Way Things Ought to Be, and her colleagues went completely nutso. “Judith has reached a new low,” the publisher’s editorial director said. Other Pocket Book employees booed and left nasty notes for her in the company bathroom. The book went on to sell millions of copies, so I guess Regan had the last laugh. But now these new conservative imprints can bypass such distractions and get on with the business of putting out interesting books for a sizable–and expanding–market.

NRO: Is it right to consider Fox “conservative”? If you do that too much will people think Bill O’Reilly is the 2005 WFB (speaking of cringing)?

Anderson: Fox News is a right-wing “fifth column,” hollers Al Gore; it’s just “crazy people exchanging views,” charges Time-Warner’s chairman Dick Parsons; Howard Dean has said he’d like to use government power to break it up: he think it’s a Republican propaganda machine.

But is it really so conservative? Every time I turn Fox on I see liberal guests yammering away–even real left-wing characters like Ted Rall or Robert Jensen. Does anybody know Greta Van Susteren’s politics? I always thought she was a liberal. That’s one-third of Fox’s prime-time line up. Is O’Reilly on the right? Well, he doesn’t like left-liberals much, but he’s far more a populist than a conservative in, say, WFB’s sense. Nearly half of Fox’s healthy viewership claims to be moderate or liberal, moreover, and not conservative.

In fact, I think Fox does a better job of being “fair and balanced” in its straight news coverage than it gets credit for. In 2003, a couple of academics did a study of media bias and found Brit Hume’s Special Report–Fox’s most straightforward newscast–way more balanced than its network competitors, at least when it came to mentioning studies and research. Between 1998 and 2003, they noted, Special Report cited 372 liberal think tanks and 367 conservative ones. CBS Evening News, by contrast, cited liberal think tanks almost three times as often as it did right-of-center ones.

Sure, Fox is more conservative than the media mainstream, but that, after all, was its founding purpose–to provide a haven for viewers who disliked the liberal bias prevalent on other stations. I think the media critic Jon Friedman gets it right: “The success of Fox is not the result of Fox being right-wing. It’s because they did such a good job of reaching out to the right-wing TV audience.” What liberals criticize as Fox’s “right-wing propoganda,” I think–and Jonah Goldberg, I believe, has made this point–is often just its pro-American stance in reporting war on terror stories: calling terrorists “terrorists” or “thugs” and referring to “our” troops, for instance. That a pro-American attitude should be viewed as “Republican” or “conservative” by many liberals helps explain why they’re having political difficulties these days.

NRO: Why hasn’t Al Franken become the Left’s Rush? What’s Air America doing wrong?

Anderson: Despite enjoying more free publicity than any new enterprise in memory, Air America’s ratings are puny, even in a liberal city like New York, where its flagship station WLIB recently pulled a 1.1 Arbitron rating–a smaller audience share than the all-Caribbean format it replaced a little over a year ago. It’s barely registering in Los Angeles, struggling in Boston, flat-lining in San Francisco. I could go on, but the picture is clear: If Air America can’t pull a decent audience in left-leaning urban markets, with a Republican president, a Republican congress, and Tom Delay in the news all the time, how are they going to succeed? I thought it revealing that Al Gore, in talking up his new TV station a few weeks back, emphasized that it wouldn’t be Air America goes cable. Who’d want the association, given the crummy ratings? And Air America’s latest celebrity hire–Jerry Springer–won’t help. If Springer is the future of liberal radio, it doesn’t have one.

Air America does several things wrong, in my view. First, it’s way too negative and reactive, too over-the-top in its rhetoric. Listening to it a couple weeks back, I heard one host–Mike Malloy–refer to James Dobson’s Focus on the Family as a “neo-Nazi organization.” He wasn’t joking. This kind of wild ad hominem–I call it “illiberal liberalism” in South Park Conservatives–is common on Air America, and the analysis and argument often wafer thin. I don’t think that combo works for many listeners. Now some right-of-center talkers can get venomous, too, but the best hosts are much, much more substantive.

As Dennis Prager put it to me: take a typical hour of his show and a typical hour of Air America programming and just compare. You’re likely to learn something from listening to Prager’s show, even if you disagree with his politics; Air America often sounds angry and paranoid. Air America’s lack of levity is odd since it features some prominent comics as hosts, including Franken himself, who can be pretty funny in other settings.

Air America also faces a demographic problem. The potential listening audience for liberal radio, especially in urban areas, consists of many blacks and Hispanics, but lots of them tend to listen to black and Hispanic stations that focus minority issues, often local. Unless Air America can capture those listeners, it’s going to have to rely on white liberals, and they’ve already got NPR–and the New York Times and other big media outlets as well, of course.

NRO: Will campus conservatives really ever be as active as liberal kids? They have the obvious disadvantage of lacking the institutional backing in their backyard there. How much can a Young America’s Foundation really help?

Anderson: One of the most striking things I discovered in writing this book was how disenchanted many college kids are with the Left, in both its multiculti academic and its political forms. A recent survey from Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that 47 percent of college students placed themselves in the liberal camp–but 53 percent said they were in the center or on the Right. The institute’s director, Dan Glickman, has said, quite rightly: “College campuses aren’t a hotbed of liberalism anymore.”

There are many other signs of this shift. The number of College Republican branches has almost tripled over the last several years–from 400 to more than 1,100, with over 120,000 members. There’s been a 50 percent increase in the number of right-of-center student newspapers and journals over the last few years. Conservative protests on campus–”affirmative-action bake sales,” where minorities can buy cookies at less expensive prices than can whites, to show the injustice of affirmative active, conservative “coming-out days,” and so on–have made headlines in recent months. Student attitudes have drifted rightward over the last decade in several areas. Enrollment in the humanities, a field sadly dominated by antinomian, soul-shrinking theoretical approaches, has shriveled. And so on.

In South Park Conservatives, I run through several factors that I suggest may be behind this remarkable development: September 11, the intellectual exhaustion of the Left, the destructive legacy of liberal ideas about the family in the lives of many younger Americans. One of the most interesting reasons, though, is a growing spirit of revolt against the monolithically left-wing orthodoxy of the professorate and administrators of today’s university. Kids are rebellious, and if every adult around you is saying “You must think this!” is it any wonder that some students respond “No, I don’t!” and start to look elsewhere–to the taboo Right or just to traditional scholarship–for ideas? Another school-sponsored performance of The Vagina Monologues? Give me a break!

And technology is making it easier for students to access non-approved ideas. Many of the students I interviewed for the book read NRO or Frontpage regularly, for example. Students can download for nothing those wonderful study guides put out by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and quickly learn what they might be missing in class.

Yet truly transforming the university will mean introducing some intellectual diversity in the teaching ranks, where, as everyone knows, almost all the professors are left-of-center politically and too many are proponents of absurd and destructive theories. That transformation is going to be hard, as Roger Kimball and others have recently underscored, because of the entrenched tenure system and the way schools are insulated from market pressure. But not impossible.

NRO: So conservatives are funny? When did that happen? How has it helped?

Anderson: I refer in my book to anti-liberal humor, and I think that’s a safer, more accurate formulation than calling it conservative, since many of its practitioners aren’t typical conservatives. For decades, topical humor in America, with a few glowing exceptions–P. J. O’Rourke and Tom Wolfe come quickly to mind–has mocked out-of-touch “reactionaries” and bourgeois conventions. From the show’s outset in 1996 (the same year Fox News launched, interestingly), South Park’s gleeful satirical attacks on the Left turned the tables.

Take this sequence, from a relatively early episode, which I discuss in the book. Liane, mother of the obnoxious Cartman–one of the four kids the cartoon revolves around–decides to abort her son, even though he’s eight. She travels to the “Unplanned Parenthood Clinic”:

Liane: I want to have…an abortion.

Receptionist: Well, we can do that. This must be a very difficult time for you, Ms…

Liane: Cartman. Yes…uh–it’s such a hard decision, but I just don’t feel I can raise a child in this screwy world.

Receptionist: Yes. Ms. Cartman–if you don’t feel fit to raise a child, then abortion probably is the answer. Do you know the actual time of conception?

Liane: About–eight years ago.

Receptionist [processing]:…I seee, so the fetus is …

Liane: Eight years old.

Receptionist: Ms. Cartman, uh…eight years old is a little late to be considering abortion.

Liane: Really?!

Receptionist: Yes–this is what we would refer to as the “fortieth trimester.”

Liane: But I just don’t think I’m a fit mother.

Receptionist: Wuh…But we prefer to abort babies a little…earlier on; in fact, there’s a law against abortions after the second trimester.

Liane: Well, I think you need to keep your laws off my body.

Receptionist: Hmmmmm. Tsk, I’m afraid I can’t help you, Ms. Cartman–if you want to change the law, you’ll have to speak with your congressman.

Liane [rises from the chair]: Well, that’s exactly what I intend to do! Good day!

Liane’s efforts eventually lead her to then-president Bill Clinton, who she sleeps with in order to get him to change the law. “Well, okay Ms. Cartman, I’ll legalize fortieth-trimester abortions for you,” he tells her after sex. But when Liane discovers that “abortion” means taking a life–and not the same thing as “adoption,” as she thought–she reacts with shock and horror and drops her plans.

I don’t know what Parker and his co-creator Matt Stone actually think about abortion–they may just have been trying to irritate liberals, though they’ve had similar sequences in at least two other episodes. But I’ll ask you and NRO’s many pop-culturally attuned readers: Has there ever been anything in television history comparably contemptuous toward the unyielding liberal position on abortion as that sequence? I can’t come up with an example. It’s smart on several levels–and funny. Of course, the episode is filled with profanities and vulgarities, too.

In South Park Conservatives, I look at numerous other practitioners of anti-liberal humor: Dennis Miller, the stand-up comics Nick Di Paolo and Julia Gorin, Internet humorists like Scott Ott of Scrappleface and cartoonist Chris Muir, and others. This kind of satire–the “comic as weapon,” as social thinker Peter Berger would call it–is important, because people don’t always reach their views on life by study and reflection. Fashion and stigma can play key roles too. As I note in the book, Lytton Strachey would dismiss views that questioned Bloomsbury’s anti-bourgeois values with a withering “Oh, come!” or a clever putdown. Comedy helps establish a zeitgeist, and if popular satirists are mocking the Left for being out of touch–and not just conservatives–it’s a crucial cultural development.

NRO: Don’t, uh, a lot of us take ourselves way too seriously still though?

Anderson: I think it a genuine problem for the Right if conservatives begin coming off as humorless scolds. I thought the complaints over Laura Bush’s amusing stand-up routine at the press dinner a couple of weeks ago misplaced. Political correctness has done seismic damage to the Left–especially among younger Americans. The Right should avoid a kindred sourness. It would be a quick way to alienate potential supporters.

NRO: Speaking of funny: They cancelled Dennis Miller?! Isn’t that like a huge percentage of right-wing humor on cable?

Anderson: I really liked Miller’s show. Miller was a gracious, exceedingly intelligent, and funny host, and he had a steady stream of interesting guests. His capacity to shift from an in-depth conversation with, say, Victor Davis Hanson, to a manic comic riff astonished me. But the cancellation wasn’t out of the blue. When I wrote my book, his ratings were still pretty decent, but the audience continued to fall off. Miller was up against tough competition: Hannity & Colmes draws more than 1 million viewers a night, and Larry King still does well on CNN. And I always thought his iconoclastic style would work better after 11 P.M. I suspect he’ll bounce back quickly.

As for humor on cable, self-absorbed baby-boom generation liberals are such under-exploited targets for satirizing that you’ll be seeing lots more comedy taking shots at them in the years ahead. Just watch Comedy Central for a while and you realize just how much comedy these days is anti-PC, and while that’s not the same thing as conservative or right-wing it’s fighting a common enemy. If you’re only making fun of white Republicans, it’s going to get stale fast. That’s been going on since the heyday of Norman Lear, or earlier.

NRO: Speaking of people taking themselves too seriously. Are the bloggers?

Anderson: Well, maybe, but they’ve had a stunning influence on our politics and culture in just a short time. Gallup recently reported that 12 percent of adult Americans are now reading political blogs–that’s 26 million people reading a medium that didn’t really exist a half-decade ago. Over 80 percent of journalists in the broader mediasphere say they consult blogs. The downfall of Howell Raines, Rathergate, Trett Lott stepping down as Senate Majority Leader, the public reception of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth story, the missing weapons at Al Qaqaa, the retracted Newsweek story on U.S. interrogators flushing the Koran down the toilet–blogs have been central to how all these stories played out. So it’s understandable–and frankly justified–that bloggers see themselves as playing a central role in our national debate.

The Internet has helped the Right in several ways, I argue in my book. It has vastly increased the sheer quantity of right-of-center opinion and analysis right at one’s fingertips, for starters. It has also given the Right a speedy and effective way to respond to spurious stories, designed to undercut support for conservative initiatives and ideas, that still pour forth regularly from the liberal mainstream. It’s probably helping the center-right in an indirect way, too, since the web has empowered the Michael-Moore wing of the Democratic party and that hurts the Dems’ chances nationally, since many centrist Americans are put off by the far-Left.

NRO: You don’t say conservatives are winning, but that it is too soon to tell. But you declare that the right isn’t losing “the culture wars.” If the Left still runs the big-deal stuff–the MSM, isn’t that a premature declaration?

Anderson: The mainstream media loses power daily as new media sources, many of them friendly to or at least not biased against the Right, proliferate. CBS News just had its weakest ratings report ever. The average age of a network-news viewer is now 60! Less than a quarter of those surveyed by Pew Research trust the New York Times as a news outlet. Moreover, it’s no longer possible for the liberal media to hand down a biased story line on some topic of public urgency and have it go unchallenged. As blogger Jeff Jarvis puts it, news is becoming a “conversation”–and that’s a major advance.

Where the Left still has a significant advantage is in reporting; big media outlets can, say, drive resources toward investigating every aspect of Tom Delay’s public life but basically ignore the United Nations’ vast corruption. That’s why liberals seethe at Fox News so much: As Tim Graham put it to me, Fox arrived as news organization that could define and report news as something different than what the elite liberal consensus says it is–so U.N. corruption would be deemed newsworthy. The bloggers have shown that they can do consequential reporting, too. But the mainstream outlets still have a lot more muscle in this area.

I mentioned earlier the happy fact that students aren’t reflexively liberal anymore. And I think we’ll be seeing more and more productions coming out of the entertainment world that aren’t knee-jerk Left and that may even be conservative or libertarian in sensibility. Some of the most successful films over the last few years have been broadly anti-liberal: The Incredibles, Spider-Man II, and in a way, The Passion. I think over time business rationality is going to start trumping ideological aversion in Hollywood, as Adam Bellow has said about the new willingness of New York publishers to put out conservative books.

NRO: Not to obsess here: But the courts. The Left is legislating through the courts. The MSM is cheerleading. How much can folks ranting and raving (even with substantive evidence, as is always the case on NRO) on the sidelines make up for the damage the guys with more cash and lifetime appointments can do?

Anderson: This is a huge difficulty, obviously. But the current judicial battles are playing out differently than did the confirmation battle over Robert Bork years back, when the press threw everything imaginable at the judge, and conservatives couldn’t get the truth out through the liberal media force field. Now you’ve got Mark Levin with a best-selling book on the illegitimacy of judicial activism, conservative talk radio educating the public on the courts and on the records of Bush’s judges, and bloggers galore analyzing every aspect of the battle over the courts. Bush has already appointed a lot of sensible originalist judges to the federal bench, and if he gets to replace a couple of Supremes, we may actually see significant improvements in this area.

NRO: How should MSM deal with new media? Developments like newspapers adding Corner-wannabe features, CNN assigning blog reporters, and Chris Matthews blogging suggests they feel they need to, right?

Anderson: Some of the response to new media from the MSM is foot stamping over the loss of a media monopoly. “If Hitler we’re alive today, he’d have his own blog,” one liberal editor typically groused–though he turned around and started one too! I think mainstream outlets should at a minimum pay attention to what bloggers and Internet publications are saying. But the true problem of the mainstream media outlets is liberal bias, which bloggers now expose relentlessly, tarnishing the reputations of old media institutions. I tend to agree with novelist Andrew Klavan, who recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

I’ll take five minutes to solve the problems of the mainstream media….Hire some conservatives….I don’t mean hire a conservative. I don’t mean cover conservatives. I don’t mean allow conservatives to express a minority opinion on your Op-Ed page or argue at the top of their lungs on some yes/no, black/white, point/counterpoint debate program. I mean that at ABC, CBS, NBC, the Los Angeles Times et al, a substantial proportion of the reporters who cover stories, and the editors who assign and shape those stories, should be people with conservative beliefs. The rest can continue to be what they are now: left-wingers who live under the delusion that they’re moderates.

That makes a lot of sense to me, though there may be a lack of supply at present.

NRO: What’s the most interesting feedback you’ve gotten from the book?

Anderson: Letters from right-of-center people, including the young conservative documentary maker Evan Coyne Maloney–check out his website Brain-Terminal.com–who say that I should have included a chapter on the nascent conservative film movement. Last September–and I had mostly finished writing South Park Conservatives by then–the American Film Renaissance festival was held, the first ever explicitly conservative film festival. A few months later, the Liberty Film Festival, a second, took place in Los Angeles. It is a fascinating development, which I’d like to write about in the future.

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