The conservative movement in the United States, which identifies itself too closely with the Republican party, is at a low cultural ebb (it is certainly fashionable to be anti-Trump), but American popular culture for the past 20 years nonetheless has been suffused with deeply conservative sentiment — even though conservatives often fail to understand or appreciate it. We should watch less cable news and more drama and comedy.
It may be a matter of sloganeering. The Republican party, in its current goofball-nationalist manifestation, has a four-word slogan: “Make America Great Again!” But conservatives ought instead to appreciate the three most conservative words ever spoken on the vast stage that is HBO: “Winter is coming.” The storm is always coming, and that situation, as many of our fellow citizens are acutely aware right now, is not confined to wintertime.
Margaret Thatcher famously insisted that the facts of life are conservative. Great art — even merely adequate popular art — begins with those facts of life and the timeless truths embedded in them. Hence a piece of highbrow television such as The Wire, which was created by a by-the-numbers progressive but could have been written by Charles Murray and Thomas Sowell and produced by the Manhattan Institute, exploring the serial failure of institutions (city government, labor unions, public schools, the media) in a largely black city with a Democratic monopoly on political power. The show’s creators did not intend to create a conservative critique of the failures of urban progressivism, but they could not help themselves.
The same phenomenon is observable all over our popular culture: Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy reimagining Batman as a kind of esoteric Straussian who (in a series beginning just a few years after 9/11) countenances torture and illegal extradition methods to protect a public that must be kept in the dark about how hard things get done, who faces off against an Eastern terrorist cult targeting New York City, an amped-up version of Occupy Wall Street, and, most famously and perhaps most immediately relevant, an unhappy loser who shows that he can shut down a city with “a couple of bullets.” Or consider Skyfall, with its Royal Doulton bulldog draped in the Union Jack, its conservative organizing principles (“Sometimes the old ways are the best”) and dramatic retreat to the family homestead, its unabashed invocation of “patriotism” and “love of country.” The Walking Dead ends up being an extended exploration of Mancur Olson’s “stationary bandit” and the tensions between democracy, the rule of law, and the practical necessities of physical security — with an ode to property rights and free trade thrown into the bargain. Breaking Bad was a reimagining of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a meditation on the seduction of evil, and it ends with the most forthright of confessions: “I did it for me. I did it because I liked it.” If a conservative social critic had tried to write a series about how to be an unhappy young woman, the result would have been something quite like Girls, or maybe Fleabag. The theme of Stranger Things is not so much “Winter is coming” but “Winter is already here, and always has been, if you know how to look.”
Why is it that our popular culture is at the moment so interested in such subjects as the problems of governance, democratic fragility, and institutional failure? Look around you.
For comparison, think about the most popular and influential television shows of the middle 1970s to middle 1980s. There was one big Vietnam hangover (M*A*S*H) and a petroleum-derived soap opera (Dallas), but as the divorce epidemic of those years kicked into full swing, the tube was dominated by sentimental depictions of family life (Happy Days, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons) and quietly terrified comedies about the awkwardness of single life (Laverne and Shirley, Three’s Company), though divorce itself was rarely addressed directly: The eponymous heroine of Alice was a widow, as was Mrs. Garrett on Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life; her sometime employer, Mr. Drummond, was a widower. Captain Stubing of The Love Boat was one of the relatively few prominent divorced characters. Other sexual and familial anxieties were alluded too at safe comedic arm’s length in Bosom Buddies and Three’s Company.
The immediate postwar years, with the optimism of ascendance tempered by memories of war’s horrors and the privations of the Great Depression, were dominated by a few return-to-normalcy family shows (Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet), a remarkable profusion of westerns, and variety programs hosted by the likes of Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny, and Milton Berle. Perry Como (of Chesterfield Supper Club) and The Lone Ranger made the leap from radio to television. Beyond Como’s cigarette salesmanship, one of the striking features of the programming of those years is the prominence of corporate brand names and frank commercialism: The Colgate Comedy Hour, Ford Television Theatre, Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, Ronald Reagan hosting General Electric Theater. Republicans worried about the supposed stranglehold of a handful of social-media companies on communication might keep in mind that there was far more concentration of genuinely exclusive media power, and much less competition, in those so-called golden years.
None of those past generations were wrong to be anxious about the things that commanded their attention. And we are not wrong to spend so much time thinking/not-quite-thinking about the fragility of democratic institutions, the creeping anarchy at the edge of social complexity, or the shadowy intersections of power and evil. As the storm bears down on the southeast Atlantic coast, one of the remarkable features of American life will come into play: Many of the nation’s utility companies have formed a network of interlocking regional mutual-aid compacts among themselves, and in times of crisis trucks and linemen from around the country will roll into the disaster zone, one of Burke’s “little platoons” in dramatic form. At the same time, the powers that be in the city and state of New York, with all their vast resources, cannot make the trains run on time. In times of crisis, Americans never know whether they’re going to get the cool competence of Jack Ryan or the team from Dunder Mifflin.
Hence the anxiety.
What we know is: “Winter is coming.” And what have we done? The motto of the Coast Guard is: Semper paratus, “always prepared.” If conservatives are looking for a definition of good government, that’s a pretty good one. It isn’t very dramatic, but, then, nobody really wants to live the kind of life that HBO would make a show about.