‘Politics is downstream from culture” is an aphorism the late conservative iconoclast Andrew Breitbart was famous for coining, He believed that in the end the people who win elections are the ones telling the best stories and controlling the narrative on any issue. In 2016, Donald Trump won in part because “Make America Great Again” encapsulated a better story than Hillary Clinton’s tepid “Stronger Together.”
But popular culture — whether it be books, TV, film, music, or video games — remain dominated by the Left. Sandwiched between much of our entertainment are messages that perpetuate liberal themes: The military is bloodthirsty, radical Muslims must be handled with kid gloves, trial lawyers and climate-change activists are crusading heroes, and, above all, corporations are evil. When they are not being greedy or trying to dominate the world, they are responsible for polluting the planet.
Narratives like the ones above don’t get turned into stories by accident. The Tides Foundation, which featured Barack Obama on its board before he became president, has spent nearly a billion dollars in the past 20 years serving as a cutout for liberal donors who don’t want to be identified with a particular cause. One of the most touted projects it has steered donors to is Participant Media, an activist entertainment company that produces “movies with a message.” Among the films Participant has championed are George Clooney’s CIA conspiracy thrillers, Al Gore’s climate-change documentaries, and a docudrama celebrating Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legal career.
Another genre beloved by Participant filmmakers is the “corporate polluter” drama. Dark Waters, a film in which a crusading trial lawyer is pitted against the DuPont chemical company, is being released nationwide this month. Picking up where Erin Brockovich left off, the film asserts that DuPont ignored the dangers posed by a group of chemicals, PFAS, that were used in nonstick cookware and firefighting. Trial lawyers sued DuPont in 2001 alleging that 80,000 people in Ohio and West Virginia had been exposed to PFAS in their drinking water. The case dragged on for years until DuPont and Chemours Company, which spun off from DuPont, settled some 3,500 injury lawsuits for a total of $671 million.
No one doubts that there was real liability in the case, but Dark Waters is a conspiracy horror movie that ignores facts to shake up its audience. A clear giveaway is that the movie begins with the disclaimer “inspired by true events” rather than the more commonly used “based on a true story.”
The film ignores recent studies that have found no causal link between PFAS chemicals and infections or dental cavities. Also ignored that the Centers for Disease Control report that the blood levels of PFAS compounds in people have dropped dramatically since the 20-year-old events depicted in the story.
But the film has served as a springboard for calls to environmental activism. The House Oversight Committee conducted a hearing on PFAS issues last month. Dark Waters’ leading star, Mark Ruffalo, was the main witness.
Ruffalo, best known to filmgoers for playing the Incredible Hulk, is an outspoken political extremist. This month he sent out a tweet calling for “an economic revolution” because, in his view, “capitalism is failing us, killing us, and robbing from our children’s future.” He’s even criticized liberal TV host Ellen DeGeneres for socializing with George W. Bush, because the former president hasn’t been “brought to justice for the crimes of the Iraq War.”
The real agenda behind Dark Waters is to try to vilify chemical companies and characterize them as the next “Big Tobacco.” They can then be made a juicy target for both trial lawyers and government regulators. In a CNN interview last month, Ruffalo directly linked the issues around PFAS to alleged attempts by government to hide science surrounding fossil fuels, “not to mention Exxon and climate change.” But just last week a New York judge found Exxon not guilty of misleading shareholders on climate change, blowing up Ruffalo’s straw man. The Exxon case shows that the agenda of the left-wing groups behind Dark Waters is a moving target, one always guided by the trial lawyer’s laser-like focus on the deepest pocketbook.
The Left has long understood the role that popular culture can play in shaping politics. Conservatives have largely ignored the radicalization of Hollywood in this struggle. It’s time that many people who give money to conservative candidates recognize the need also to finance media projects that promote their values. One example is a proposed big-budget biographical film about Ronald Reagan, starring Dennis Quaid. Its producers are still searching for final financing before they begin production.
If conservatives wind up losing elections and thereby ceding public policy to the Left, they will have only themselves to blame for ignoring the war over popular culture that has been steering younger voters to think in more-radical terms.