Tim Robbins once made a pretty funny little movie called Bob Roberts, which is about a right-wing folksinger who is running for the Senate. Shot partly in the style of Dont Look Back [sic], it is partly the usual tedious lefty propaganda (there’s a CIA drug-trafficking subplot) and partly a spoof of celebrity-driven political culture, which was only really beginning to emerge in the 1990s. It is cannily edited: Roberts’s right-wing folk songs are pretty good, but they are only heard in snippets. Robbins, it seems, learned the lesson of Archie Bunker, and feared that people would like those songs unironically. One conservative writer of my acquaintance was known, when considering the news of the day, to sing softly to himself the opening from Bob Roberts’s “Complain,” a reworking of a Bob Dylan song: “Some people will work / others simply will not / but they’ll complain and complain and complain and complain and complain.”
But there aren’t any famous right-wing folksingers in the real world. That is because conservatives and progressives do politics differently. And conservatives, tea-party rallies aside, have never been particularly good at protest. We just don’t really have an appetite for it, being, well, conservative and all.
Too much is made of the influence of Saul Alinsky on the Left, but there is something to the personalize-and-isolate strategy. We are currently being treated to a national spectacle of stupidity in which Jeff Sessions is smeared as a racist. His record suggests the opposite, but, never mind that: He is a white conservative from Alabama, and so calling him a racist is the safest thing in the world.
I was thinking about that this morning after reading Victor’s piece on Trumpism and enjoying his short litany of progressive hypocrisy:
He is not Al Gore urging Middle Americans to drive less while he flies on his Gulfstream private jets, or Barack Obama who loves exclusive, expensive Sidwell Friends prep school for his own children but opposes charter-school choices for the less fortunate, or a Senator Barbara Boxer who lives in an irrigated desert oasis but seeks to stop contracted water transfers for those who grow food rather than lawn turf.
If the Right protested the way the Left does, there would be a GOP-led protest outside of Sidwell Friends 24/7/365. I am sure it is a fine school, but there is no grosser example of Washington’s hypocrisy than the tony private academy relied upon by the Democratic elite who for narrowly self-interested reasons deny the poor people they purport to represent the opportunity to send their own children to similarly organized schools.
(I myself would greatly prefer to be on duty protesting Barbara Boxer’s home in the Coachella Valley.)
This is part of what bugs conservatives so much about things like Meryl Streep’s cracked performance at the Golden Globes. It isn’t necessarily the content, which ranged from the unobjectionable (Donald Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter really was distasteful and deserving of criticism) to the batty (who on Earth wants to eject all the foreigners from Hollywood?) but what it mainly was is, in the view of many conservatives, ill-timed. The election is over, and the event in question was not a political rally but a self-congratulatory professional gathering, like the annual awards banquet of the Muleshoe Association of Realtors. The Left does not see anything as being off-limits to politics, and the Right, broadly speaking, does. That’s both a question of style and substance.
Maybe the Right needs to get better at protesting. Maybe our progressive friends need a more structured workday.