Not a week before (or maybe after) the great book editor Adam Bellow made the cover of this very pamphlet with a clarion call for conservative art, I met him at a fancy Upper East Side fête for our own Eliana Johnson, on the occasion of her umpteenth birthday. There were so many conservative luminaries in attendance (never name-drop; De Niro taught me that), it occurred to me that a well-placed drone strike could set the movement back 50 years.
Which would have been a shame, because I wouldn’t have been able to tell Bellow, between the gins fizz and the ritualistic immigrant flogging, that I thought so much of his essay was right on.
He’s right, for instance, that the political assumptions of popular culture are more lefty than they’ve ever been. He’s right that conservative non-fiction is limited by its preponderance of “Liberals: Could One Be under Your Bed This Very Minute?!?!” titles. And he’s right that the most promising avenue for conservative intellectual rebirth is through fiction — Bellow has novels in mind, for thoughtful reasons, but I’d nevertheless widen his scope to include film, stage, and television.
The trick is that political art qua political art is almost by its nature anti-conservative. For one thing, fiction, way back to Aristotle, is about action and change. Conservatism is about preservation and repose. Sure, there can be conservative art insofar as conservatism is reactionary, because “action” is right there in the middle of the word. Joss Whedon’s criminally underrated sci-fi allegory Serenity, for example, contains one of the pithiest summations of the logos of conservative counterrevolution ever uttered. You don’t even need the context to feel the awesome: “A year from now, ten, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people . . . better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running; I aim to misbehave.”
See what I mean?
But popular storytelling is usually a fairly formulaic endeavor, and the fact is that conservative themes do much better as subtext than as text. Stories about rebels and revolutionaries and “forward-thinking” iconoclasts who tear down idols and put the system on trial® are easier to make vital than stories about prudent, contemplative women and men who work quietly and cautiously to preserve the wisdom of the ages.
That’s why, although Jonah Goldberg is surely right to point out that Hollywood films are more conservative than Hollywood filmmakers — more pro-military, pro-family, and so forth — it’s not a coincidence that most of the artists who make them have no idea they’re putting out conservative art. Not least Whedon, mentioned above, who probably wouldn’t be caught dead with you, reader, or with me.
This is a genuine asymmetry in our popular culture. There are plenty of conservative works of art that don’t realize they’re conservative. But name me one liberal work that doesn’t realize it’s liberal.
That conservatism can be smuggled into popular culture is something of an advantage for conservatives — the best medicine is the dose you don’t even know you’re taking — and that liberalism is often so painfully explicit is a corresponding disadvantage. It means that conservatives can influence the culture without having to produce “cause fiction,” what Bellow calls the “right-wing version of socialist realism.”
And that’s a good thing, because most “cause fiction” does not age well. To realize this, one need look back no farther than the antediluvian years before 2009, practically a fertile crescent of “important” film and music and such, arrayed, at turns nebulously and on the nose, against George W. Bush.
I conducted an informal survey among colleagues about the worst anti-Bush art, and the results were a mélange of best-forgotten artifacts of a strange time when dissent was still a form of patriotism: preachy, leaden political snoozers like Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs and so-bad-it’s-maybe-good dystopian messes like Southland Tales, from the guy who brought you Donnie Darko. But the one that was mentioned again and again was Green Day’s low-grade rock opera American Idiot.
Hailed as a masterpiece upon its release at the height of the 2004 presidential election and garlanded with Grammys and multi-platinum status, American Idiot now sounds like a bloated trifle of a record from a once-vital band in decline, given faux-resonance by the perfect fit between its slapdash pretension (“I’m not part of your redneck agenda!”) and the Greater Left’s emerging dyspepsia.
That year Green Day played a number of shows as part of “Rock against Bush” — a tour of faded ’90s pop-punk bands like NOFX, the Descendents, and the Offspring and an accompanying get-out-the-vote campaign organized to forestall the president’s reelection. The tour was modeled after 1984’s “Rock against Reagan” and, you’ll note, met similar results. These groups were animated by a diffusion of the Green Day impulse, a reservoir of untapped angst in search of an object. They had spent the ’90s amiably chugging through power-chord anthems on onanism and flatulence, and you could now almost feel their glee at having something significant vaguely to be against.
Now there is plenty of bad conservative “cause” art. And there were great political records produced during the reign of blah-blah-blah-Bush-blows, but they weren’t “cause” records per se. They were full of paranoid-style atmospherics and contrarian anthems, and even if a right-winger found their fears misplaced he could still fundamentally empathize with them. I think of records like Sleater-Kinney’s One Beat, the National’s Boxer, Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Yeasayer’s All Hour Cymbals, and TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain. By contrast, Aughts odes to unsubtlety like Pearl Jam’s “Bushleaguer” and the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Neo Con” (yeesh) don’t hold up so well.
And that, finally, is why conservative pop culture has a chance. We can show. More often than not, they can’t help but tell.
– Mr. Foster is a political consultant and a former news editor of National Review Online.