The Campaign Spot

What Impedes Conservative Efforts to Shape the Culture?

A conservative who has been quite successful in Hollywood writes in to dispute the notion that studio bias is the primary impediment to conservative cultural influence. He’s referring to the arguments in this section of the Morning Jolt:

Once More into the Breach of Conservatives’ Struggle to Influence the Culture

Rod Dreher, crunchy con and former contributor to National Review, now writing over at The American Conservative, examines and expands upon the common lament that conservatives need to become better storytellers:

  • Argument has its place, but story is what truly moves the hearts and minds of men. The power of myth—which is to say, of storytelling — is the power to form and enlighten the moral imagination, which is how we learn right from wrong, the proper ordering of our souls, and what it means to be human. Russell Kirk, the author of The Conservative Mind whose own longtime residence in his Michigan hometown earned him the epithet “Sage of Mecosta,” considered tending the moral imagination to be “conservatism at its highest.”

    Through the stories we tell, we come to understand who we are and what we are to do. This is true for both individuals and communities . . .

    Stories work so powerfully on the moral imagination because they are true to human experience in ways that polemical arguments are not. And because the moral imagination often determines which intellectual arguments—political, economic, theological, and so forth—will be admitted into consideration, storytelling is a vital precursor to social change.

But there’s one note in his lengthy cover piece that grated on me:

  • [Sam] MacDonald came from a working-class western Pennsylvania family, graduated from Yale, and worked in Washington journalism at Reason before returning home to raise his kids. His experience has taught him how hapless the right is at understanding the power of storytelling.

    “The smart people on the Right are working in the conservative infrastructure,” he says. “You want a conservative view on healthcare? It comes from Heritage, or maybe the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Except most people don’t care. It’s too confusing.”

    It would make a much greater difference, MacDonald believes, if conservatives were bringing their insights to bear writing for the network medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy.” But that is hard to imagine, he says.

Well, no kidding. My views about, say, the need for tort reform would catch on a lot quicker if Patrick Dempsey were to express them, shaking his fist in righteous indignation, about how the hospital’s fear of a lawsuit is interfering with him performing a high-risk but needed surgery on the critically ill adorable little girl of the week.* I’ll cast Wise as the ambulance-chasing lawyer and the audience will instantly know he’s the bad guy.

“Hi, I’m Ray Wise, perhaps best known for playing Leland Palmer and The Devil. When I appear as a guest star on your favorite show, you can rest assured that I was indeed the one who committed the murder the protagonists are trying to solve.”

But a writing gig on Grey’s Anatomy or any other highly-rated network drama is hard to get. This is where the discussion amongst conservatives usually turns to, “and liberals in Hollywood will never hire a conservative writer, or allow a conservative message to get through!”

And that’s true, at least in some cases. A few years back, Ben Shapiro did a great job getting interviews with producers and executives who more or less openly admit that they see their work as a chance to promote their viewpoints, and that sometimes they put in story elements to emphasize a message of “’f*** you’ to the right wing.”

But the obstacle isn’t purely ideological. Some of the obstacle is that there aren’t that many high-quality shows with mass audiences, those shows only have a certain number of full-time writing gigs, and the supply of potential writers is way, way, way higher than the demand. Yes, there are probably a bunch of talented conservatives trying to make it in Hollywood and finding the doors closed. But there are probably some talented liberals trying to make it in Hollywood and finding the doors closed.

Trying to be a screenwriter in Hollywood requires being willing to endure a lot of rejection, with no guarantee of success, and probably trying to write, on spec, some sort of brilliant, attention-catching, so-good-the-producers-can’t-possibly-pass work while simultaneously holding down a day job to pay the bills. It means living in Los Angeles — with a cost of living 36 percent higher than the national average — and spending a lot of time trying to make connections in an intensely competitive field. And of course, the process of bringing a concept for a show or film to the airwaves or silver screen is legendarily complicated, arbitrary, consensus-driven, and difficult.

We’ve heard a lot of “we need to take back the culture!” and “Breitbart warned us, ‘politics is downstream from culture’” in the past nine months or so. Jonah reminded us:

  • [Hollywood’s] influence is agonizingly hard to predict or dismiss as unthinkingly liberal. Studies of “All in the Family” found that viewers in America, and around the globe, took different lessons from the show based on their politics and cultural norms. Despite Norman Lear’s liberal best efforts, many found Archie Bunker more persuasive than his “meathead” sociologist son-in-law. HBO’s epic series “The Wire” was a near-Marxist indictment of urban liberalism and the drug war, making it quite popular among many conservatives and libertarians. The popular BBC series “Downton Abbey” is shockingly conservative in many respects. The aristocrats are decent, compassionate people, and the staff is, if anything, more happily class-conscious than the blue bloods. And, yet, as far as I can tell, liberals love it.

    Obviously, the market is a big factor. No doubt many Hollywood liberals would like to push the ideological envelope more, but audiences get a vote. And that vote isn’t cast purely on ideological grounds.

    There’s a difference between art and propaganda. Outside the art house crowd, liberal agitprop doesn’t sell. Art must work with the expectations and beliefs of the audience. Even though pregnancies are commonplace on TV, you’ll probably never see a hilarious episode of a sitcom in which a character has an abortion — because abortion isn’t funny.

    The conservative desire to create a right-wing movie industry is an attempt to mimic a caricature of Hollywood. Any such effort would be a waste of money that would make the Romney campaign seem like a great investment.

It’s worth noting that some liberal efforts to influence public opinion through art fall flat on their collective faces, perhaps the most notable recent example being a slew of mostly heavy-handed anti-Iraq-War films:

  • A spate of Iraq-themed movies and TV shows haven’t just failed at the box office. They’ve usually failed spectacularly, despite big stars, big budgets and serious intentions.

    The underwhelming reception from the public raises a question: Are audiences turned off by the war, or are they simply voting against the way filmmakers have depicted it? . . .

    The Iraq war-themed “In the Valley of Elah,” starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon, received mixed critical notices and did little business upon its release last September (total domestic gross: $6.8 million). “Redacted,” a Brian De Palma-directed film about a renegade Army unit, was barely seen when it came out in limited release in November (it grossed just $65,388).

    An even more paltry reception greeted “Grace Is Gone” (2007), in which star John Cusack deals with the aftermath of his wife’s death in Iraq; “Home of the Brave” (2006), about a group of soldiers (including Samuel L. Jackson and Jessica Biel) adjusting to life after the war; and “The Situation” (2006), about a love triangle set amid the conflict.

To make a good movie requires talent, yes, but also capital — you need to get the equipment to make the film, hire actors, build sets or get filming permits in locations, costumes, music, etc. — and that’s just the basics, never mind special effects, stunts, sound effects and editing, renting the crane for a crane shot or helicopter, etc.

Notice that we don’t lack conservatives who can thrive in radio and more recently podcasting, web videos, etc. I think a big factor is that those products are cheap to produce.

* Why, no, I don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy out of the corner of my eye while Mrs. CampaignSpot watches it on the DVR, and by no means do I mock that every episode ends with some patient croaking in melodramatic fashion during a montage set to Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” (“If I lay here . . . If I just lay here . . . Would you lie with me and just forget the world?”) leading to perpetual basket case Dr. Grey offering a voice over with some sort of pseudo-philosophical Chinese-cookie-worthy life lesson that the doctors learned while botching their latest life and death surgical procedure (“You spend your entire life searching for a place to call home, and only when all seems lost do you turn around and realize, you’ve been there all along”) and I absolutely totally don’t mimic EKG flatline noises every time “Chasing Cars” comes on the radio.


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