Notes Toward Winning the Culture War

Mark Tapson, a Hollywood-based writer and screenwriter, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He focuses on the politics of popular culture.


As my friend the late, great Andrew Breitbart was fond of pointing out, politics flows downstream from culture, and the results of the last election confirm that. Conservatives lost last November in the political arena because for decades the radical left laid the groundwork for it in the cultural arena. Politics is obviously a critical battleground, but unless and until we start thinking in terms of waging a vigorous cultural campaign, we will never win another presidential election. Following is a rough beginning of some thoughts toward that end.

There is no way the radical and insubstantial Barack Obama would ever have been taken seriously as a presidential candidate, much less be elected to two terms in the White House, if the left had not successfully infiltrated the key cultural realms – education, news media, and entertainment – and spent decades indoctrinating generations to reject traditional American values, feel shame rather than pride in our country’s history, and embrace their own enslavement to a big government, post-American, cancerous ideology rebranded as progressivism. That indoctrination runs so deep in too many American hearts and minds that not even the reality of four disastrous years under Obama was enough to shock them out of their irrational addiction to his hope-and-change snake oil. Deprogramming that indoctrination and seducing subsequent generations to a renewed vision of American exceptionalism means retaking the culture or creating a parallel one.

What does it mean to “retake the culture”? Let’s focus on entertainment or pop culture for the time being, because education and the news media are each broad and unwieldy topics in their own right. There was once a time – difficult as it is to imagine now – when Hollywood wasn’t overwhelmingly contemptuous of our country and the audiences in it, and the music biz didn’t revel in degraded spectacle. Taking back pop culture doesn’t mean reverting to that time, which in any case can’t be done, and it doesn’t mean stamping out anything we don’t like – that’s the way of the totalitarian left. It means breaking through the left’s monolithic hold on entertainment by creating more alternative voices in the film, TV, and music industries, voices that express and celebrate our values. It means seducing converts through the message delivery system, if you will, of quality art and entertainment. Easier said than done. If conservatives settle for making crappy independent movies and even crappier, heavyhanded political music, we will be easy to dismiss and will convert no one.

Speaking of conversion, the significance of pop culture isn’t limited to its impact on American youth; it affects our international standing as well. The critic Irving Kristol once said, “A world power, if it is to maintain its position, needs to generate respect for its culture.” Is America generating respect for its culture? Of course not. And let’s be clear: here and abroad, Hollywood is American culture. The world looks to Hollywood as the barometer of America’s moral and political character and direction. Generating respect for our country again depends on conservatives taking the helm of our culture.

The first step is simply getting conservatives to acknowledge the importance of the cultural fight, and convincing ourselves to embrace popular culture, not reject it as we are understandably inclined to do. Long ago we unwittingly ceded that arena to the subversive left, with the result that we find ourselves and our values assaulted and mocked mercilessly in the entertainment world. And how do we respond? Too many conservatives say, “I’m done with Hollywood. I don’t go to their movies. I cancelled my cable TV. I refuse to give them a penny.” Fair enough, but the problem with that stance is that disengagement isn’t how you win a culture war. Taking yourself out of the culture stream simply means that you end up as marginalized as the Amish. So we have to acknowledge that winning the cultural civil war requires that we get into the fray, understand pop culture, and commit to transforming it in ways that convey our positive values instead of the left’s nihilistic ones.

In the wake of the presidential election loss, conservatives have agonized endlessly about our “message.” We need to get our message across better, we say; we need to change our message, we need a more effective, compelling messenger. Well, the best way to get our message across now is through stories rather than political lectures, through values rather than political talking points. Nobody likes to be preached to, not even the left, which is why leftist message flicks like Matt Damon’s “Bush lied” anti-war movie The Green Zone and anti-capitalism Brad Pitt flick Killing Them Softly bombed in theaters. But people are seduced and changed by great stories, whether the teller is a screenwriter or a politician.

Hollywood has been called the greatest propaganda machine in human history. Maybe not for much longer. The rules are changing in Hollywood. Affordable technology and the internet are changing and democratizing the way films are made and distributed. We won’t have to depend on Hollywood gatekeepers anymore. The big studios are occupied with making “tentpole” pictures – blockbusters – and they’ve abandoned the middle ground to independents. So now it’s time for conservatives to fill that void, create production companies or back such companies, and start producing quality entertainment that represents us.

Is the culture war winnable? It’s possible but it’s a steep uphill battle that requires a shift in conservative thinking. As my friend, blogger and media consultant R.J. Moeller, says, when young conservatives want to have a political impact, they move to Washington D.C.; when young leftists want to do likewise, they move to Hollywood. That needs to change. Our side needs fewer think tank policy wonks and more talented filmmakers and television showrunners, more screenwriters and songwriters, more novelists like Andrew Klavan, more TV hosts like Greg Gutfeld.

One optimistic perspective we can take to heart is that, culturally speaking, the left is the “Establishment” now, to put it in 1960s terminology. We are the outsiders, the counterculture, the rebels with a cause. We need to revel in that underdog role and embrace the challenge. The future of American culture – indeed, the future of America – depends on it.

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  • harrylies

    People said Elvis was corrupting American youth. Now he's a secular saint (dying early helps). Now people delight in reading about Justin Bieber (who was born in Canada). They delight about his mistakes. Real or not.

    Just stop supporting popular culture with your time and money and it will collapse. Hollywood is like a Ponzi scam. Needs more money. You'll also have more free time and money.

    • Charles Wenzel

      In the late '70's I recall a Sports Illustrated article on Pete Rose being given a contract worth $800+K per year–so many thousands of dollar per an at-bat–and so, as a show of protest for such insanity (why not reduce the price of tickets to support the fan rather than pricing him out of the formula?) I wrote in cancelling my subscription to SI while noting my boycott of Major League Baseball. The rest is history as the system "just don't work that way."
      Harvard Law School used to be conservative ("the Constitution means what the Founders meant"), but when a liberal department head was put in, the vast conservative majority threatened to quit in protest. Their resignations were accepted and today we have The Leftist Harvard Law School.
      Marching off the field of battle declaring victory while the culture implodes may provide some "I told you so" satisfaction, but the 'hole being in the left side of the Ship of State' doesn't leave our prodigy with much hope. Being 'right' (literally and figuratively) isn't good enough; like Mr. Tapson suggests, we must be good i.e. effective, and right.

  • http://www.invisibleserfscollar.com Robin

    What the Left understands and has for more than a century as it guided its actions is that it is the perception of reality that influences behavior. It is values. So they use Hollywood and education to misrepresent the past and what worked and what did not and who may be to blame when life is unfair and results are not equal. Then those false beliefs and cultivated values with an unappreciated tragic past guide future behavior.

    Those of us who adore history can appreciate that false beliefs may compel action but they cannot dictate results. Reality still gets its say there. So we are hurtling towards a future that we can appreciate because we see the antecedents in the past. And we have to get better in explaining why it matters. Satire people is our friend. We are prescient because we have a deep base of knowledge not because magic crystal balls exist. We need to use humor and snark and explain why nothing being pushed can work and it is many of the so-called beneficiaries who will be hurt the most long-term. We need to explain that. Especially since we are dealing with people who think they just need to come up with a good theory to compel action. Well those “good theories” were behind most of the 20th century’s tragedies. And what is untaught and unappreciated was behind most of the triumphs.

    We have to learn to cut through all the nonsense so many people now firmly believe. Because it is in their TV shows and evening news and the Sunday paper and the classes at difficult to get into elite schools. None of those things make it so.

    Pop culture is a good place to start. I had to ask my teenagers exactly when every song on the radio became about having sex as if sex was today’s ultimate try it because it feels good sport. I about drove into the curb when one child said she and her mom walked around the house singing a particularly egregious song together. Some bonding.

  • Steven E.

    I've made the point that Obama's tactical team has learned from Orwell's "prolefeed" system. It educates the youth on the good nature and workings of big brother, while continually ridiculing any opponent. It uses entertainment as its great carrier of propaganda and reinforces the matter with the Ministry of Truth, which rewrites history so it conforms to their political culture.

    Over the years I have learned that Joe Liberal does not want to learn. He's comfortable with his politics because he's been conditioned into believing that he's smart and altruistic. Why rock the boat? Unless we find a way of educating the liberal into understanding the dangers of debt, the only thing that will bring about a change with the liberal conditioning process is a reduction (or an end) in benefits from government.

    Read Machiavelli. When the benefits end, the partnership ends. Soon afterwards, the rioting starts.

  • Gayle

    As long as money is flowing out of DC like great mighty rivers, cultural entropy – aka progressivism – will continue.

    At some point, the money train will run out of tracks (math being math), and things will get interesting. FedGov hopes to have our weapons out of our hands before that point.

  • Rostislav

    I think it is a very good article and I can't but agree with every point of the author. Just as I did, when I've read John Stormer's book "None Dare Call It Treason" in 1964. It was full of detailed documentary information about the stealthy, extremely dangerous Communist infiltration of the American government, politics, foreign strategy, education, judiciary, press, TV, entertainment. Mr. Stormer's final advice was this: "We have ignored warning after warning. Unless you do your part now, you will face a further choice, described by Winston Churchill – "You may have to fight when there is no hope for victory, because it is better to perish than live as slaves". What will you do?"
    Americans did exactly the same as usual: they ignored Mr. Stormer's warning. So, being a very stubborn (idealistic?) patriot, 25 years later he added to his book new 350 really frightful pages of documents on the deeper sinking of his beloved country into the Red abyss. He hoped that "This 25-th anniversary edition of "None Dare Call It Treason" is a tool for the battle. It foreshadows what will be happening tomorrow".
    Tomorrow? Tomorrow the whole world would be stunned by the 2012 Americans' choice of the CPUSA-endorsed president. I do not know if I'd live long enough to see the 50-th anniversary of "None Dare", or such a book would be simply banned, but I'm sure that there is no need for it anyway: in 2014 it would be ignored exactly like two previous editions were. For me the most tragic part of both books was nor abundant evidence of your presidents', state secretaries', supreme judges', editors' or professors' shameful betrayal. In my opinion the scariest thing was verb "ignored" repeated nearly at each page, sometimes even several times. Are there reasons to believe that in 2013 it wouldn't be the fate of this excellent article too?

    • Rifleman

      I've got a copy, my dad told me about it when I was in elementary school. I couldn't find it until the internet. Another good book I had in high school but lent out permenently it turned out, was "The Americanism of Barry Goldwater." I don't know who the author was, but it had a lot of information on the left.

  • http://www.clarespark.com clarespark

    It saddens me to see these culture war comments, for they speak against the 18th century radical liberals who enabled the cultural pluralism that protects us against the tyranny of a state Church/King. I wrote about the two strands of the Enlightenment here and elsewhere on the website: http://clarespark.com/2013/01/02/culture-warriors…. "Culture warriors and the Enlightenment." It was Judaism and its offspring Christianity that established the deathless notion of humanity and of the precious character of individual life. Now some wish to throw it away in order to protect yet another version of collectivism?

  • Jim_C

    "It means seducing converts through the message delivery system, if you will, of quality art and entertainment. Easier said than done. If conservatives settle for making crappy independent movies and even crappier, heavyhanded political music, we will be easy to dismiss and will convert no one."

    That is exactly right, and I appreciate Tapson saying "quality art and entertainment." In other words, not just the pablum/filler, but the good stuff.

    Unfortunately, inspired creativity is extremely rare among conservatives.

  • Jim_C

    By the way, Tapson points out the increased accessibility of the tools of the trade. Hollywood is not the be-all end-all. There is a strong independent scene in this country that is not reliant on Hollywood in any sense for producing its product.

    But like any product, if there is "proof of concept" (if people are buzzing about your film or buying your music) then that might attract industry investment. In other words, what is the final arbiter? Profit potential. It is a market-driven industry like anything else; if people are buying it, investors will finance "the next step," regardless of ideology. So no excuses.

  • KindSight

    Have you all checked out 'My Little Pony'? It's the best show on TV these days.

  • davarino

    I like the movie Idiocracy. It plainly shows where this country is headed. You have to get people to laugh at the same time you sneak in come truth. Ok, maybe Idiocracy isnt the best example, but its a good outline. Thats how hollywood does it. They throw in the subliminal message while your laughing or crying and it goes right to the subconscience.

    • Loyal Achates

      I recall that in Idiocracy everyone watches Fox News and disdains liberal intellectuals.

  • bluffcreek1967

    The writer makes several good points. I agree that conservatives need to engage the left and think tactically smarter ather than merely retreat. At the same time, however, the advice comes a little too late. This sort of thing should have been shouted from the rooftops in the 60s and 70s. Now, 40 years have elapsed and like the frog in the kettle, we're starting to recognize the danger we're in. But it's too late. We've passed the point of 'No Return' but we don't realize it yet. We are doing the equivalent of polishing brass on a sinking ship. We want to remain optimistic about America and really changing things, but we are a day late and dollar short. I hope I'm wrong, but it appears we are under God's judgment and He has nationally given us up to our foolish choices.

    One more point: Conservatives were saying the same things in the 90s and during the early part of the 21st century. Very few of them were listening to the point that they actually did something. Most simply did not know what more to do other than turn off their TV, homeschool their kids, and watch FOX. The writer's advice is good, but most of us won't wake up until things turn really horrible – and by then there probably won't be much to salvage anyways.

    Hey, have you ever heard the story about the Frog in the Kettle?

  • Jim

    Start with writing music.

    A few popular songs would make a good start.

    Avoid the Pavlovian triggers that turn people off.

  • bluffcreek1967

    Sadly, the so-called 'culture war' has already been fought, and we lost! It was essentially fought and lost in the 80s and 90s. Since that time, things have only have become progressively worse. Conservatives, at times, have arisen to fight now and then, but it was soon squashed.

    I'm not trying to sound a defeatist alarm. I want to be hopeful. But when one considers how vastly and deeply the Left has influenced Americans (and the West in general), it becomes apparent that things will not return to any moral or social normalcy (if at all) until much tears and suffering are endured by Americans. We will either be balkanized or a large-scale civil war will occur. I hope not, but we are a nation bitterly and hopelessly divided. The America we once knew is gone, never to return.

  • EarlyBird

    One thing that would help is to stop treating everything as a "war." Stop talking about "taking back our country/government/culture!" From who, The Enemy? Maybe indicate that conservatives actually like America.

    Perhaps celebrate that societies can learn lessons, and stop talking like we're always headed to hell in a handbasket.

    Do you know, for instance, that we're living in a time where young unwed people are having less sex, not more, than they did in the '90s? Do you know that we've got far less violent crime now than we've had for a couple of decades? Do you know people are doing far less hard drugs than in the 70s and 80s? Do you know that even those you would associate with the "left," like black people, are starting to figure out that fathers and intact families are crucial to people's well being?

    We can improve together, but not with this attempt to force everyone into the straight, right, white, Christian conservative warrior mold. Conservatives, come join America again.