Conservatives have long known and complained that movies and television shows are shot through with overt progressive messages, although the Hollywood left downplays that concern as paranoid. But they may not be aware that even seemingly apolitical entertainment can contain subtle left-leaning messages, and those messages are effective at nudging audiences – even conservatives – to the left.
The science is settled. According to research published in the December edition of Social Science Quarterly, viewers who are “not prepared” to be critical about what they see onscreen are more likely to experience a temporary politically “leftward shift” when watching Hollywood movies with an “underlying liberal message.”
A team of political scientists at the University of Notre Dame set out to investigate the power of political messages in popular films. Dr. Todd Adkins, the lead author of the study “Moving Pictures? Experimental Evidence of Cinematic Influence on Political Attitudes,” wrote that: “Media effects research has generally ignored the possibility that popular films can affect political attitudes,” an omission he described as “puzzling” for two reasons:
First, research on public opinion finds the potential for persuasion is highest when respondents are unaware that political messages are being communicated. Second, multiple studies have found that entertainment media can alter public opinion. Together, this suggests that popular films containing political messages should possess the potential to influence attitudes.
That concept is a no-brainer. The left has understood the power of film to sway audiences at least as far back as the Nazis. Lenin once said that “for us, the cinema is the most important of the arts” – important, of course, in terms of propagating their agenda. Over the decades, the less culturally savvy conservatives increasingly ceded that arena to them; the result is that the left owns the culture, and whoever owns the culture dominates the political arena as well.
Considering what a divisive political issue healthcare currently is in the United States, the authors of the study wondered if subjects watching films with pro-healthcare reform messages would become more liberal on the issue. To test the theory the authors surveyed 252 students at Notre Dame – 54% of whom regard themselves as conservative – on their political views, randomly assigned them one of three films, then questioned them again.
The movies had either a strong and explicit political message (The Rainmaker, in which healthcare is a central part of the storyline), a subtle political message (As Good as it Gets starring Jack Nicholson, in which healthcare is less prominent, but still plays a role in the story), or no political message (Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do!, which has nothing to do with healthcare). The Rainmaker, for what it’s worth, stars Matt Damon, arguably Hollywood’s most politically outspoken big star, considering his support for radical historian Howard Zinn, his many public statements about income inequality, and his appearance in overtly political films like the “Bush lied, people died” action thriller The Green Zone and class warfare sci-fi flick Elysium (both box office bombs).
The tests revealed that viewers of both As Good as it Gets and The Rainmaker did indeed become experience a “leftward shift in attitude” on the healthcare topic, regardless of their stances beforehand, and this change persisted for two weeks after viewing the films. That doesn’t sound like a long time, but Adkins and his group found that such movies “possess the ability to change political attitudes, especially on issues that are unframed by the media,” and that “such influence persists over time and is not moderated by partisanship, ideology, or political knowledge.” He concluded by recommending that more study on the political influence of popular movies “is clearly warranted.”
Why was even the movie with a subtle message so effective? Because the audience subjects weren’t on their guard: “Viewers come expecting to be entertained and are not prepared to encounter and evaluate political messages as they would during campaign advertisements or network news,” said Adkins. “In an age where the biases of network news and talk radio programs are accepted facts, the movie theater may prove to be one of the last sources of cross-cutting exposure to political messages.”
This is not an argument for conservatives to avoid theaters for fear that they might unwittingly be steered left; too many on the right have already washed their hands of Hollywood as it is, and disengagement is not how you win a culture war. Instead, this should be an argument for conservatives to make themselves more aware of how Hollywood uses pop culture as a Trojan horse to manipulate and indoctrinate. Awareness enables resistance. Be aware of what a movie’s political position is, even in a seemingly apolitical film, and how it is being presented.
This study is also an argument for realizing that such political messaging can cut both ways. Powerful storytelling can compel audiences to embrace the values of the right as well as the left. Nobody likes to be preached to, not even the left. People are seduced and changed by great stories. That must be our mission: compelling storytelling, not political lectures.
The cultural battle is the critical one. Unless and until the right starts thinking in terms of waging a vigorous cultural campaign, we will continue to lose presidential elections. Winning that critical conflict requires that we get into the fray, understand and embrace pop culture, and commit to reclaiming it.
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