Why conservatives can no longer afford to dismiss pop culture.
In a recent National Review piece, Jim Geraghty pondered the alliterative question, “Can Conservative Comments from Celebrities Change the Culture?” He’s worried that by touting two celebrity quotes that espoused conservative values, the right is wading into the shallow waters of pop culture and degrading the serious business of politics. His concern couldn’t be more misdirected.
A few weeks ago, rock star/globetrotting activist Bono asserted that capitalism pulls more people out of poverty than aid does. As if this concept emanating from such a pop icon weren’t refreshing enough to conservative ears, hip actor Ashton Kutcher gave a Teen Choice Awards acceptance speech around the same time, in which he stated that opportunities for success arose from hard work and personal drive; it was an inspirational antidote to the left’s “you didn’t build that” message, delivered to a young, impressionable audience (this video of that speech has garnered over 3.6 million views).
The right, aware more than ever before of the importance of reclaiming the culture (although many simply pay lip service to that), pounced on these statements as hopeful signs that our ideas were beginning to breach the wall of the left-dominated cultural stronghold. This made Geraghty squirm:
I’m still chewing this over, and trying to decide whether this represents a necessary tactic in an era of celebrity-obsessed pop culture, or whether it’s just the latest version of the conservative tendency to instantly adopt and celebrate any celebrity who happens to echo some of our arguments.
After all, when we say it’s shallow and silly and superficial for Democrats to emphasize their Hollywood star supporters at their political conventions, and to hold campaign events with Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z and such . . . we’re not wrong.
Politics may be entertaining at times, but politics and governing are supposed to be distinct from entertainment. Not everything in life is supposed to be a fun show! Sometimes the country’s problems and potential solutions are complicated, detailed, involve trade-offs, and require a bit of thinking to evaluate.
It’s disheartening that after losing two elections to the most celebrity-obsessed and pop culture-connected president in history, too many on the right still dismiss this most critical element of political war. As I’ve written before, conservatives lost in the political arena last November because for decades the radical left laid the groundwork for it in the cultural arena, while we turned our backs on it. Disengagement isn’t how you win a culture war.
“If you’re going to try to transform every aspect of the public’s evaluation of public-policy decisions into a flashy, glamorous, sexy, exciting thrill,” Geraghty joked, “pretty soon we’ll see campaigns rolling out Katy Perry in a latex dress!” – which of course is exactly what the left did, and her candidate won (and if you don’t know who Katy Perry is, you’re part of the problem, not the solution).
Geraghty scorns the Perry-in-a-latex-dress-tactic as appealing to “people with no actual interest or knowledge of what’s going on in the political world,” and yet he grudgingly concedes that it works, and that we need our own “effective vote-getting tactics, especially with the young. But how likely are we to win if, through our own decisions, we legitimize the notion that campaigns ought to be duels of celebrities?”
It’s not a matter of dueling celebrities; for one thing, we don’t have enough celebs on our side to compete, and not one with half as much cultural influence as Perry. It’s not a matter of dumbing down political discourse; it’s a matter of embracing the reality that the culture is the battleground that matters now. We must recognize the power of pop culture and its primacy as a medium for disseminating, as Geraghty himself puts it, “conservative ideas, messages, and arguments to audiences that may otherwise never encounter them.”
Geraghty asserts that the Bono and Kutcher quotes may be “swell” (swell? He just lost everyone younger than 65), but the right shouldn’t be touting those pop icons as political authorities because they’re just showbiz stars.
This grossly underestimates the power of showbiz stars today. Bono and Ashton Kutcher are political authorities for countless millions here and abroad; their ilk are the only public figures that many young people trust and listen to, because they’re cool. Obama’s young, politically ignorant/brainwashed fans don’t admire him because they have carefully weighed the political arguments of both sides and rationally sided with his agenda; they admire him because he’s cool. They see him chatting with Letterman and Fallon, hanging with Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and appearing on Vogue covers and Nickelodeon and a rap album, and that speaks to them.
But Geraghty thinks we shouldn’t lower ourselves: “I feel like we sometimes forget conservatives recoiled from American popular culture for a lot of good reasons.” Maybe so, and look where that got us.
We’re tired of big corporations telling us stories about how bad big corporations are. We’re tired of seeing some of our religions mocked and demonized while others are protected by political correctness…
We’re tired of seeing our own military revealed as the bad guys behind the conspiracy, southerners depicted as ignorant hicks, suburban parenthood portrayed as soul-crushing conformity, and so on.
We are mocked and demonized precisely because decades ago our side began shunning pop culture as unserious and demeaning, and we abandoned it to the left, who shrewdly filled that void. It’s also the very same reason we find ourselves losing at the ballot box, and will continue to do so until we engage the left on their cultural turf.
That doesn’t mean we should engage them in the same way – we shouldn’t be about dumbing down the level of discourse, but about elevating it. We shouldn’t be about emotional manipulation, but about enlightening ideas. We shouldn’t be about preaching, but about seducing converts to our values. The way to do that is primarily culturally, not politically.
We cannot afford to be dismissive of how crucial pop culture is in the larger political scheme. Even when our politicians win – which will happen less and less often as long as we are in denial about this – they too often disappoint or even betray us. We cannot look to them to turn this country around. Instead, America will change course only when our values and ideas begin to subvert the occupation of our cultural territory.
Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.