Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Yes, Liberals Do Control Culture

The liberal journalist Jonathan Chait writes something true and important about cultural power in the US. Excerpts: When Joe Biden endorsed gay marriage in May, he cited Will & Grace as the single-most important driving force in transforming public opinion on the subject. In so doing he actually confirmed the long-standing fear of conservatives—that a coterie of […]

The liberal journalist Jonathan Chait writes something true and important about cultural power in the US. Excerpts:

When Joe Biden endorsed gay marriage in May, he cited Will & Grace as the single-most important driving force in transforming public opinion on the subject. In so doing he actually confirmed the long-standing fear of conservatives—that a coterie of Hollywood elites had undertaken an invidious and utterly successfully propaganda campaign, and had transmuted the cultural majority into a minority. Set aside the substance of the matter and consider the process of it—that is, think of it from the conservative point of view, if you don’t happen to be one. Imagine that large chunks of your entertainment mocked your values and even transformed once-uncontroversial beliefs of yours into a kind of bigotry that might be greeted with revulsion.

You’d probably be angry, too.

He makes a good case for the fact that Hollywood (= the news and entertainment media) has a monopoly on popular culture messaging — what the PoMos would call “hegemonic discourse.” This is dog-bites-man stuff to conservatives, of course, but even at this late date, it will come as a controversial claim to many liberals. Chait makes a point that usually falls to right-wingers to make: that Hollywood liberals are pleased to take credit for their power to change hearts and minds and therefore the culture when it suits them, but plead otherwise when it doesn’t.

The truth is, they really do have this power, and, as Chait avers, have triumphed completely. It is overstating matters to say that politics are a sideshow conservatives have to console themselves in the face of overwhelming defeat in the culture. But it’s not overstating matters by much. Chait tells of some fascinating research from Brazil and India speaking of television’s ability to radically alter social practices, simply by undermining traditional culture with a countercultural message.

More Chait:

For the most part, your television is not consciously attempting to alter your political beliefs. It is mainly transmitting an ethos in which greed is not only bad but the main wellspring of evil, authority figures of all kinds are often untrustworthy, sexual freedom is absolute, and social equality of all kinds is paramount. Within the moral universe of this culture, the merits of these values are self-evident. But to the large bloc of America that does not share this ethos, it looks like a smug, self-perpetuating collusion against them.

… This capacity to mold the moral premises of large segments of the public, and especially the youngest and most impressionable elements, may or may not be unfair. What it is undoubtedly is a source of cultural (and hence political) power. Liberals like to believe that our strength derives solely from the natural concordance of the people, that we represent what most Americans believe, or would believe if not for the distorting rightward pull of Fox News and the Koch brothers and the rest. Conservatives surely do benefit from these outposts of power, and most would rather indulge their own populist fantasies than admit it. But they do have a point about one thing: We liberals owe not a small measure of our success to the propaganda campaign of a tiny, disproportionately influential cultural elite.

It’s interesting that Chait, a leading liberal writer, writes this in New York, a leading liberal magazine. The fact that New York published something like this now shows how confident the Left is that they’ve won this one. And they ought to be confident! The Right only knows how to make arguments; the Left, almost exclusively in our time and place, knows how to make art. Along these lines, the conservative political philosopher  Claes Ryn points out the role conservatives have played in our own marginalization. Excerpts:

Who is today the paradigmatic conservative intellectual, the kind of individual to whom educated and reading conservatives look for authoritative judgments and to whom they ultimately defer? He seems to be a cross between an intellectual and a political activist, less a thinker concerned with the  fundamental and enduring questions of life than a “policy wonk,” less a learned scholar than a media pundit. Although possibly bright and articulate, this type cannot long be distracted from his absorbing interest: politics and politics-related questions and schemes. He seems untouched by philosophical depth or by any deeper aesthetical need or sensibility.

Individuals of this description can wield considerable influence over the kind of decisions that appear to them most important. But these persons are not so much independent agents as unwitting instruments of larger forces-a fate they cannot bemoan because it does not reach their consciousness. Because of a weak grasp of the dynamic of human existence, they have difficulty understanding the scope of social problems. Their limited awareness of what really shapes the long-term direction of a society or civilization-specifically, of the roles played by thought and imagination leads to inadequate analyses of the existing political and social situation and of what might bring real and lasting improvement. These persons are frequently surprised by events and are prone to defeating their own stated objectives.

Especially over time, the power of all the politicians in the nation’s capital is dwarfed by the power of those who influence us through teaching, writing, preaching, art, and entertainment. Even if the latter group represents a variety of viewpoints, a particular cultural and intellectual ethos tends to predominate that can be traced back to ground-breaking works of art and thought. In our own time, egalitarian pressures and mass communication have produced a perhaps more thoroughgoing like mindedness than seen before.


… Whatever the dominant fundamental mind-set that artists and intellectuals have cultivated, it has planted in us certain expectations and desires. It has prepared the ground for or built obstacles to political action of a certain type. Politicians who run afoul of the prevailing sensibilities and ideas of their time risk their political lives. In other words, they are at the mercy of a power that is not of their own making. Only marginally can they change the “rules of the game” that are determined deep within the consciousness of a people.

… [O]n the whole, American intellectual conservatism has not carried through on its most promising potentialities. It has had difficulty accepting or understanding that real and lasting social change must begin deep within the mind and the imagination and work itself out over generations. Although paying lip-service to the need for ideas and imagination, many of the leaders of the movement wanted immediate results, by which they meant, first of all, political victories. Intellectual conservatism did not fully assimilate or go very far developing and supplementing the work of its leading minds, dead or living. It did not develop the wide-ranging and philosophically mature intellectual culture that might have held and expanded its ground in academia and thence more deeply penetrated society. The element of intellectual and imaginative vitality was diluted or made to seem secondary by the ever-present concern with practical politics and, of course, economics.

In his piece, Chait suggests that the reason the Right doesn’t complain about popular culture any longer is that it knows that it can’t really do anything about it. That seems insufficient, somehow, but I can’t think of a better explanation. Conservatives really have been routed on this question, and while there are grounds for a right-wing pity party over liberal bias, it’s been done to death. There are more interesting cultural questions related to this to think about. For example, I was e-mailing earlier today with a regular reader and commenter, a conservative Christian who said:

I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a temperamental correlation between creativity and a generally liberal outlook on the world. In fact, I don’t wonder — I’m convinced there is, at least in the West.

I think so too, and I think it has to do with a temperamental openness (which is not the same as political openness; I see absolutely no evidence that liberals are any more open-minded politically than conservatives). Will Wilkinson’s stuff on country music and openness speaks to this.  Interestingly, Jon Haidt’s work in moral psychology indicates that people who identify as conservatives are actually more sensitive to moral complexity than liberals. That being the case, why is it that in our time and place, conservatives who try to make art almost always turn out second-rate stuff? I wish it weren’t true, but it is.

The hegemony of cultural leftism in American popular culture, and the resulting epistemic closure among American culture-producers, is a critical challenge to conservatives, but I have no idea how we can meet it. In comments on my earlier post about sexual morality in contemporary America, Carlo, one of our readers, said the problem is not really moral, but anthropological: we have forgotten what the human person really is.  That’s true of many, perhaps most, modern American conservatives, and I suspect our failure to appreciate this may have more to do with our imaginative failure. Says Ken Myers:

Cultures cultivate, so if we want to offset the influence of cultural systems that distort or misrepresent reality, we need more than good arguments that analyze the distortions. We need cultural alternatives that provide opportunities for participating in a different way of telling the story of human experience.

For example, counteracting the materialistic reductionism of our time requires practices that convey to our imaginations the coherent unity of matter and spirit. Challenging the assumptions that human beings are best understood and best treated by social structures as autonomous choosers whose choices provide meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe requires settings in which submission and obedience to some order of things that precedes our willing is known as a delight and a blessing.

Distorted institutions and practices can’t be confronted only by arguments. They require well-ordered practices and institutions. Resisting cultural confusion is more than a matter of thinking outside the box. We need to be able to intuit outside the box. And to encourage well-ordered intuitions to those under our care, especially our children — because cultures cultivate.

Conservatives should be countercultural presence offering a compelling rival to the moral and aesthetic vision that dominates the American public square — but how do you develop a meaningful and enduring counterculture if you’ve never been cultured in the first place?



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now