Two decades ago, conservative anger against popular culture burned so intensely that it seemed at the time that Hollywood had come to fill the space in the right-wing fear center vacated by the end of Communism. The anger came out in an endless series of skirmishes. In 1989, after watching an episode of the sitcom Married With Children that included a gay man and a woman removing her bra, Michigan housewife Terry Rakolta (whose sister, Ronna Romney, married the brother of … yes, him) launched a national crusade against the show. Dan Quayle gave a speech denouncing the single-motherhood of Murphy Brown. Advertising boycotts by such groups as Christian Leaders for Responsible Television or Rakolta’s own Americans for Responsible Television were a regular occurrence, as were anti-Hollywood rallies that drew thousands of protesters.
The country was “involved in a Kulturkampf,” declared Illinois Republican congressman Henry Hyde, a “war between cultures and a war about the meaning of culture.” Liberals, too, considered their way of life threatened by the conservative campaign against Hollywood. “We are in the midst of a culture war,” announced the vice-president of People for the American Way, a group founded by liberal producer Norman Lear. In his keynote speech at the 1992 Republican convention, Pat Buchanan floridly exhorted his party to fight (or, in its view, fight back) in a “cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”
When Buchanan delivered that terrifying (or exhilarating) speech in Houston, it would have been impossible to imagine that twenty years later, all traces of this war would have disappeared from the national political scene. If you visit Mitt Romney’s campaign website, the issues tab labeled “Values” lists Romney’s unwavering opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and Bushian opposition to stem-cell research, but nary a glancing reference can be found to the state of the culture, let alone a full-throated denunciation of Hollywood filth merchants. An immediate and easy explanation is that popular culture has ceased its provocations, or that the culture war has been shoved aside by the war over the role of government in the economy. The more uncomfortable reality is that the culture war is an ongoing liberal rout. Hollywood is as liberal as ever, and conservatives have simply despaired of changing it.
You don’t have to be an especially devoted consumer of film or television (I’m not) to detect a pervasive, if not total, liberalism. Americans for Responsible Television and Christian Leaders for Responsible Television would be flipping out over the modern family in Modern Family, not to mention the girls of Girls and the gays of Glee, except that those groups went defunct long ago. The liberal analysis of the economic crisis—that unregulated finance took wild gambles—has been widely reflected, even blatantly so, in movies like Margin Call, Too Big to Fail, and the Wall Street sequel. The conservative view that all blame lies with regulations forcing banks to lend to poor people has not, except perhaps in the amateur-hour production of Atlas Shrugged. The muscular Rambo patriotism that briefly surged in the eighties, and seemed poised to return after 9/11, has disappeared. In its place we have series like Homeland, which probes the moral complexities of a terrorist’s worldview, and action stars like Jason Bourne, whose enemies are not just foreign baddies but also paranoid Dick Cheney figures. The conservative denial of climate change, and the low opinion of environmentalism that accompanies it, stands in contrast to cautionary end-times tales like Ice Age 2: The Meltdown and the tree-hugging mysticism of Avatar. The decade has also seen a revival of political films and shows, from the Aaron Sorkin oeuvre through Veep and The Campaign, both of which cast oilmen as the heavies. Even The Muppets features an evil oil driller stereotypically named “Tex Richman.”
In short, the world of popular culture increasingly reflects a shared reality in which the Republican Party is either absent or anathema. That shared reality is the cultural assumptions, in particular, of the younger voters whose support has become the bedrock of the Democratic Party.
A member of President Obama’s reelection team recently told New York’s John Heilemann that it plans on painting its opponent as a man out of time—Mitt Romney is “the fifties, he is retro, he is backward.” This may sound at first blush like a particular reference to Romney’s uptight persona, but the line of attack would have been available against any Republican nominee—Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, or any other of the dour reactionaries who might have snatched the nomination. The message is transmitted in a thousand ways, both obvious and obscure: Tina Fey’s devastating portrayal of Sarah Palin. Obama appearing on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon to “slow jam the news,” which meant to recite his campaign message of the week. The severed head of George W. Bush appearing on Game of Thrones. An episode of Mad Men that included the odd throwaway line “Romney’s a clown,” putatively to describe George Romney, who was anything but.