The need to appeal to the widest possible audience generally drives film and television to avoid displays of overt partisanship, while still smuggling in a message. Joss Whedon admitted this spring that he had written a scene into The Avengers in which Captain America deplored the “loss of health care and welfare” in America, only to cut it in the editing room. Nicholas Meyer directed a 1983 anti–nuclear war television special, The Day After, and later confessed, “My private, grandiose notion was that this movie would unseat Ronald Reagan when he ran for reelection.” René Balcer, the Law & Order producer, told one interviewer that he has laced his show with references to Bush-era abuses like the Patriot Act, but without naming Bush. “Our best shows,” he said, “make people question what’s going on.”
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.
In the last presidential campaign, Obama was labeled a “celebrity” by John McCain, and it’s true—he looked the part, from the straight-from-Hollywood narrative arc of his maturation to his familiarity with The Wire and the hip-hop on his iPod. But his campaign also mobilized younger voters by tapping into fears incessantly expressed in movies and television: cultural retrogression (Mad Men), greedy businessmen (The Simpsons), misbegotten wars (Syriana), environmental neglect (Wall-E). The right has no broadcasting device of comparable scope; it tells its stories mainly through avowedly political media like talk radio and Fox News. This makes the fears that torment conservatives today—overweening regulators, welfare layabouts, the government seizing our guns—not so easily recognizable to those not expressly familiar with the right-wing creed.
This year, some of Obama’s movie-star luster has worn off, yet the cultural landscape is the same, essentially congenial place. Here is one small but newly relevant example. The website tvtropes.org collects the basic rules of various pop-culture genres—for instance, a character in a horror film who announces that he will “be right back” is about to suffer a grisly fate. One entry notes that “merely possessing a Swiss bank account is proof positive that a person is up to no good” and that “in more recent stories, an account in an offshore tax haven, such as the Cayman Islands, may be substituted.”
In many quarters of the right, though, secretive finances and tax-dodging represent heroic rebellion against tyrannical government. (Reason editor Matt Welch recently defended Swiss bank accounts as a sanctuary for “panicked retirees trying to cope with new tax rules imposed capriciously by a revenue-hungry Congress and president in 2010.”) The automatic imputation of sinister motives to secretive tax avoidance by wealthy businesspeople is exactly the sort of thing the Screen Guide for Americans warned against. Now, of course, the Republican Party has nominated a presidential candidate possessing both a Swiss bank account and money in a Cayman Islands tax haven, and television and film have so deeply ingrained the popular distrust of these things that Democrats need only chant the phrases in order to make him bleed.
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.