The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy Is on Your Screen

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo-illustration by Gluekit.

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.

Photo: Courtesy of ABC. Photo-illustrations by Gluekit.

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.

The fear of just such a campaign hung over the film industry from the outset. Hollywood was founded by Jewish immigrants who lived in terror that their Jewishness would make conservative America suspect them of abusing their cultural power. The moguls ostentatiously cloaked themselves in Americanism, snuffing out any hint that the images they projected in towns across America would unsettle the culture.

They were Establishmentarian in their politics rather than radical. The studio chiefs embraced the Republican presidents of the twenties; many supported Franklin Roosevelt and then backed Dwight Eisenhower. Their actors, and ­especially their writers, leaned left, including a small but organized Communist faction. But the moguls wielded ruthless control over their own studios. When Upton Sinclair waged a populist campaign for governor of California in 1934, as Ron Brownstein recalls in his 1990 political history of Hollywood, the studios bombarded him with a mass propaganda campaign. They distributed statewide phony “newsreels” of contrasting interviews with supporters of Sinclair and his Republican opponent, Frank Merriam. The latter were upstanding Californians, and the former “shabby, disheveled foreigners with thick accents, threatening vagrants in crowded boxcars rushing toward California to milk Sinclair’s socialist paradise.” The studios employed for these roles actors from films like Wild Boys of the Road.

In the forties, a faction of Hollywood conservatives formed the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Its purported role was to suppress the phantasmal threat that Communists would “pervert this powerful medium into an instrument for the dissemination of un-American ideas and beliefs.” In reality, the Alliance wanted to organize the moguls as a reactionary business organization. It distributed to studios a Screen Guide for Americans, instructing them, in minute detail, how to apply ideological filters to their movies. To write its guide, the Alliance hired a Russian-immigrant screenwriter with deep ties to the Hollywood right—Ayn Rand. Her youthful brush with communism had left Rand with, among other things, a formative belief in the power of culture as a medium of propaganda.

The Screen Guide warned that Communists operate not through open advocacy but by slipping subtle messages into their scripts. “Their purpose,” the Screen Guide wrote of Communists, “is to corrupt our moral premises by corrupting nonpolitical movies—by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories.” Their primary method, according to the Screen Guide, was by portraying the rich in a negative light. It warned the studios not to permit negative portrayals of industrialists. “Don’t spit in your own face or, worse, pay miserable little rats to do it. You, as a motion-picture producer, are an industrialist.” It likewise warned them not to “deify ‘the common man’ ”: “if anyone is classified as ‘common’ … It then means he has no outstanding abilities, no outstanding virtues, no outstanding intelligence.”

The studios never fully embraced Rand’s vision of the film industry as a united front of industrialist class solidarity. But, for fear of inciting charges of communism, they did carefully limit themselves to culturally inoffensive themes. This is the period conservatives are thinking of when they gaze out at a cultural landscape they once ruled, and in which they have become strangers. As Tony Soprano famously asked, “What ever happened to Gary Cooper?” (Cooper, as it happens, was a prominent supporter of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.)

By the fifties, the studio system was disintegrating, as had the moguls’ blunt control. The Alliance’s Screen Guide is interesting as an alternative vision of how the industry might have developed had the moguls maintained their grip and fashioned their medium into an instrument of ideological and political self-interest. Liberals may have come to view film as a hated propaganda organ, like Fox News. In this alternative world, greedy Muppet studio-seizing tycoon Tex Richman might instead be benevolent, overtaxed small-businessman Tex Jobcreator.

Instead, control of film (and the new medium of television) passed into the hands of people who reinforced, rather than censored, the left-leaning proclivities of their creative staff. Since the sixties, Hollywood has become an almost uniformly Democratic industry. A 1990 survey by University of Texas professor David Prindle compared the political inclinations of “Hollywood opinion leaders” with Americans as a whole. Ninety-seven percent of the Hollywood sample believed “it’s all right for blacks and whites to date each other,” compared with 53 percent of Americans as a whole. Sixty-eight percent of the Hollywood contingent, but only 12 percent of the country at large, supported gay rights.

Photo: Suzanna Hanover/© Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection. Photo-illustrations by Gluekit.

Starting in the seventies, popular culture thoroughly shed its postwar timidity and presented an image of America unrecognizable to those weaned on the pristine idealism of the black-and-white years. The moral signifiers that had defined popular culture have not only disappeared but been completely inverted, the heroes turned into villains. A 1991 study found that 40 percent of all murders on television were committed by businessmen. In Hollywood’s golden age, wrote the conservative film critic Michael Medved, “if a character appeared on screen wearing a clerical collar it served as a sure sign that the audience was supposed to like him.” By the seventies, religion had come to signify hypocrisy, or darker sins.

Medved has cited the 1991 version of Cape Fear as a window into how the moral center of Hollywood has been transformed. A remake of a 1962 thriller, the new version turned the killer into a distinctly Christian menace—Bible verses tattooed across his body, spouting religious aphorisms to justify his bloodlust. Cape Fear can also be seen in juxtaposition to another film that came out the same year: The Silence of the Lambs. The latter also featured a villain with offensive characteristics—“Buffalo Bill,” a serial killer who was trying to turn himself into a woman. Christian conservatives protested Cape Fear, and liberal gays protested The Silence of the Lambs. In the years that followed, Hollywood heeded and internalized the lesson about the perils of gay-bashing far more than it heeded the lesson about offending religion.

By now, conservatives have almost completely stopped complaining about Hollywood, even as the provocations have intensified. What passes for a right-wing movie these days is The Dark Knight Rises, which submits the rather modest premise that, irritating though the rich may be, actually killing them and taking all their stuff might be excessive. In the course of a generation we have come from a world in which the gentle liberalism of Murphy Brown incited furious right-wing denunciations to one in which the only visible political controversy surrounding Girls—a show that’s basically a 30-minute-long Dan Quayle aneurysm—was its lack of racial diversity.

The funny thing is that, in the years since Hollywood lost its place of prominence in right-wing demonology, we now have a far more precise sense of its power. The fear that popular culture could exert some invisible pull upon the minds of its audience may have haunted its critics, but the industry’s defenders could just as plausibly deny that moving pictures exerted social influence at all. At the height of the nineties Kulturkampf, film lobbyist Jack Valenti breezily waved off Hollywood’s critics by insisting, “I haven’t found anybody who has said that movies cause anybody to do anything.” But new research—research that conservatives have failed to pay much attention to—badly undermines that line of defense.

Several years ago, a trio of researchers working for the Inter-American Development Bank set out to help solve a sociological mystery. Brazil had, over the course of four decades, experienced one of the largest drops in average family size in the world, from 6.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 children in 2000. What made the drop so curious is that, unlike the Draconian one-child policy in China, the Brazilian government had in place no policy to limit family size. (It was actually illegal at some point to advertise contraceptives in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.) What could explain such a steep drop? The researchers zeroed in on one factor: television.

Television spread through Brazil in the mid-sixties. But it didn’t arrive everywhere at once in the sprawling country. Brazil’s main station, Globo, expanded slowly and unevenly. The researchers found that areas that gained access to Globo saw larger drops in fertility than those that didn’t (controlling, of course, for other factors that could affect fertility). It was not any kind of news or educational programming that caused this fertility drop but exposure to the massively popular soap operas, or novelas, that most Brazilians watch every night. The paper also found that areas with exposure to television were dramatically more likely to give their children names shared by novela characters.

Novelas almost always center around four or five families, each of which is usually small, so as to limit the number of characters the audience must track. Nearly three quarters of the main female characters of childbearing age in the prime-time novelas had no children, and a fifth had one child. Exposure to this glamorized and unusual (especially by Brazilian standards) family arrangement “led to significantly lower fertility”—an effect equal in impact to adding two years of schooling.

In a 2009 study, economists Robert Jensen and Emily Oster detected a similar pattern in India. A decade ago, cable television started to expand rapidly into the Indian countryside, where deeply patriarchal views had long prevailed. But not all villages got cable television at once, and its random spread created another natural experiment. This one yielded extraordinary results. Not only did women in villages with cable television begin bearing fewer children, as in Brazil, but they were also more able to leave their home without their husbands’ permission and more likely to disapprove of husbands abusing their wives, and the traditional preference for male children declined. The changes happened rapidly, and the magnitude was “quite large”—the gap in gender attitudes separating villages introduced to cable television from urban areas shrunk by between 45 and 70 percent. Television, with its more progressive social model, had changed everything.

Television and movies in the United States could never have the same kind of revolutionary impact they wield in cloistered Third World villages. But the human brain is the human brain. In the United States, with our already expansive cultural frontiers, we can’t as easily measure the effect of popular culture. (We all got access to Glee at the same time.) Yet we can at least glimpse tiny corners of popular culture’s impact. A 2011 paper found that when An Inconvenient Truth appeared in a town—here, again, an uneven pattern allowed for experimentation—purchases of carbon offsets rose by half. The effect disappeared over time, as you’d expect from a single film that wasn’t followed up.

A trio of communications professors found that watching Will & Grace made audiences more receptive to gay rights, and especially viewers who had little contact in real life with gays and lesbians. And that one show was merely a component of a concerted effort by Hollywood—dating back to Soap in the late seventies, which featured Billy Crystal’s groundbreaking portrayal of a sympathetic gay character, through Modern Family—to prod audiences to accept homosexuality. Likewise, the political persona of Barack Obama attained such rapid acceptance and popularity in part because he represented the real-world version of an archetype that, after a long early period of servile black stereotypes, has appeared in film and television for years: a sober, intelligent African-American as president, or in some other position of power.

Just how liberal is popular culture? Part of this question can’t be quantified. In 1992, Medved, then still a film critic, wrote Hollywood vs. America, which built its argument around an exhaustive survey of the political inclinations of American film. Last year, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro did the same for television in Prime­time Propaganda. Both books make a reasonably persuasive case that popular culture, in general, promotes liberal values and undercuts conservative values, especially sexual mores. What’s more, both authors live in Los Angeles and paint a vivid picture of a near-ubiquitous culture of liberalism in the industry.

Notable exceptions exist, but they are notable precisely because they are exceptions. Even the most memorable cases of right-wing cultural iconography have to offer a nod to the predominant liberalism of the industry in a way that the most liberal-message media don’t. Dirty Harry was followed by a sequel preachily denouncing right-wing vigilantism. In Red Dawn, the paranoid 1984 action film about a Communist invasion of America, the Cuban commander of the occupying Communist forces (don’t ask) ultimately lets rebel leader Patrick Swayze go free, and the story ends with a meditation on the evils of war. 24 eventually developed sinister greedy corporations as its Über-villain. Rocky IV ends, after vanquishing steroid-addled Soviet antagonist Ivan Drago, with Rocky delivering a plea for coexistence.

If you ask Hollywood liberals themselves about the liberalism of their work, the answer generally depends on how you pose the question. If you frame it in terms of social responsibility, they will happily boast about using their platform to raise their audience’s consciousness about racial tolerance or the environment or distrusting government officials. Pose the same question as an accusation of ideological or partisan bias—those are, after all, liberal values—then they will more likely deny it.

The denials generally take the form of a simple economic aphorism. The entertainment business is a business, so if its product leans left, it must reflect what the audience wants. One oddity of the Hollywood-liberalism debate is that it makes liberals posit the existence of a perfect, frictionless market, while conservatives find themselves explaining why a free market is failing to function as it ought to. (Here is the rabidly conservative Shapiro, sounding like Ralph Nader: “The market in television isn’t free … The issue is one of control. The corporations have it. The American people don’t.”)

The market in popular culture is free, but for the liberal defense—no propagandizing here!—to be true, studios would have to be single-minded profit-maximizing machines. Most of them aren’t. Making money is their main goal, but they do blend profit with their artistic sensibility, which is heavily influenced by their ideological perspective.

The history of Hollywood is a long tug-of-war between artistic conscience and the bottom line. Louis Mayer, fearing the backlash from William Randolph Hearst, offered $850,000 to the producer of Citizen Kane to suppress the film and burn the negative. The show Thirtysomething endured a series of advertising boycotts. One scene, with two gay male characters in bed together, cost ABC $1 million in advertising; another, of them kissing, cost an additional half million. Network president Roger Iger cited his “social and creative responsibilities,” and the executive producer noted, “I am grateful that ABC was willing to air the program at a loss.” Even some of the cheesiest and most commercial ventures feel the pull of social conscience. “We’re talking to young people every day, and a lot of responsibility comes with that,” said Doug Herzog, president of MTV. “We believe that through the medium of television we try to make the world a slightly better place.”

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 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.

The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy Is on Your Screen