Substance Matters!

Patrick Ruffini on the left:

They controlled all the major institutions: the media, academia, Hollywood, the Democratic Party, large segments of the Republican Party, and consequently, the government…. They dominate Hollywood not by actively branding liberalism in their movies, but by coolly associating liberal policy ideas with sentiments everyone feels, like love (gay marriage) or fairness (the little guy vs. some evil corporate stiff). Though I think Andrew Breitbart is spot on in raising a red flag on the threat we face in Hollywood, I fear that the conservative movement of today would only produce a response as agitprop and sarcastic as the Joe the Plumber phenomenon. In other words, some amusing slapstick comedies but not sweeping cultural epics that will be remembered 50 years from now. When you assume liberals are dominant culturally, you tend toward sarcasm or one-off gimmicks to knock the majority of its game — but never an all encompassing argument for conservative cultural and political relevance — something we have lacked for a long time, since Buckley was in his prime.

This analysis is so insightful in parts, and yet so flawed! To address the particular example cited by Patrick Ruffini, let us consider a liberal Hollywood screenwriter penning a script about two gay men who are getting married. Does he render their relationship as one of love in order to strategically associate emotions everyone feels with liberal policy goals? Or does he actually believe that gay people who seek marriage are in love just like straight people who wed, and try his best as a writer to give a portrayal faithful to life?

Now let’s broaden the scope of our inquiry, focusing not just on Hollywood, but on the media and academia too. All are culturally influential left-leaning professions that give insufficient due to conservative insights. So why is it that the New York Times, Harvard University and the major studious don’t “actively brand liberalism” in their products? The answer implied by the excerpt above is that they are savvy strategists who understand that advancing liberal ideas is better accomplished indirectly, and that if only conservatives would confidently take that approach the whole cultural scene would shift in our favor.

What a dangerous error in analysis!

Those professions may be overwhelmingly liberal, but they are also populated mostly by folks whose primary goals aren’t political. Most Hollywood actors, directors and writers set out to do good work and make money, not to advance the cause of the Democrat Party or liberalism generally. The typical academic aspires to do exceptional scholarship, to gain tenure, and to advance their field, not to help team liberal. The average journalist wants to break stories, or to produce exceptional writing, or to anchor the evening telecast in a big market, not to cleverly slant public discourse to advantage liberals.

Put another way, these people buy whatever profession they’ve chosen as valuable in its own right, not just as a tool to wield political influence. And more often than not, their success is owed to the fact that they conduct themselves as professionals, not as professional political operatives. Yes, there are exceptions, and of course the fact that these professions are overwhelmingly liberal has a distorting effect, but the answer to this particular problem isn’t to find William F. Buckleys who can formulate “an all encompassing argument for conservative cultural and political relevance.” The answer is to understand why these professions are valuable, engage them as such, and push for necessary reforms from the inside.

Nowhere is it written that journalism, academia and cinema must be dominated by liberals, but the right’s disadvantage is certain to persist as long is conservative professionals are mostly concerned with advancing their political agenda, whereas others in the same field are focused mostly on doing good work. I’ll take a journalist who is conservative over a “conservative journalist” any day, and please don’t ever make me sit through a film or lecture by someone who mostly wants 61 Senate seats for their party.

Patrick Ruffini is right that the conservative movement of today would fail miserably to produce good cinema. But their failure wouldn’t be a function of assuming the cultural dominance of liberals! It would be the fact that instead of setting out to make a damn good movie, they’d set out to make a political point, which usually works out terribly for liberals too. (And while we’re talking about Hollywood, can we please engage film more like Ross Douthat and Peter Suderman, and less like Big Hollywood?)