Why Liberals Make Better Political Pop Culture than Conservatives

In my ongoing quest to reach across the aisle and foster bipartisanship, I come to praise Jonah Goldberg—yes, that Jonah Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism and innumerable appalling columns, for what he writes in the Los Angeles Times, in which he recoils at the suggestion by some of his brethren that they need to buy a movie studio and start churning out conservative films:

There's a difference between art and propaganda. Outside the art house crowd, liberal agitprop doesn't sell. Art must work with the expectations and beliefs of the audience. Even though pregnancies are commonplace on TV, you'll probably never see a hilarious episode of a sitcom in which a character has an abortion — because abortion isn't funny.

The conservative desire to create a right-wing movie industry is an attempt to mimic a caricature of Hollywood. Any such effort would be a waste of money that would make the Romney campaign seem like a great investment.

There's something Goldberg doesn't mention, which is that when they've tried this kind of thing in the past, conservatives have failed miserably. The problem isn't that pop culture isn't a good way to influence people's political beliefs, it's that when conservatives have tried to use pop culture for those ends, the results have been almost uniformly awful. What was supposed to be funny wasn't funny, what was supposed to be thrilling was boring, and what was supposed to get your toes tapping and your head nodding produced nothing but derisive laughter.

To a degree liberals have this problem too, because if your primary intention in producing a piece of art/entertainment is to have a political impact, the art/entertainment is probably not going to be very good. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report work because they aren't attempts by a group of liberals who happen to be comedy writers and performers to use comedy to advance liberal goals, they're attempts by a bunch of comedy writers and performers who happen to be liberals to use politics to be funny.

Nevertheless, even when they set out to make a political point through popular culture, liberals usually do it much better than conservatives. That's mostly because when it happens it's people who are already really good at what they do taking their art and turning it political. So when Eminem decides to release an anti-George W. Bush song just before the 2004 election, it may not be his best song ever, but it's pretty good, because he's Eminem and he knows what he's doing. When liberals decide to make an anti-fracking movie, Matt Damon and John Krasinski write it and star in it, and Gus Van Sant directs it, and even if it isn't Citizen Kane, it's a polished Hollywood production, because those guys know what they're doing.

When people on the right try to do the same, it isn't the A-team doing it, or even the B-team. You get a couple of kids from the Campus Republicans who happen to like hip-hop making their own anti-Obama rap, and the result is less than inspiring. You get something like Silver Circle, an animated libertarian movie supposedly coming to theaters soon, in which the dollar collapses, the Federal Reserve takes over the country with its police force of jackbooted thugs, and brave rebels fight back by minting their own currency (and, apparently, engaging in some gun battles). Sadly the preview is not embeddable, but click that link and you'll see something that looks like it was put together by your nephew and a few of his buddies over a couple of weekends, stringing together every political thriller cliche they could come up with and wrapping it in all the high-quality production values of one of those crazy Taiwanese news videos. The animation is so bad It would have to take a bullet train overnight to even get within sight of the uncanny valley. I'm sure the people who made it worked hard on it, and this kind of thing is harder than it looks, but that's kind of my point.

Not that I'm saying people shouldn't write songs and make their own propaganda movies if the spirit moves them. Let a hundred flowers bloom. It's better than having governments do it, and a robust political movement should incorporate everything from lobbying to organizing to running for office to writing songs. But just don't expect that in and of themselves the pieces of art will have that great an impact. And chances are that the more seriously you're taking yourself as you do it, the worse it'll be.

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