Why "Duck Dynasty" Became the Latest Conservative Cultural Touchstone

In a 21-hour speech full of weird moments, few were weirder than when Sen. Ted Cruz abandoned all talk of health care, Nazis, and freedom to talk for a while about Duck Dynasty. "This is a show about a god-fearing family of successful entrepreneurs who love guns, who love to hunt, and who believe in the American Dream," Cruz said. "It's something that according to Congress almost shouldn't exist." He then spent the next four minutes reciting a seemingly random collection of quotes from the show, along the lines of "You put five rednecks on mower, it's gonna be epic." It seemed as if one of his staffers, searching for things Cruz could talk about to pass the time, grabbed the list from a website somewhere.

But it wasn't just like reading the phone book, because Duck Dynasty has become for conservatives an island sanctuary in a roiling cultural sea of liberal dangers. In case you're some kind of commie or you live in a monastery, Duck Dynasty is one of the most remarkable American cultural phenomena of the last few years. It's not only the highest-rated show on cable, it's also an endless font of best-selling books, wall calendars, T-shirts, and all manner of other cultural paraphernalia. The show is the most successful of a reality TV format one friend calls "wacky family has interesting business"—maybe they make cakes, or build custom motorcycles, or track down fugitives. In the case of the Robertson clan, they made millions manufacturing duck calls, but retained their homespun charm and (for the men) spectacular beards.

The show isn't political at all, but detectives have discovered the Robertsons' conservative leanings, and the family is visibly Christian (the show usually ends with a prayer). So as it's gotten more popular, conservative commentators have begun to sing its praises. The show's success, gushes right-wing radio and television talking head Laura Ingraham, is a product of its "focus on family, country, and faith." "What viewers are really watching are the bitter clingers candidate Obama so famously disparaged at a San Francisco campaign event back in 2008," rhapsodizes a conservative writer. "And you know what's probably startling to leftist elites? Instead of being bitter, the Duckmen are the happiest people in T.V. land. They rely only on themselves to solve their problems, not on the government." "Could Duck Dynasty be the driving force that helps conservatives win the culture war?" asks another conservative blog (I'm going to go with "no" on that one).

Chances are that when you Tivo the finale of Breaking Bad on Sunday or when you tune in to the latest Under the Dome, you're not asking yourself whether you're doing your part in the culture war. But lots of social conservatives are. They're bothered to no end by the fact that the filth spewed out by Hollywood undermines their teachings and pollutes their children's minds. And you know what? They're right! To a degree, anyway. We'll get to that in a moment, but first, consider this email Focus on the Family sent recently to its members, explaining the important role in educating our young people that can played by Duck Dynasty:

Dear Friend,

It's a wildly popular television program with a counter-cultural message.

A&E's Duck Dynasty is breaking records, as nearly 12 million viewers tuned in to watch its recent season premiere. Part of the cable program's appeal is the Robertson family's open Christian faith, including an evening meal prayer at the close of each program. And some family members are willing to address tough issues when talking to the media.

Two of the program's stars, Jase and Missy Robertson, recently told a Christian radio station they decided during their dating years to remain sexually abstinent until marriage—a pledge they kept until their wedding night. Now, they're witnessing a commitment to sexual purity until marriage in their oldest son, who has made the same vow.

"We decided to do it God's way," said Jase Robertson.

Sadly, the Robertson's family values are a foreign concept to many young people who are not taught the benefits—emotional, psychological and physical—of delaying sexual involvement until marriage. Today, it's difficult for many young people to comprehend sexual purity, much less put it into practice. That's where the success of abstinence-centered sex education programs comes into play.

Whether watching Duck Dynasty is going to keep dirty thoughts from teenagers' heads (again, I'm going to go with "no" on that one), television really doesn't represent the values of people like those at Focus on the Family. Liberal organizations don't need to send out excited emails to their members saying, "Hey, everybody! Check out Modern Family, a show featuring a gay couple that portrays them as human beings in a real relationship, not as deviants! And on Parks and Recreation, the main character finds fulfillment through work outside the home, even though she's a woman!" There are plenty of shows that insinuate liberal values through their characterizations and story lines.

It's not a conspiracy, it's just that the values people like Focus on the Family believe in are not only increasingly different from those of the broader American society, they're particularly different from those of a) the people who make television shows, and b) the most desirable demographic groups those people are trying to appeal to, particularly people between the ages of 18 and 54 (known in the TV business as "the demo"). You could make lots of shows explaining the sinfulness of teen lust or the happiness a woman can only achieve by submitting herself to her husband, but their audience would be rather limited. And they'd probably just be boring. Expressing those values is, as they say, counter-cultural, simply because the culture has moved on.

There's another side to this, too. I'm not going to begrudge conservatives celebrating Duck Dynasty. They should go ahead and revel in it if it makes them happy. But what you don't see nearly as much as you used to is them decrying the moral sewer that is the rest of television's offerings. They may complain that there's too much violence and swearing on TV these days (the quantity of both has undoubtedly increased in the last decade or so), but you seldom see them going after particular shows, protesting Modern Family for being too gay-friendly or Boardwalk Empire for being too bloody. It's almost as if they figured out that being a bunch of humorless scolds wasn't getting them anywhere.

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