The conservative solution to taking back pop culture lies not in pushing a form of propaganda onto Hollywood, but in learning how to tell a compelling story.
These past few months have seen the Republican coalition huddle together to discuss how to communicate its message. Like any good team, it has dissected the losing game footage in the hopes of discovering what went wrong and more importantly what it can do to prevent another disappointing rout.
While the advice has varied, many conservatives have latched onto the idea that the movement needs to utilize the power of the arts and entertainment industry to retake pop culture. Liberals, they gripe, have monopolized the arts for decades and have used that influence to shift the country left. The only solution, they reason, is to invest in a conservative arts industry to counter Hollywood’s current liberal bias.
That strategy, however, is fraught with peril. Not even addressing the talent and experience necessary for a quality piece, something that is not easy to replicate, what conservatives seem to forget is that a Hollywood production alone does not inspire changes in culture. Rather, it’s the story expressed within that moves souls.
Hollywood productions are merely vessels of the human experience. They are a means of capturing clips of humanity and reducing them into a form in which we can relate. The focus is on the hopes, struggles, and (hopefully) triumphs that seize our heartstrings and stir us to action. The focus is on the story, not the political message.
Human beings understand each other through stories. It is how we communicate ideas, and it is how we arrange the density of the world into a digestible structure. It is also how we discover our values, and it is how we measure the rightness of political policies. Thus, there is an important difference between art and propaganda. In art, the political message comes second to telling a story. In propaganda, the story often suffers in order to push a political message. You can imagine which one is more likely to inspire. I’ll give you a hint; it’s not a caricature of what conservatives believe the entertainment industry is or should be.
The reason Hollywood is so successful at pushing liberal ideas is because the push is incidental. There’s rarely a concerted effort at creating “liberal” art. When there is the production usually bombs. Instead, artists and entertainers are drawn to the stories the left has composed around its message. The story comes before the politics.
Liberals get this. They recognize that American voters will respond more passionately to a rousing story than to facts alone. It is why they pepper, not only their art, but also their political campaigns with a narrative of injustice, poverty, and/or corruption. It is why they crafted the Life of Julia to give women a vicarious protagonist on which to project their lives. It’s why we have a war on women with evildoers and a campaign of oppression. It’s why Democrats have fashioned themselves as the party of the minority and of the outcast and of the oppressed, where each member brings with them a preset crusade and a Democratic politician leading the vanguard. Liberals, for all their faults, understand what moves men to action.
Conservatives do not. Conservatives seem to think that the American public interprets their lives through cold facts and ideas alone without any strong need for human testimony. Take this latest presidential election for example. Mitt Romney ran on the economy, but he almost never ran on personal accounts of how that economy harmed real people. His campaign centered on his resume and on the occasional failures of his opponent. Nowhere did he stress the victims of big government or the corrupt special interests that seize the welfare state for their own profit. He never showcased the child trapped in a broken home, the small business owner priced out of private health care, or even the entrepreneurial millennial who after being shutout from industries due to protectionist regulations, owed the banks $100,000 for college and who knows how much for his parents’ entitlement programs.
Mitt Romney designed his campaign like a business empty of human context, and as a result, his campaign suffered. He never captured the imagination of the American public; he didn’t even capitalize on the anger Americans felt over their economic prospects. The only progress he made was on Medicare and Social Security when his vice presidential running-mate tied the shaky future of these programs with his ailing mother in Florida. The Republican ticket lacked stories and, therefore, persuasive cultural force. They became the leading bad guys to Obama’s Oscar-worthy epic.
Conservatives then must ask themselves how the purchase of a few movie studios would solve their cultural woes when the movement cannot even articulate an identifiable message during its presidential campaign.
The answer, of course, is that it won’t. Rickety propaganda cannot replace a genuine expression of an artful story. Conservatives instead must learn how to refashion their arguments into a powerful narrative — one that resonates with the public. A drive for limited government must become a battle against corruption and special interests. Deregulation must become an effort to vindicate the right to earn an honest living in the face of protectionism and rent-seeking. Conservatives must rework their key themes into a story of hope, struggle, and (hopefully) triumph. Only then will conservatives regain their cultural relevance.
By creating a story, conservatives will find their inspiration. They will find a way to arouse the human spirit, and they will offer a powerful alternative to liberal culture. On that day, conservatives might even realize that they will have no need to produce their own Hollywood since good stories will find their own voice and move others to artful expression. Conservatives need to learn how to tell a compelling story. Until they do, they will remain culturally irrelevant no matter how many movie studios they own.