Fri. June 1
We’re Asking the Wrong Question
by James Poulos
Editor’s note: This piece is part of a symposium in which a variety of writers and thinkers weigh in on the relationship between conservatism and pop culture.
Once, even as late as the Reagan era, Republicans were in the pop-cultural mainstream. Today, popular culture celebrates things like porn stars and pot, and it’s Democrats who deliver. There aren’t any pictures on the Internet of Republican presidents smoking pot or posing with porn stars. The left’s pop dominance seems to have cleared all the obstacles to using culture as a vehicle for liberal political projects. So it’s no surprise that some conservatives feel pressured to pump conservatism back into pop culture before it’s too late.
But they shouldn’t give in. Instead, they should realize it’s enough to contribute to pop culture without agonizing over whether their contributions are adequately or truly conservative. That agony is a ticket to endless frustration. It’s oftentimes hard to tell exactly what ideological content is really embedded into songs, art, or movies. Is “Gunpowder and Lead” conservative? Is a Thomas Kinkade painting? Is Juno? Or is this the wrong kind of question to ask?
Consider pop culture products that are often casually associated with the left. Wes Anderson may be the personification of liberal hipsterism, but it’s a waste of time to try to discern any ideological upshot in Fantastic Mr. Fox. His new Moonrise Kingdom is arisen from tropes and narratives that could easily be branded “conservative”—like the way innocents in love defend their grace by protecting each other from the incursions of the outside world. Liberals can and do make contributions to pop culture that aren’t particularly liberal. They only seem that way because of how they’re situated and interpreted.
Growing more nonchalant about pop culture litmus tests won’t be easy for conservatives. They’re resistant to allowing pop products to simply be what they are because they fear, deep down, that the left is not only interested in politicizing everything but actually capable of doing so.
That failure of confidence is part of a larger difficulty: conservatism is a way of being that resists any formal definition. Conservatism can intermingle cultural, political, and religious content, leaving conservatives to struggle over which kind of content, and how much, makes a product conservative. Liberals rarely seem to have this problem. For help, conservatives can look to Christian tradition. On the one hand, for a Christian, imbuing one’s work with Christianity is far more important and doable than imbuing one’s work with something that can be stamped with any ideological label. But on the other, it’s usually enough to let one’s work be one’s work, whether it’s collecting trash or building houses or throwing a football.
True, pop culture seems different; it’s supposedly so creative that it requires a creedal infusion that “uncreative” jobs don’t. If so, the key is how the infusion is done. Conservatives could relax if they focused on being who they want to be and then contributing to the popular culture whatever products happen to come out of them. The authenticity of that approach helps reveal that “creative” pursuits are ultimately more similar than they are different to “uncreative” ones. One mistaken belief surrounding pop culture is that art, acting, and the like have to be the most creative things we do, the ultimate in creativity. That’s not a particularly liberal notion, but it is hostile to cultural authority. That’s a big reason why conservatives feel so adversarial around pop culture. But the demand that art be radically creative imposes just as unfulfillable an expectation on pop culture as does the demand that conservative creators make certifiably conservative creations. Let go of that, and the fear that popular culture can be lost to an ideology will go with it.
James Poulos is a Forbes contributor and a columnist for The Daily Caller. He sings and plays guitar in Black Hi-Lighter.