"We need to buy a movie studio."
Amid the umpteen conferences, panels, meetings and informal conversations in the wake of the presidential election, this idea has been a near constant among conservatives who feel like the country is slipping through their fingers. Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee combined raised just more than $1 billion, and all we got are these lousy T-shirts. Since conservatives are losing the culture, goes the argument, which in turn leads to losing at politics, maybe that money could be better spent on producing some cultural ammo of our own?
It's a bad idea.
Let's first acknowledge that Hollywood is overwhelmingly, though not uniformly, liberal. Hollywood constitutes a major part of the Democratic Party's financial base and, arguably, the constituency liberal politicians fear -- and revere -- most. That's why all of the post-Newtown talk of the Obama administration "going after Hollywood violence" was nonsense from the outset.
In August, New York magazine's Jonathan Chait wrote an interesting essay arguing that the right-wing culture vultures of the 1990s were essentially right: Hollyweird really was eroding traditional conservative values. A committed liberal, Chait is grateful for this effort: "We liberals owe not a small measure of our success to the propaganda campaign of a tiny, disproportionately influential cultural elite."
Chait makes a strong case. But just as there's a problem with conservatives drawing straight lines from the silver screen to social decay, there's a problem with drawing similarly unwavering lines to progressive triumph.
Hollywood produces culture, but it also takes its orders from it. For instance, according to today's pieties, the gun is an evil right-wing talisman. And yet, every year Hollywood vomits up a stream of films that cast guns as the solution to any manner of problems. Martial arts stars notwithstanding, you'll be hard-pressed to find an action movie in which the star's most trusted sidekick isn't his gun.
During the Bush years, Hollywood tried valiantly to do its part by churning out big box-office antiwar movies. It consistently failed. Liberal frustration grew so intense, then-L.A. Times columnist Patrick Goldstein celebrated James Cameron's sci-fi extravaganza "Avatar" as proof Americans really do like liberal movies with, among other things, antiwar themes. "Avatar," according to Goldstein, also proved that the global-warming message sells. And yet, after not just "Avatar" but "The Day After Tomorrow," the remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (not to mention academic and media drum-beating), a 2012 Pew poll found that most Americans still don't buy that global warming is caused by humans.
The point isn't that Hollywood has no influence. It's just that its influence is agonizingly hard to predict or dismiss as unthinkingly liberal. Studies of "All in the Family" found that viewers in America, and around the globe, took different lessons from the show based on their politics and cultural norms. Despite Norman Lear's liberal best efforts, many found Archie Bunker more persuasive than his "meathead" sociologist son-in-law. HBO's epic series "The Wire" was a near-Marxist indictment of urban liberalism and the drug war, making it quite popular among many conservatives and libertarians. The popular BBC series "Downton Abbey" is shockingly conservative in many respects. The aristocrats are decent, compassionate people, and the staff is, if anything, more happily class-conscious than the blue bloods. And yet, as far as I can tell, liberals love it.
Obviously, the market is a big factor. No doubt many Hollywood liberals would like to push the ideological envelope more, but audiences get a vote. And that vote isn't cast purely on ideological grounds.
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.