Scott Johnson at Powerline brings our attention to a very thoughtful post by William Katz of Urgent Agenda about the role that popular culture and Hollywood played in the 2008 election. As Katz notes, this discussion is a perennial in American politics and, until now, it has almost always concluded with conservatives kicking back, looking self-satisfied, and pronouncing that celebrity endorsements and Hollywood political activism don’t really amount to much in terms of electoral outcomes. Some low-hanging and gullible fruits may easily be snatched by the clever machinations of entertainment industry wannabe pols, but the American people en masse are not so soft-headed as to traipse after any old celebrity of a pied piper just because she’s got a TV gig. After this election, however, there’s not as much self-satisfaction on the right as there has been up till now. Why? The names of two gals might have something to do with it: Oprah and Tina Fey.
Of course . . . Oprah is not just any celebrity. She’s a virtual religion for a good number of American women. And Saturday Night Live, if not Tina Fey, has taken on mythical and historic proportions in the popular imagination. Every other week gives us another airing of an anniversary episode or a "Best Of" compilation--as though it were some sort of pious and somber history and civics lesson about our important entertainment past. Indeed, it’s probably safe to bet that a good number of our fellow citizens recall their recent American history through the lens of SNL more readily than they do from any personal reflections. Don’t remember Gerald Ford? I bet you DO remember seeing Chevy Chase’s impersonation of him always falling down and bumbling through life. And so it is likely to be for Sarah Palin--unless she can quickly overcome it.
Anyone hoping to make a serious argument against the idea that Oprah and Fey had a powerful (and, I’d add, ominous) impact on public opinion in this election needs to go back and reflect some more on Katz’s observations. Katz argues further that the influence of popular culture on our politics is not likely to be an epiphenomenon. It seems to represent something of a dramatic shift even as it has been a long time in coming--a slowly growing iceberg that has just now hit our ship. I’m not sure what accounts for this (the rising importance of youth culture, social networking via the internet, the death of newspapers, entertaining ourselves to death, etc.?) and I’m not sure that this is really as sudden a shift as it seems to feel. But one has to admit that was a vast difference in the impact of, say, Ben Affleck and Bruce Springsteen’s endorsements of John Kerry and the impact of the full-court-press of Oprah and Fey. Forget the same league. This is not even the same sport, as kids say.
In the future, conservatives who wish to overcome this phenomenon (however new or old it may be) will have to do two things: First and foremost among them will be to quit whining about the bias of popular culture. They’re all liberals and they don’t like you? Waaah. No kidding!? Get over it. Second, they need to move beyond it. Doing this may involve adopting some of the methods and tools of this culture . . . but it needn’t mean resorting to impersonating them or, especially, not courting its favor. Conservatives should remember why it was that a certain actor/president and hero of theirs was able to overcome the massive bias against him. Even though he was one of Hollywood’s own, Reagan did not expect or need their love to be successful in politics. He turned the dynamic on its head by speaking over the heads of those in entertainment who could never be expected to endorse him and going instead directly to the American people who always had. He did not wait for the media to come to him and carry his water; he carried it himself and he did it so well that he made them come and see (and broadcast) what all the fuss was about.
He also did not get sucked into a media vortex by dancing to their tunes or appearing obsequious with his hat in his hands begging for popular adulation. He was manly in the face of their criticism without bothering to be contemptuous of them. Was he then engaged in a kind of political stage act? Maybe you could say so. I prefer to see it as character. But part of that "act" (if you want to call it that) or character was never to say or do anything that might be taken as contempt for the American people who, after all, he sought to lead. Why would anyone seek to be President of a people for whom he has contempt? People are right not to trust such a politician and Reagan was right never to exhibit such feelings--even if he sometimes (like most of us) had them. He did not criticize the people for their appreciation of a popular culture that did not appreciate him. But neither did he bow to it. He, like Lincoln before him, found a way to appeal to the better angels of their nature. And by speaking directly to what was best in them he was able to speak directly about what is best about America and, one hopes, he inspired us to live up to it. In this he sought to be imitated, not merely to imitate as a mere actor does.
Conservative candidates (and the voters who select them) would do well in future elections to remember that Obama’s victory reflects more the perception that he was able to imitate their modern hero than the reality that Obama was merely able to finagle the enthusiastic approval of a celebrity culture which only hoped he could do it. It’s fine to note the possible vacuity of this hope, but one has to be careful about how it is done. And, anyway, it appears that Obama’s ambition stretches beyond mere imitation too. Whining about it for the next four years surely won’t cut it. In politics, perception is always--like it or not--the more important reality.