Two recent PJM columns focus on the question of what methods to use in winning the political war against the left. John Hawkins argues that we need to be prepared to play as dirty as the left to win; my friend Adam Graham argues that we should not, both for ethical reasons and because we will never be as good (or is that as bad?) as the left at dirty politics.
I would argue that both of them are missing the larger problem, which is that the left is engaging in asymmetric politics. Asymmetric warfare means that when there is a great disparity in the power of two belligerents, the weaker party turns to strategy, tactics, and weapons. Being weak isn’t such a disadvantage when hitting the other guys where they are not expecting it. The left figured out years ago that in a battle of serious political debate, they are likely to lose — especially as leftist ideas were utterly discredited by the failure of centrally planned economies in the 20th century. Instead, the left has focused not on serious political debate, but on winning the culture war.
As we found out after the last election, Obama voters were considerably more ignorant of objective facts than McCain voters were about our government. I think that this has always been something of a problem, but my impression is that it is getting worse. Many Americans don’t read anything deeper than the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, and The Daily Show is the leading source of “news” among the under-30 crowd. Education and thoughtful writing about public policy are still important for the 30% of Americans who pay any attention to that. But I’m reminded of Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. A gushing admirer told him, “All the intelligent people are going to vote for you.” His response? “Madam, I need a majority.” We’re losing the battle because we aren’t persuading the 70% of Americans who do not read. The left knows this. It is no coincidence that they are dominant in the entertainment business. When they make really strident, pedantic films, audiences stay away, the movies lose money, and the message doesn’t get through. A friend recalls going to a theater in Santa Monica, California, to watch the Jane Fonda movie Rollover when it came out, and the leftist message was so heavy handed that even in Santa Monica the audience was laughing at it.
When the left makes more subtle films and television shows, the effects are like water dripping onto a rock: each drop doesn’t do much to erode that surface, but over time it adds up. Watching how anti-Iraq war themes kept appearing in series like Law and Order and Without A Trace in 2005 and 2006 was disheartening; for the bulk of the population that doesn’t read, those endless drops of water doubtless had an effect.
Conservatives can do the same. When the movie Death Wish came out in 1974, it was a pretty revolutionary concept: a non-police officer carrying a gun for self-defense against thugs. Today, that concept doesn’t seem all that radical. John Milius films such as The Wind and The Lion (1975) and Red Dawn (1984) were both box office successes and promoters of patriotic themes. I would argue that the first Star Wars (1977) movie — because it had clear-cut heroes and villains — engaged in a struggle that mattered and assisted in creating a situation where Ronald Reagan could get elected. When Reagan spoke of “the evil empire,” it resonated with those who saw the Western tradition of liberty aligned with Luke Skywalker.
I’ve written a screenplay about an obscure event in the history of slavery — one that you haven’t heard of but that advances the conservative agenda in a subtle, non-polemical way. There’s a scene with hundreds of college professors and students (white and black) armed with rifles and handguns surrounding a hotel, demanding that federal law enforcement agents release a runaway slave. I believe that if I can scrape together the million dollars or so required to make it, it will be an exciting adventure film that will have audiences cheering and thinking about the questions it raises.
If conservatives want to win this battle, they need to put more energy into creating entertainment that strikes a responsive chord with the majority of Americans who are “sick of politics” because they don’t see how government and public policy matter to their lives. I believe that a majority of Americans, if they get a chance to see both sides of the argument presented in a way that entertains them, will come over to the conservative side in a decisive way. But conservatives have to make the effort. Right now, the left is winning the battle because they are creating entertainment — and the other side is just boring them.