Cheer Up, Liberals
December 1, 2004
By Ted McClelland
I know you think the fundamentalist triumph is complete. America
is going to be just like The Handmaid's Tale now. The Bush
Administration will take orders from Christian ayatollahs who command
all-glass mega-churches in the suburbs of Denver and Houston. The
president will be proclaimed a Protestant Pope, God's infallible
messenger on Earth. Roe v. Wade will be overturned. The minimum
wage will be lowered to $1 an hour, where it was in the 1950s, when
everything was perfect. The FCC will order all radio stations to
play Toby Keith, and Congress will so brazenly destroy the wall
between church and state that the next federal budget will include
$10 million for the 700 Club Pledge Drive.
Stop worrying. I am here to bring you hope. I am here to tell
you that the cultural Cold War now wracking America will be won
by the liberals, by the forces who want to take this country forward
into the 21st century, not backward into the 12th. How can I say
this with such certainity? Because liberalism always wins. Always.
It may not win at the ballot box, and its victories may take decades
to accomplish, but it triumphs nonetheless, because popular culture
and generational change are juggernauts that flatten even the most
The conservative movement has been winning election after election
for the last 10 years. But the more they win, the angrier they get.
The right wing's fiercest culture warriors are middle-aged men refighting
the battles of their youth. George W. Bush, Pat Buchanan, Tom DeLay,
Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes - all are Baby Boom politicians trying desperately
to unring every bell that sounded in the '60s: women's rights, civil
rights, gay rights, the sexual revolution, freedom of speech.
But they are learning that their electoral victories don't change
a thing. The culture they loathe is still in their face, all the
time, and it drifts farther and farther from "The Donna Reed Show"
every year. Hooters' billboards loom above the highway between Dallas
and Fort Worth. Cable TV's most popular programs are about foul-mouthed
mobsters, promiscuous career girls, and arty homosexuals imparting
their fashion sense to family men. Gays parade down the streets
of big cities every summer. That damned Planned Parenthood clinic
is still downtown. Peter Jennings is reading the evening news. "Kinsey"
is playing at the AMC 30. Terrell Owens is getting fresh with a
white woman on Monday Night Football. No wonder right-wingers wake
up pig-biting mad every morning and go to sleep even more pissed
Yes, liberals, we've been too successful for our own good, or
at least for the good of our presidential candidates. From Richard
M. Nixon to George W. Bush, Republicans have racked up votes by
appealing to Americans' anxiety about this kind of social change.
There's a new bogeyman every four years. In 1968, it was war protestors
and rioting blacks. In 1972, it was dopeheads and abortionists.
In 1980, it was welfare queens. In 1988, it was black street thugs.
In 2004, it was homosexuals, Hollywood liberals, and homosexual
But the message never changes: we have to put the brakes on our
out-of-control culture. The voting booth has become a confessional
in which a conflicted America registers its ambivalence about its
own lifestyle choices. On Sunday night, Americans watch "Desperate
Housewives." On Tuesday morning, they vote Republican.
Tapping the brakes is as much as the Republicans can ever do.
If they stop the train, or throw it into reverse, the game is up.
Even George W. Bush understands this. He has admitted that the country
isn't ready for an abortion ban, and has suggested civil unions
as an alternative to gay marriage. He knows the anti-gay marriage
proposals that passed in 11 states this November are holding actions,
destined to be overturned when today's tolerant twenty-somethings
sit in state legislatures. In 1982, 34% of Americans told the Gallup
Poll that homosexuality was an acceptable lifestyle. In 2003, despite
three Republican presidencies, 54% said it was acceptable. Liberals
will win that battle, too, but we won't win it through the rhetoric
of Democratic politicians. We will win it with Will and Grace and
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
We have a conservative government and a liberal culture because
conservatives are better at scaring the crap out of voters, and
liberals are better at wringing tears and laughter out of moviegoers.
Nixon, that master of the dark political arts, once said that "people
vote more out of fear than hope." Great art, though, is not about
fear. It's about hope. Conservatives yearn for a Hollywood in which
a "Left Behind" sequel sweeps the Oscars every year, but that will
happen when Billy Bob Thornton is elected governor of Arkansas.
The conservative mind is not creative. Artists imagine a new reality;
conservatives want the world to remain the same, or return to the
way they think it used to be.
Why is Hollywood so liberal? Because good acting requires the
empathy to put yourself inside another person's skin. Empathy is
not a Republican trait. This year, John Kerry had the backing of
Oscar winners Steven Spielberg, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben
Affleck, Robin Williams, Susan Sarandon and Tom Hanks. It was rumored
that Bo Derek campaigned for Bush. And she's not known for her acting.
Bush was also fawned on by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris,
two non-actors whose performances involve stripping off other peoples'
The Greeks represented theater with a pair of masks: a laughing
face for comedy, a sorrowful face for drama. Great comedy is about
mocking the status quo, which is why there are so few conservative
comedians to rival Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and
the Marx Brothers. Only Andrew "Dice" Clay, who is still drawing
crowds at, um, what's the name of that little comedy club in Long
Island City? And great drama is about the triumph of little people
over the powers that be, which was not a plank in this year's Republican
platform. There's a good reason To Kill a Mockingbird wasn't
about an Alabama prosecutor who gets a black man hanged for sleeping
with a white woman. Or why Norma Rae wasn't a Wal-Mart lawyer fighting
a union certification in federal court.
Comedy, tragedy, dance, history, music - conservatives don't have
any of the muses on their side. The week before the presidential
election, the number one song on MTV's Total Request Live wasn't
by a star-spangled country singer. It was Eminem's "Mosh," which
ripped into Bush more harshly than even Al Sharpton ever dared:
Let the president answer a higher anarchy Strap him with an AK-47,
let him go, fight his own war Let him impress daddy that way No
more blood for oil, we got our own battles to fight on our own
There are prissy young Republicans at every high school, but it's
safe to say that Eminem is a more influential role model than Donald
Rumsfeld. It's cooler to be a dove than a hawk.
When Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi went undercover as
a Bush volunteer in Florida, he learned that "most Republicans hate
cool. Many of the parent volunteers I met were especially bitter
because they think that cool is what liberals use to lure their
children away. Which they might be right about, of course."
Entertainment is the liberals' most powerful weapon in the culture
wars, and it's the reason Republicans spit out the word "Hollywood"
with the same venom as "Gomorrah" or "France."
It's also because as long as liberals control Hollywood, we'll
have a greater impact on the everyday behavior of Americans than
55 stuffy Republican senators could ever dream of. Liberals are
winning the culture wars. Every damn day. Every time an American
turns on the radio, watches TV or buys a movie ticket. And the Republicans
hate our guts for it.
Ted McClelland is a writer in Chicago. His work has appeared
in the Chicago Reader, In These Times, Mother
Jones and Salon.com.