wall street journal

why the democrats are losing the culture wars

11 april 2005

by dan gerstein - © the wall street journal 2005

if the democratic chieftains in washington really want a window into why heartland residents are tuning out our party, they should stop huddling with loopy linguists from berkeley like george lakoff and just start reading frank rich's commentaries in the new york times.  there they will find a perfect distillation of the arrogance and narrow-mindedness that typifies the cultural thinking of our elites -- and turns off red-state voters.  in the view of mr. rich and his acolytes, freedom in our culture has been "under attack" ever since 9/11.  indeed, mr. rich has argued that this attack is being led by "new puritans" who want to "stamp out" all that is "joyously vulgar" in american culture and who are fomenting a "government war against indecency" to get the job done.

once you get past the absurdity of mr. rich's hyperbole -- vulgarity, joyous or otherwise, is hardly in retreat -- the implications of this mindset and the battle lines it establishes are clear.  on one side are the forces of freedom, tolerance, diversity, modernity; on the other those of repression, intolerance, conformity and zealotry.  and if you're not exactly enamored of watching titillating stunts and ads at the super bowl with your six-year-old, you're part of the tv taliban.

in this, the cultural elites are guilty of the very sin of silly oversimplification of which they frequently (and rightly) accuse conservatives.  not all parents who are concerned about the avalanche of crud crushing their children every day are obsessed with spongebob's sexual orientation.  nor are they seeking to shred the first amendment.  most are just looking for a little cooperation from the captains of culture to make the hard job of raising children in a fully-wired universe a little easier.

as a regular consumer of provocative entertainment, i find the attitude of democratic elites obnoxious, as well as intellectually flimsy.  it is more than possible to enjoy "pulp fiction" and recognize that it is inappropriate for younger viewers who can't grasp the context.  in much the same way, it is more than possible to set some voluntary boundaries for protecting children without sacrificing the ability of adults to consume adult-oriented material.

one can only imagine how insulting our elitism is to the average mother in the exurbs of georgia or colorado who might be uncomfortable with open talk of threesomes on "friends" at 8 p.m.  well, actually, we don't have to imagine too hard, not after john kerry openly embraced hollywood and went on to lose married women voters by a margin of 55% to 44%.


but there is a more damaging irony at work here.  the democratic elites have convinced themselves that they are taking a stand against cultural tyranny.  that's how some women have rationalized their indifference to the misogyny of several hip-hop artists.  but the reality is that it is those who cry "censorship!" the loudest who are the ones trying to stifle speech and force their moral world-view on others.  that may seem counterintuitive, but think about it.  what is at issue is not the right to express oneself politically or artistically, or to consume controversial works in one's own home.  it's the cultural environment we all share, what gets said and done in the public square for all to hear and see, and whether that common space should be governed by some social (not legal) norms and standards.

how could that not be an appropriate subject for public debate in a democracy, particularly one as committed to free speech as ours?  how, at this moment of mass media proliferation, could we afford not to talk about such an omnipresent force in our society, especially given the powerful role the electronic culture plays in children's lives?  indeed, a study released last month by the kaiser family foundation found that young people are exposed to eight-plus hours a day of media content.

but that is not a discussion the entertainment industry or its democratic defenders want to have.  in fact, most of the time they actively work to squelch it.  their first move usually is to deny that the culture has any influence on attitudes and behavior.  when that ludicrous proposition gets dismissed, the free-speech shields are instantly raised, as are the bogus bogeymen -- like the lone congressman who wanted to ban "saving private ryan" from prime time.

part of this response is clearly motivated by profit margins.  but it also flows from a profound aversion to making moral judgments.  and that's the nub of the values problem for democrats today.  we don't hesitate to judge people's beliefs, but we blanch at judging their behavior.  that leaves us silent on big moral issues at a time of great moral uncertainty, and leaves the impression that we are the party of "anything goes." even worse, it creates a "values vacuum" that gets filled by the spongebob gaybashers of the world.  in ceding this ground, we not only reject millions of voters who are hungry for moral leadership, we repudiate our own legacy.  how did progressives move the country to enfranchise women, outlaw racial discrimination, and protect the environment?  we cast those issues in terms of "right" and "wrong." so why recoil from those tools now?

we are also putting ourselves, in this case, in the uncomfortable position of siding with giant corporations over small children.  remember the crusade the progressive community led against big tobacco's use of joe camel to lure kids?  that same outrage was largely missing on our side a few years ago when the federal trade commission revealed that the big studios were focus-grouping r-rated slasher movies with nine-year-olds to lure them into the theaters.

the solution to this cultural conundrum is not to go overboard and mimic the "happy days" conservatives, whose latest misguided and unconstitutional plan is to regulate cable content.  nor should democrats go looking for cynical sister souljah moments.  we should just try to mix a little courage with common sense.  for starters, when a foul-mouthed entertainer calls the president of the united states a murderer at a fund-raiser for you, resist the urge to say later that they represent the heart and soul of america.

or better yet, follow the lead of hillary clinton, who is making the progressive case for cultural responsibility better than anyone.  cynics tried to dismiss her recent speech on the issue as pre-presidential positioning.  but the fact is that sen. clinton has been strong and steady in her advocacy for overwhelmed parents ever since coming to washington.  she's been smart, too: she does not demonize cultural producers, overstate the extent of the problem, or let parents off the hook.  she frames the culture's influence as a public-health issue as much as a moral one, and cites research showing the potentially harmful effects of screen sex and violence.  and she is honest about the limits of that research, which is why she has joined with sen. joe lieberman in introducing a bill to fund more studies of the electronic media's impact on children.

at the same time, sen. clinton is not afraid to make clear statements of right and wrong.  in recent comments, she forcefully condemned the sequence in the lurid video game grand theft auto in which a player scores extra points for having sex with a prostitute and then stomping her to death.  it says something sad about the democrats that such a statement could be read as a sign of guts.  but it does say something important that one of the left's leading icons is the one stating it.  come to think of it, maybe all that needs to be said about our values vacuum to harry reid, nancy pelosi and howard dean is: lay off lakoff and hire hillary.


mr. gerstein, an independent consultant, was communications director for joe lieberman and a senior strategist for his presidential campaign.

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