Order your copy of South Park Conservatives for a special offer of $19.95 from the Frontpage Bookstore.
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Brian C. Anderson, the author of the new book South Park Conservatives: The Revolt against Liberal Media Bias. He is a senior editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.
FP: Mr. Anderson, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Anderson: Thanks for inviting me. I’m a devotee of the site, so it’s a real honor.
FP: What inspired you to write South Park Conservatives?
Anderson: The book grows out of an article I wrote for City Journal in late 2003, called “We’re Not Losing the Culture Wars Anymore,” commissioned by CJ’s editor Myron Magnet. I had been watching a big, and for me thrilling, change take place in our media landscape and in our culture: the downfall of Howell Raines; the success of Fox News; the emergence of comedy that wasn’t just bashing conservatives but mocking liberals, too, as South Park does so mercilessly, the rise of the blogosphere and its increasing influence shaping the news; ferment on the campus, where students were moving to the right; conservative bestsellers galore. I realized that the Right was beginning to fight its way through the liberal cultural force field and get a hearing for its arguments and ideas.
The article was a big picture think piece summing up where we were and where we were headed and it generated an extraordinary amount of interest—more than anything I’d ever written. The events of the next year only confirmed the article’s central contention: that the Right was, if not winning, at least no longer losing the culture wars. This is one of the most important stories of our time. The book goes much deeper into the themes of the article, updates them, and looks farther ahead. I spent several months interviewing everyone from Andrew Sullivan to Sean Hannity to comedian Colin Quinn, so there are a lot of voices in South Park Conservatives.
FP: Why do you think the Left has dominated our culture for so long, particularly academia and the mainstream media?
Anderson: In the media, there were only so many opinion and information outlets for the longest time, and after the sixties, maybe even a little earlier, the Left took control of them. Mark Blitz has a wonderful essay on the history of journalism in the final issue of The Public Interest. He notes that traditionally, the typical journalist was more likely to resemble a hard-boiled private detective—perhaps even a dishonest one—than a prof., like he does today. By the end of the sixties, the nature of the profession began to change. Lots more journalists went to and graduated from college (about 90 percent have college degrees these days, compared with little more than half 35 years ago), and they began to take on the characteristics of those elites that Lionel Trilling famously called the “adversary culture.” Poll after poll showed that journalists had become overwhelmingly liberal in their politics: secular, in favor of government solutions to social problems, pro-choice, anti-military. Moreover, they now felt they had a mission to educate, to enlighten, the broader public, not just inform it. And their liberal politics influenced how they did their jobs. A lot—most—of today’s journalists still fit the profile.
Technology has radically undermined this liberal media dominance. South Park Conservatives is in part a brief history of new media, and I show how talk radio, cable television (above all Fox News), and now the Internet and blogosphere have brought right-of-center views and perspectives long excluded by the media mainstream right to the heart of national debate. The change has taken place virtually overnight: the oldest of these media, political talk radio, is really only 15 years old or so, and the newest, the blogosphere, didn’t really exist five years ago.
In the academy, change is harder to achieve, because the tenure system has guaranteed a certain kind of intellectual—reflexively left-wing culturally and often quasi-socialist or out-and-out Marxist in their views on political economy—remains the norm. Left-wing professors are going to hire other left-wing professors and give tenure to other left-wingers. The difficulties experienced by cultural and political conservatives or even defenders of the Western cultural tradition in getting tenure means fewer and fewer of them go into academe.
FP: Why do you think Hollywood is filled with leftists? Why are actors usually members of the progressive faith?
Anderson: I think some actors just go along with what Hollywood deems “correct;” they’re not really deep political thinkers. I’m reminded of the portrayal of Matt Damon in South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s movie Team America: World Police. He’s part of the pack of liberal actors, “FAG,” or the Film Actors Guild, led by Alec Baldwin, who’ve become de facto allies of the terrorists, but all he ever says in the movie is his name, over and over: Matt Damon. Matt Damon. That gets at another reason actors tend to be “progressives”: they’ve often got a very high opinion of themselves, and the liberal faith makes them feel like they’re the “anointed,” in Thomas Sowell’s wonderful formulation: superior in morality, in caring, to the unwashed masses of humanity.
I think Trey Parker’s view of Hollywood types is the truer view: People in the entertainment industry are by and large whore-chasing drug-addict f---ups, as I quote him as saying in my book. But they still believe they’re better than the guy in Wyoming who really loves his wife and takes care of his kids and is a good, outstanding, wholesome person.
Of course, there are decent, thoughtful liberals in Hollywood, and probably a few closeted right-wingers too. But I think Hollywood politics may begin to change more dramatically in the future; in fact there are already signs of it. The market has been rewarding “conservative” films. Think of the success of The Passion or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and you’ve got the Philip Anschutz-backed film of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on the horizon, promising to be another blockbuster. Eventually, business rationality is going to win out over ideological aversion among Hollywood execs, just as it has in the publishing industry, where conservative books are increasingly welcome. The second reason is simply the proliferation of channels on cable, which has allowed writers and producers and perhaps even actors who don’t fit the liberal mold to make a living. I believe we’ll see a lot more conservatives and libertarians going into the entertainment industry in the years ahead.
FP: So why has liberal dominance weakened so much during this period?
Anderson: My book tells the story in what I hope is an entertaining, fast-moving fashion. First came political talk radio, which is now so ubiquitous that people forget how new it is. Nothing like it existed before Ronald Reagan phased out the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. That doctrine required radio stations and broadcasters to provide “equal time” to opposing viewpoints, so if you had a conservative show on the air you’d also have to have a liberal one, even if nobody was listening to the latter. Radio stations steered clear of controversial programming, since it wasn’t profitable. Getting rid of the Fairness Doctrine resulted in an explosion of free speech as political talk shows: first Rush Limbaugh, then legions of others began to take over the airwaves. Conservatives had done extremely well on radio, for various reasons I go into in the book. About one in five Americans gets news from political talk radio now.
Then came cable news and the launch of Fox News in 1996. Fox reached out to viewers who found the mainstream media biased to the Left and has won a large and growing audience. Fox News now has a bigger audience share than that of its four cable news competitors: CNN, CNN Headline News, MSNBC, and CNBC combined. It has also, through something I call the “Fox Effect,” influenced those competitors, so that they’ve tried to be fairer to right-of-center views. If not for Fox, you wouldn’t have Joe Scarborough on MSNBC or Dennis Miller on CNBC.
Then, of course, you’ve got the Internet and blogosphere, where right-of-center sites fight left-wing ones to a draw, at least. The most influential right-leaning sites are drawing big readerships, and young and influential readerships. Around 12 percent of Americans are now reading political blogs: about 26 million people using a medium that didn’t really exist just a few years ago.
The synergy of these new media has transformed completely how news gets delivered and analyzed. Blogger Jeff Jarvis puts it perfectly: instead of elites handing on news from on high, news is now a conversation. It’s a radically new world, and we’re only beginning to see its contours.
FP: The Left has always arrogated the moral high ground to itself. This has finally boomeranged, hasn’t it? How come?
Anderson: I talk extensively in my book about the emergence of an “illiberal liberalism” on the Left. New York City Democratic congressman Charles Rangel gave canonical expression to this illiberalism back in the nineties. When the Newt Gingrich-led congressional Republicans wanted to cut taxes in the mid-1990s, Rangel snarled: “It’s not a ‘spic’ or a ‘nigger’ anymore. They say, ‘Let’s cut taxes.’” This kind of violent rhetoric became commonplace on the Left, in part because the mainstream media never called liberals on it. After all, liberals were good, conservatives were evil: it was as simple as that for many on the Left. “Racist,” “homophobe,” “mean-spirited,” “insensitive,” and “bigoted” conservative ideas on issues like affirmative action or abortion weren’t worth debating; they were only to be suppressed. The tactic doesn’t work like it used to because of the rise of new media, which give people ready access to right-of-center opinions and force liberals to defend their positions instead of just demonizing their opponents. The truth can now get out. This has driven many liberals into even greater paroxysms of rage—not least at the new media itself.
FP: Without doubt, the cultural climate in America is undergoing a profound transition and the Left is now, for once, actually being held accountable for the consequences of its ideas. I think David Horowitz has also played a significant role in fuelling and shaping this landmark watershed. On some fronts, he has brought a battle to the culture war that progressive forces have never before been forced to confront. Having discerned long ago conservatives’ hopeless failures in fighting political war, he single-handedly took the tactics of political war that he had learned on the Left and used it to turn the tables on the Left itself.And so we see his battle for an Academic Bill of Rights and his creation of DiscoverTheNetwork.org. These efforts are challenging the Left in unprecedented ways and, for once, put it on the defensive. What do you make of Horowitz’s contribution to the culture war?
Anderson: The subtitle of my book uses the word "revolt" quite self-consciously. Linking together everything I write about in South Park Conservatives is a spirit of rebellion against liberal elites—it's probably the only thing that brings together figures as diverse as Trey Parker and Matt Stone, on the one hand, and, say, Catholic philosopher Robert George on the other. David Horowitz shows up in several chapters as one the most effective public intellectuals turning the tables against the Left, using its own ideals and even tactics against it—the main reason he's so despised by liberals. I'm particularly struck by the effectiveness of the Academic Bill of Rights campaign, which is shaking up academe in ways those who lament the Left's colonization of the universities have long dreamed of. Frontpage itself is a great resource for younger Americans trying to define themselves politically--it's energetic, relentless, and informative, and I wasn't surprised to discover its popularity among college students when I researched my last chapter in SPC, on the campus Right. And I've already had a couple of calls from liberals wanting me to denounce Horowitz for DiscoverTheNetwork, which suggests that it's already stirring up trouble. Here, too, one of the Left's classic techniques—expose the funding—is being utilized against it.
FP: Mr. Anderson, it was a pleasure having you with us.
Anderson: Thanks for the opportunity to say a few words about my new book--I'm honored by the interest.
Andrew Peyton Thomas
Ross Gregory Douthatt
Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin
William F. Buckley Jr.
Richard Perle and David Frum