The Right Declares Victory

It finally admits it won the culture wars.

“Hooray,” conservatives crow. “The right is winning the culture wars!” They certainly took their sweet time noticing. Within the cultural sphere, liberalism has been in retreat for a good quarter-century. Scholars may argue about the precise moment of defeat. Chatterbox would put it somewhere between 1985, when Rambo: First Blood II  re-fought the Vietnam War (“Do we get to win this time?”) and 1992, when Rush Limbaugh’s The Way Things Ought To Behijacked the New York Times best-seller list, thereby certifying Limbaugh as a mainstream figure. No one can claim plausibly that liberals continued to exert greater influence than conservatives over the culture through the 1990s. Even Bill Clinton’s election reflected the conservative ascendancy, because Clinton won by pulling the Democratic Party rightward. With every tug, conservatives shifted the spectrum further right (so they could continue to caricature President Clinton as a dangerous radical). But every time, Clinton would narrow the gap by tugging a little more. This spectrum shift explains how a temperamentally moderate Republican like George W. Bush came to preside over a more right-wing administration than that of a movement conservative like Ronald Reagan. Bush still embraces the center, but it’s the center of the national Republican spectrum, on ground that was previously occupied by the far right.

The immediate occasion for conservative jubilation is its victory over CBS in getting it to withdraw its miniseries The Reagans, which had the temerity to suggest that Ronald Reagan was mentally checked out during much of his presidency. (The miniseries will air on Showtime instead. Salon has thoughtfully posted the shooting script here.) CBS’s capitulation “marks a watershed in America’s culture wars,” Brian C. Anderson wrote in the Nov. 6 New York Sun.

[T]hanks to a remarkable transformation in mass communications, such left-wing humbug isn’t getting a free pass anymore. Conservatives have long lamented the left’s near monopoly over the institutions of opinion and information, which has enabled liberal opinion makers, including television producers, to present their own views as gospel truth and to sweep aside ideas and belief they don’t like.

Robert Bartley said much the same thing in the Nov. 10 Wall Street Journal, substituting “milestone” for “watershed,” and hedging his bets by saying “cultural soft power may be up for grabs.” But Bartley’s ambitions for the right outstrip Anderson’s. “The Reagan broadcast,” Bartley exulted, “suggests that market forces may be more powerful than democratic ones.” No, Chatterbox’s mouse didn’t slip and insert a passage from one of Paul Krugman’s New York Times tirades. Bartley really believes capital ought to steamroll dissent. He compared CBS’s surrender over The Reagans favorably with CBS’s  

epic litigation with Gen. William Westmoreland in the early 1980s. The general sued for libel over a program suggesting that he’d conspired to low-ball intelligence estimates of North Vietnamese strength at the time of the Tet offensive. (Sound familiar?)

Don Rumsfeld, call your lawyer! 

Conservatives chortle over their seizure of the youth culture. A longer version of Anderson’s Sun piece (published before the Reagan flap) appears in the autumn issue of City Journal, under the headline, “We’re Not Losing the Culture Wars Anymore.” In it, Anderson, sounding a bit like lefty media critic Eric Alterman, plays up the success of Fox News, which he freely admits is “conservative.” (Now that the right is winning the culture wars, there’s no longer any need to pretend that Fox lacks an ideology.) But he also dwells at great length on South Park, which he portrays as refreshingly conservative. The evidence includes one episode titled “Cripple Fight,” and another in which a choir is heard to sing, “There’s a place called the rain forest that truly sucks ass.” Chatterbox has no difficulty agreeing with Anderson (and Andrew Sullivan, whom Anderson quotes at length) that these sentiments reflect conservative influence, particularly in their tone. But he doesn’t find that particularly flattering to conservatism. In a similar vein, Danny Goldberg, former manager to Led Zeppelin and Nirvana, recently published a book titled Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit *. Among its targets is Tipper Gore, whom Goldberg calls “snobbish” and “arrogant” simply because she thought record companies ought to label music with adult content.

Chatterbox always used to think that conservatives would never admit they were winning the culture wars, because they were too committed to seeing themselves as victims. He still thinks conservatives will likely resume the victim posture, pointing to the few pockets of American culture where liberalism reigns supreme. (Perhaps they’ll notice that on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list the usual liberal-bashing books are trailing, ever so slightly, conservative-bashing books.) But Chatterbox now wonders whether something else held conservatives back from declaring victory: a sense that it would compel them to claim ownership of certain crude beliefs and cultural trends.

Correction, Nov. 20, 2003: An earlier version of this column misstated the title of this book as Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit. Return to the corrected sentence.