November 11, 2003


We’re Not Losing the Culture Wars Anymore (Brian C. Anderson, Autumn 2003, City Journal)

The Left’s near monopoly over the institutions of opinion and information—which long allowed liberal opinion makers to sweep aside ideas and beliefs they disagreed with, as if they were beneath argument—is skidding to a startlingly swift halt. The transformation has gone far beyond the rise of conservative talk radio, that, ever since Rush Limbaugh’s debut 15 years ago, has chipped away at the power of the New York Times, the networks, and the rest of the elite media to set the terms of the nation’s political and cultural debate. Almost overnight, three huge changes in communications have injected conservative ideas right into the heart of that debate. Though commentators have noted each of these changes separately, they haven’t sufficiently grasped how, taken together, they add up to a revolution: no longer can the Left keep conservative views out of the mainstream or dismiss them with bromide instead of argument. Everything has changed.

The first and most visible of these three seismic events: the advent of cable TV, especially Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel. Since its 1996 launch, Fox News has provided what its visionary CEO Roger Ailes calls a “haven” for viewers fed up with the liberal bias of the news media—potentially a massive audience, since the mainstream media stand well to the American people’s left. [...]

What should make [Andrew Sullivan] positively giddy is the rise of the Internet, the second explosive change shaking liberal media dominance. It’s hard to overstate the impact that news and opinion websites like the Drudge Report, NewsMax, and Dow Jones’s OpinionJournal are having on politics and culture, as are current-event “blogs”—individual or group web diaries—like AndrewSullivan, InstaPundit, and “The Corner” department of NationalReviewOnline (NRO), where the editors and writers argue, joke around, and call attention to articles elsewhere on the web. This whole universe of web-based discussion has been dubbed the “blogosphere.”

While there are several fine left-of-center sites, the blogosphere currently tilts right, albeit idiosyncratically, reflecting the hard-to-pigeonhole politics of some leading bloggers. Like talk radio and Fox News, the right-leaning sites fill a market void. “Many bloggers felt shut out by institutions that have adopted—explicitly or implicitly—a left-wing orthodoxy,” says Erin O’Connor, whose blog, Critical Mass, exposes campus PC gobbledygook. The orthodox Left’s blame-America-first response to September 11 has also helped tilt the blogosphere rightward. “There were damned few noble responses to that cursed day from the ‘progressive’ part of the political spectrum,” avers Los Angeles–based blogger and journalist Matt Welch, “so untold thousands of people just started blogs, in anger,” Welch among them. “I was pushed into blogging on September 16, 2001, in direct response to reading five days’ worth of outrageous bulls[tuff] in the media from people like Noam Chomsky and Robert Jensen.”

For a frustrated citizen like Welch, it’s easy to get your ideas circulating on the Internet. Start-up costs for a blog are small, printing and mailing costs nonexistent. Few blogs make money, though, since advertisers are leery of the web and no one seems willing to pay to read anything on it.

The Internet’s most powerful effect has been to expand vastly the range of opinion—especially conservative opinion—at everyone’s fingertips. “The Internet helps break up the traditional cultural gatekeepers’ power to determine a) what’s important and b) the range of acceptable opinion,” says former Reason editor and libertarian blogger Virginia Postrel. InstaPundit’s Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, agrees: “The main role of the Internet and blogosphere is to call the judgment of elites about what is news into question.” [...]

The third big change breaking the liberal media stranglehold is taking place in book publishing. Conservative authors long had trouble getting their books released, with only Regnery Books, the Free Press, and Basic Books regularly releasing conservative titles. But following editorial changes during the 1990s, Basic and the Free Press published far fewer conservative-leaning titles, leaving Regnery pretty much alone.

No more. Nowadays, publishers are falling over themselves to bring conservative books to a mainstream audience.

One of the things that is most noticable about the nascent conservative media is the sheer joy its purveyors and partisans take in the battle of ideas and the gleeful willingness to engage the assumptions and policies of the Left. John Powers wrote well about the phenomenon last year, Bubble Wrap:
The Nation vs. The Weekly Standard (John Powers, 8/30/02, LA Weekly)
Back in the '60s, the left was the home of humor, iconoclasm, pleasure. But over the last two decades, the joy has gone out of the left -- it now feels hedged in by shibboleths and defeatism -- while the right has been having a gas, be it Lee Atwater grooving to the blues, Rush Limbaugh chortling about Feminazis or grimly gleeful Ann Coulter serving up bile as if it were chocolate mousse, even dubbing Katie Couric "the affable Eva Braun of morning television." (Get your political allegiances straight, babe. Katie's the Madame Mao of morning television. You're Eva Braun.)

These same high spirits course through The Standard, whose editor William Kristol constantly shows up on TV grinning like a catfish. His magazine features catchy covers, a reader-friendly layout, breezy headlines (a hit piece on Lula was called "Brazil's Nut") and a core of enjoyable writers, notably David Brooks, Christopher Caldwell (whose article on Islam in France is one of the best things I've read this year) and David Tell, probably the country's most compelling editorialist. Although driven by a devout ideological agenda -- it's for unfettered free trade and war on Iraq -- Kristol and executive editor Fred Barnes know how to mix things up, running a parody page (often mirthless, to be sure), funny articles by the likes of P.J. O'Rourke (who reminds us that reactionaries make better humorists than liberals) and sharp, short items designed to keep readers amused on that long march to Baghdad. Snappy and pointed, it's designed to compete in a world that has many magazines.

NOT SO THE NATION, WHICH PRESENTS ITSELF AS less a treat than an obligation. In his new book, critic Hal Foster attacks the contemporary obsession with design, claiming "design abets a near-perfect circuit of production and consumption, without much running room for anything else." The same scolding puritanism is obviously at work in The Nation, whose visual presentation is mired in the same mentality that kept documentaries slathering folk music on their soundtracks decades after Dylan went electric -- as if being clueless were a badge of integrity. [...]

In his embarrassing new book about Stalinism (he discovered it was murderous), Martin Amis shrewdly observes that the fall of communism liberated his pal Hitchens' writing by ending its ritual genuflections and obligatory defensiveness. The Nation itself enjoyed no such liberation. And so, rather than rethink the possibilities of a "progressive left" (to use one of its prize terms), the editors have remained content to belabor what its readers already know (e.g., Bush is a bum) while avoiding tough-minded journalistic coverage of the left. It settles for easy analysis, like suggesting that Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney lost her renomination bid simply because of the Jewish money sent to defeat her. Is this really true? The left would be better served if the magazine investigated such claims rather than merely assuming their truth, although this would involve actually going to Georgia.

While The Weekly Standard always lets you know what the establishment right is arguing about -- debates that affect government policy -- The Nation keeps getting lost in internecine bickering and naive boosterism. It covered Jesse Jackson's backside for years and (Hitchens aside) wasted page after page defending Bill Clinton as if he were a put-upon victim. Too often today, the magazine comes across like a house organ of the Democratic Party or a flaccid version of Media Whores Online. To judge from the gushing work of regular correspondent John Nichols (who writes like a gaga press agent), failed Clinton Cabinet member Robert Reich is a bold tribune of The People and Dennis Kucinich has a prayer of becoming president in 2004.

Little wonder that the Left is losing the ideology wars when they refuse to engage on the ideas that actually matter in the culture at large and are so humorless when they discuss everything else.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 11, 2003 8:41 AM

I've often thought that if only Noam Chomsky did some "stand up," it would improve his communication skills.

Then again....

Posted by: Barry Meislin at November 11, 2003 9:23 AM

Barry - these days he would probably need barbed wire on the stage to stop the flying bottles like the Blues Brothers at that honky tonk ("Bob's Country Bunker" I believe it was called? Oh yes - King of Trivia, that's me) ....

Posted by: Jeff Brokaw at November 11, 2003 11:49 AM

While this article lays out some very positive trends, it would be foolish for those right of the center to fall asleep at the switch.

Dean's internet numbers and are phenomena worth watching. Backed by Soros (kingpin of the vast left wing conspiracy), Dean and Move on have the potential to cause real problems, particularly if reach a "tipping point" of some sort. (note that an event - like a terrorist attack - can move tipping points quickly)

Blogs, Free Republic, The Federalist & Fox are fine, but where are the add ons. Ads linked to the emails, prompting the viewer for support. etc. etc.

Are we whistling past the grave yard?

Posted by: Bruno at November 11, 2003 1:43 PM


I wonder if the opposite problem isn't even more germane--after the class of white folk who inhabit the Internet each give Dean a hundred dollars and sign a petition or whatever, does he have any other support?

Posted by: OJ at November 11, 2003 1:54 PM

Bruno has a point, but I'm not worried about a terrorist attack being a tipping point. If we suffered another 9/11-level attack, sure, Bush would be criticized, but would voters then flock to an anti-war Democrat? I think the opposite would occur.

Posted by: PapayaSF at November 11, 2003 8:17 PM

America at large is not going to listen to Katrina Van Den Huevel - I don't even think Chris Matthews does anymore, but he must think she is good entertainment.

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 12, 2003 5:11 AM