TCS Daily

Who's Right?

By Brian C. Anderson - November 25, 2003 12:00 AM

My recent City Journal cover story, "We're Not Losing the Culture Wars Anymore," has generated a lot of attention: it has been excerpted in the Los Angeles Times, written about by John Leo in U.S. News & World Report, re-posted by OpinionJournal and Frontpage, linked by AndrewSullivan, NationalReviewOnline, FreeRepublic, Tech Central Station, and scores of other sites, and has had me blabbing away to any number of talk radio hosts over the last couple of weeks. It's pretty clear my argument -- that, thanks to cable television (Fox News and a kind of anarchic anti-liberal comedic spirit in a lot of cable comedy, including South Park), the blogosphere, and a big shift in publishing, the Left's near-monopoly over the institutions of opinion and information is swiftly breaking down -- has struck a nerve. Two critical responses to the article, liberal Timothy Noah's on Slate and conservative Jonah Goldberg's on NRO, raise some interesting questions that deserve a response.


Noah reads my piece (and a New York Sun adaptation of it) against the backdrop of CBS's cancellation of "The Reagans" as saying: "Hooray, the right is winning the culture wars!" It's about time, Noah thinks: "Within the cultural sphere, liberalism has been in retreat for a good quarter-century." Liberalism's definitive "defeat" occurred sometime between 1985, when Rambo II re-fought the Vietnam War, and 1992, when Rush Limbaugh's The Way Things Ought to Be "hijacked the New York Times bestseller list." No one, he asserts, can plausibly claim that liberals continue to exert greater influence than conservatives over the culture; kudos to Anderson for belatedly admitting it.


Well, as I replied to Noah in an interesting discussion on NPR the other day, hold on a sec. My article clearly states that the Right (broadly construed to include conservatives and libertarians) is no longer losing the culture wars, not that it has won it, and that's a very different thing. After all, the developments I describe in my article are quite new -- the blogosphere, for example, has only been around a few years -- and they remain overmatched by liberals' continuing influence over mainstream media outlets, from the networks to the New York Times and most major metropolitan dailies (to say nothing of the universities, which, as Noah admitted on NPR, are a left-wing preserve, or the courts). I'm far from ready to claim victory, or even to say the Right is winning. Noah's assessment says more about his pessimism than my optimism.


My friend Jonah Goldberg, conversely, criticizes me from the Right -- or better, he criticizes the enthusiastic response of many conservatives to my article, "a great deal" of which he agrees with. "Considering how many folks on the web have touted Anderson's article as something of a manifesto or watershed," he says, "it might be worth making a few contrary points."


His first criticism is to say that no watershed has been reached. Things are still pretty dark for the Right, Goldberg claims. While Fox and NRO are great things for conservatives, he observes, "the tools at our disposal are still far, far less potent than the tools in the Left's utility belt." Don't think so, asks Goldberg? Then let's trade: the Left can have Fox News, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, the offices of National Review and The Weekly Standard, and Rush Limbaugh's airtime; the Right will get ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Times, the schools, and so on. In his view, the new media I tout are at best fighting a guerrilla war against a massive, super-powerful army. His second point is to warn against mistaking an anti-PC spirit for conservatism. Perhaps that's more a sign of the Left's exhaustion, he says, than the Right's ascendancy.


If Noah overstates the influence of the new Right media, I think Goldberg may be a bit too unimpressed by it -- including his own stellar achievement with NRO. One thing Goldberg doesn't really get into is the trends at work here, which I think favor conservatives.


Take Fox News, which features a lot more rightish voices on air than any other news show or network. Sure, Fox, as I point out in my article, still has fewer viewers than the network broadcasts. But its audience has been steadily growing, while the networks are hemorrhaging viewers. Moreover, unlike (thankfully) the networks, Fox is broadcasting news all day, and presumably it's not all the same two or three million wingers watching Linda Vester in the afternoon and Hannity and Colmes at night. So the total daily Fox viewership probably comes much closer to or surpasses that of any one nightly network news program. (This would gel with a recent Pew Research finding that 22 percent of all Americans now get most of their news from Fox; the combined total for the three networks was 32 percent.) Fox's success is also encouraging other cable news stations like MSNBC to try to give the Right a fair shake. It's doubtful former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough would have his own news and opinion hour if Fox wasn't drawing so many viewers.


Goldberg doesn't discuss the seismic shift in publishing that I highlight in my article. But it's a pretty big deal. When in American publishing history have there been so many right-leaning bestsellers? If you go into a Barnes & Noble, you'll see piles of National Review editor Rich Lowry's excellent new book on the Clinton years, Victor David Hanson's latest, flamethrower titles by Ann Coulter and others, and much more. As a bookstore hound, I can tell you: it wasn't like this just a couple of years ago. And with two big new conservative imprints launching from Random House and Penguin, there will be even more such titles hitting the market soon. If books have any influence, this has to count for something.


As for the influence of right-leaning blogs, it's significant and growing. Goldberg thinks that that influence is small peanuts compared with that of the New York Times. Probably true. Yet according to a recent poll, less than 50 percent of the American people now consider the Times a trustworthy source of news (72 percent find Fox News reliable) -- and that dismissive attitude, I believe, has a lot to do with the unremitting Internet-led criticism of the "paper of record's" liberal biases (nowhere more unremitting than on NRO, which draws a million-plus visitors a month). Several prominent people who've talked with me about my article privately have said that blogger Andrew Sullivan is today the most influential intellectual in the public arena. I'm inclined to agree. What person working in news journalism today doesn't look in on Sullivan or other influential web sites regularly? Even new Times boss Bill Keller admits to it.


Finally, I agree with Goldberg that the anarchic anti-liberal humor of South Park and other cable comedy shows is not a sign that the culture wars have been won by the Right. (Indeed, some conservatives have roundly denounced South Park for its profanity.) But at the same time, I think it expresses a striking new attitude among the young that will have long-term political and cultural implications. Younger Americans are trending to the Right, supporting the Bush administration and the Iraq War at higher levels than their elders, for instance, and comfortable with much greater restrictions on abortion, too. It's worth noting that Fox News and the right-leaning blogosphere are doing particularly well in attracting a younger demographic. If people get more conservative as they get older and have kids and start making some money, where are these kids going to be when they're 40? I doubt many of them will be voting for the Democratic Party.


In sum, while Goldberg is correct that the Right has a long way to go in fighting the culture wars, I think the emergence of a conservative media sphere is both broadening the national debate and helping to push the nation in a more conservative direction.


Brian C. Anderson is senior editor of City Journal.

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