TCS Daily

South Park Conservatives: Snapshot of the Culture Wars

By Edward B. Driscoll - April 15, 2005 12:00 AM

One of the side benefits of presidential elections every four years is that it allows for fairly close readings of where America's culture as a whole currently stands. That's one reason so many books on the topic are released shortly after each presidential election's conclusion. One of the newest is Brian C. Anderson's "South Park Conservatives," the title of which will be familiar to Tech Central Station readers. The name is based in part on a piece that Stephen Stanton wrote for TCS back in 2002 called "South Park Republicans."

Anderson, the senior editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, uses fans of the popular -- and controversial -- Comedy Central animated series as a metaphor to describe the changing face of conservatism.

What Is a South Park Conservative?

"In my book", Anderson recently told me, "the term refers to a kind of irreverent post-liberal or anti-liberal attitude or sensibility, one very in tune with popular culture. But it's not a coherent, fully developed political philosophy. You do find this attitude among a lot of younger Americans, as I show in my concluding chapter, which is based on lots of interviews with right-of-center college kids."

Those right-of-center college students, for the most part, aren't Alex P. Keaton-clones, decked out in Ralph Lauren double-breasted navy blue blazers. They're more likely to look like every other college kid: jeans, sneakers, and T-shirts advertising their favorite rock groups. (On the other hand, as Anderson notes in his book, campus South Park conservatives usually smell better than their bathing-optional counterparts on the left). But there's one thing that South Park campus conservatives abhor: "Political correctness drives them nuts", Anderson says. "In interviewing students, for instance, it was clear how much the PC conformities of the campus Left turned them off."

The Media: Leftwing Overreach, Rightwing Pioneering

The "over PC-ing" of the media brings up a key aspect of today's culture wars. "One key reason the Right is, if not winning", Anderson says, "at least no longer losing the culture wars isn't the new media; it's the intellectual exhaustion of the Left, something that has become especially apparent in a post-9/11 era".

Last year, James Pierson of the coined a term called

"punitive liberalism" to describe the post-1972 Left's belief that America was always on the wrong side of the key events in history, and therefore deserved to be punished. It was a worldview very different from the older, pro-American FDR/JFK-style of liberalism of the previous generation. It first began to be noticed in shows like M*A*S*H, where Alan Alda's Hawkeye could find little difference between America and the communist North Koreans and Chinese. By the mid-1990s, when he wasn't producing cartoons pushing radical environmentalism, Ted Turner commissioned a history of the Cold War for CNN, and its producer was quoted as saying that Turner demanded that the documentary series deal with the Cold War "unjingoistically," adding that Turner "did not want a triumphalist approach". In other words, Turner didn't want to emphasize why it was a good thing that America had won.

Meanwhile, television was transformed by the two competing PCs -- political correctness and personal computers. Excessive political correctness alienated many viewers; and the personal computer and a wide-open Internet provided a timely alternative. As a result much of TV's remaining audience has skewed into a decidedly older demographic.

Anderson credits New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta for tipping him off to this idea, which is most noticeable via TV's advertising. Anderson observes that "commercials on the Big Three network newscasts are frequently hawking drugs like Viagra and Mylanta, and the broadcasts themselves often focus on health issues. There's a reason for that emphasis on infirmity: the average age of a network news watcher is now 60; only about 8 percent of viewership is between 18 and 34. Ten years ago, 60 percent of adult Americans regularly tuned in to one of the network newscasts. Now it's only about one in three. And people have lost trust in the mainstream outlets."

As proof, he cites a Pew Research poll last year, which found "that just 21 percent of its respondents viewed the New York Times as a trustworthy news source -- a figure below that of Fox News, it's worth noting," Anderson says.

Anderson's book builds on an essay he wrote in 2003 for City Journal, in which he observed that the right had achieved parity with the left in terms of pop culture, through a combination of leftwing overreach, and the opening up of new media.

Regarding the latter, in the late 1980s, the repeal of the FCC's Fairness Doctrine, which had previously -- at least in theory -- required broadcast licensees to present all sides of a topic, allowed conservative talk radio to flourish. Because there was little room for conservatives on TV networks, a huge market opened up for talk radio, lead of course, by Rush Limbaugh.

Fox News joined the radio talkers in the 1980s. As Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post's nationally syndicated editorial columnist once quipped, Rupert Murdoch launched the cable news channel because he perceived that a small niche market was being underserved: half the country.

The News Wars: Still Not Quite a Level Playing Field

The Internet allowed sites like National Review Online, the Weekly, TCS and several others to flourish. Most recently, the Blogosphere has joined them. In his book, Anderson quotes Jeff Jarvis, the creator of Entertainment Weekly, who also writes the popular BuzzMachine Weblog, who says that the end result of the Blogosphere's influence is that "News becomes a conversation. It's not finished and fish wrap when it's printed. That's when the public finally gets to ask questions, contribute facts, and add new perspective."

Of course, the legacy media still has one big advantage: its manpower. "The elite media", Anderson says, "have the power to send out squadrons of reporters to investigate, say, Tom Delay but not Kofi Annan and UN corruption, and that can still shape the public's perception of what's newsworthy, still can provide a narrative to the flux of events and issues." The ability to choose what to investigate and what to report remains a powerful form of information control for big media.

Anderson says that Fox's ability to shape the narrative is one reason they've been so influential, and so hated by many liberals. "As the conservative media critic Tim Graham put it to me, Fox arrived as a major professional news organization with the capacity to define the news as something other than what the elite consensus says it is. So the Swift Boat Veterans' charges deserved investigation; so Richard Clarke's conflicting views on the Bush administration's approach to fighting terror were relevant to assessing his credibility; so the troubles with our efforts in Iraq needed to be balanced against the real successes.

"Before Fox, nothing like this existed", Anderson observes. "The blogs can report, too, as we're seeing -- just ask Dan Rather -- by drawing on a kind of collective knowledge, so this has helped right the reporting imbalance somewhat. But there's room for a lot more. It's a real opportunity for aspiring journalists, I think."

The Culture War's Newest Front

With some measure of parity achieved in the media, what's the next front in the culture war? Academia of course, which is where Anderson chooses to end "South Park Conservatives" (before an index and a volley of footnotes, including -- full disclosure time -- me, for this TCS article).

Anderson's ultimate objective isn't to achieve some sort of ideological reversal, where conservatives dominate campuses in the same fashion that the left currently does. Instead, he's trying to ensure that academia "isn't a machine for left-wing political advocacy". Anderson says that students "are trending to the right on issues from how to view capitalism to attitudes about abortion and many view campus PC orthodoxy with abhorrence -- which is why so many of them love South Park."

Anderson concedes that reforming academia is going to be a long slog. "Changes are only just underway, and the prospects for any quick turnaround somewhat remote".


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