Film Critics: Hollywood and the Democrats

January 25, 2005 | The New Republic |

John Kerry let slip a few gaffes in his run for president, and the one that may have hurt him most is barely remembered. In July, at a Bush-bashing fundraiser at Radio City Music Hall, Kerry told a group of Hollywood entertainers that they "conveyed the heart and soul of the country." The tribute was meant as warm thanks to celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Paul Newman who had just raised $7.5 million in a star-studded evening. But Kerry's words turned out to be a priceless gift to the Republicans, right up there with his windsurfing outing on Martha's Vineyard.

A few days later, at a campaign stop in the Midwest, President Bush unveiled a new applause line. The heart and soul of America was not in Hollywood, Bush said: "I believe the heart and soul of America is found in places right here, in Marquette, Michigan." Over the next three months, the town or city that housed America's heart and soul changed constantly as Bush reminded audiences that John Kerry lived on Planet Liberal. "Most of us don't look to Hollywood as the source of values," Bush said in October, sticking to message. Along with Kerry's windsurfing, his $8,000 racing bike, his eccentric billionaire wife and--well, the list was pretty long--Kerry's coziness with Hollywood confirmed the most devastating claim of the Bush campaign: The Senator from Massachusetts was one of them, not one of us.

Democrats have been wrestling since November with how to lose the "them" label and bridge a values divide that separates the party from middle America. A lot of ideas have been tossed around, but Democrats have yet to confront head-on the problem that cropped up that day in Radio City Music Hall. If they did, they would see a golden opportunity to please the liberal base and swing voters at the same time--to complain about market capitalism run amok, about the public interest subverted, and about moral decline. They would understand that it is time for liberals to go after Hollywood.

Taking on Hollywood may sound like a strategy to win converts at the expense of true progressives. But while such a gambit would likely appeal to swing voters, it would reflect the views of the Democratic base as well. In fact, while conservatives have historically led efforts to censor popular culture deemed subversive to traditional values, it is actually liberals who have lodged some of the harshest critiques of mass media in recent decades. Legions of liberal researchers have documented the ways that make-believe violence in movies, television, and video games helps to foster real-world violence. Two generations of feminists have complained about the sexist messages in popular culture and advertising. Since the 1960s, the most liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill have bemoaned the commercialization of the airwaves in pleading for more money for public broadcasting and more regulation of big media. It is in blue states where the clamor has been loudest for "Sesame Street." More recently, left social critics have sounded the alarm about how entertainment conglomerates like Disney wield too much power over news, culture, and intellectual property. Another complaint, heard often since September 11, is that the junk Hollywood exports abroad helps to aggravate anti-Americanism.

Once you get past the issue of free speech--more on that in a minute--attacking the entertainment industry is a natural fit for Democrats. Republicans court charges of hypocrisy when they bash crass popular culture, since it is a relentless focus on the bottom line, typically an unquestioned good on the right, that propels the entertainment industry forward, as anyone who works in Hollywood can attest. For Democrats, the connection between an unfettered market and toxic values is exactly the point--and a point that can serve as the linchpin of an authentic new progressive moralism.

The argument here is simple: When financial self-interest is touted as one of society's greatest virtues, as it has been lately, individuals will behave badly. The recent paroxysm of greed and dishonesty at places like Enron, Tyco, and scores of other companies is evidence of this point. So is the terrible ethical climate in law and medicine, where a money culture is increasingly subverting professional ethics. The epidemic of cheating in schools and even the steroid problems in sports also show how today's outsized imperative to get ahead can bring out the worst in people.

Ditto for what goes on in the entertainment industry. Why do well-educated professionals in television expose our children to some 18,000 visual images of murder by the time they are adults? Why do record executives market misogynist and violent music that they wouldn't want their own children to hear? Why do the producers of reality TV shows try to turn contestants into depraved social Darwinists? Why do makers of video games like Grand Theft Auto promote criminality? Why do daytime talk show hosts seek out the most pathological examples of human interaction to spotlight on national television? Money, that's why. The bottom line reigns supreme in the entertainment industry, and the more frantic the chase for dollars has become, the trashier our culture has gotten. Here, as elsewhere, extreme capitalism and moral decline go hand-in-hand.

None of this is to say that there aren't great movies, fantastic TV shows, and fine record albums. There are. But just because an industry makes some great products doesn't mean it shouldn't be criticized for polluting. In stepping forward with such criticism, Democrats should speak from their own core values--affirming the sanctity of free speech while arguing that our popular culture shouldn't be so heavily shaped by market forces. Steering clear of anything that smacks of censorship, they should demand more aggressive voluntary steps by Hollywood to clean up its act by strengthening and enforcing content ratings, and by building on the V-Chip concept to give parents more ways to control what their children see and listen to.

Far more importantly, though, Democrats should outline a bold vision for expanding the sphere of publicly supported culture and mass media. This could include much more funding for public broadcasting, new support for independent film (as in Europe), and a revival of the regulatory vision behind the founding of the Federal Communications Commission in 1934--namely, that broadcasters must serve the public interest in exchange for access to the airwaves. Among other things, this would mean forcing television stations to give free air time to candidates and to broadcast educational programming for children.

Few of these ideas are new. Today, though, the public's intense concern about values gives liberals a new chance to push for alternatives to market-controlled culture. The catch is that this effort won't succeed without attacking the industry that now shapes that culture.

Democrats do face risks in going after Hollywood. Most unnerving is the prospect that the industry might turn off the campaign cash spigot and even end up in the arms of Republicans. This is unlikely. The 2000 election showed that Hollywood will keep giving to Democrats no matter what. That year's Gore-Lieberman ticket was a worst case scenario for the industry. Joe Lieberman is among Hollywood's fiercest critic on Capitol Hill, while Al Gore is not only married to Tipper Gore--who went after the music industry in the 1980s--he was also a backer of V-Chips, television content ratings, and other nuisances. So ominous did the Democrat ticket look to some on the Left Coast that Basic Instinct screenwriter Joe Eszterhas took out a full page ad in Variety urging his pals not to open their checkbooks for the campaign. Nobody listened. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the entertainment industry made nearly $40 million in 2000 campaign donations, with 64 percent going to Democrats. (By comparison, Democrats got 68 percent of donations in 2004 and 62 percent in 1996.)

Another unfounded fear is that anti-Hollywood Democrats might lose the high-profile backing of celebrities. In 2000, stars like Tommy Lee Jones and Jimmy Smits played a public role at the Democratic National Convention, and other celebrities joined Gore on the road.

Besides, so what if Tinseltown big shots refuse to stump for Democrats? Filmmaker Michael Moore recently warned that it would be a mistake for the party to pull away from Hollywood, saying that "this is where they need to come to learn how to tell a story" and that America "likes to vote for Hollywood." Moore may be right on the first point. On the second, he should know better. The perceived elitism of the Democratic Party is now its number one liability and ties to Hollywood play right into that perception, which is why Bush had such a field day with Kerry's "heart and soul" gaffe. What's the Matter With Kansas author Thomas Frank got it right when he wrote last July that "Hollywood stars are as close as America comes to an aristocracy, and being instructed on how to be kinder and better people by pseudo-rebellious aristocrats can't help but rub people the wrong way."

While the 2008 election is far away, competition for the Democratic nomination is already starting. Surely one litmus test for viability must be whether a candidate has a values message that both crosses the cultural divide and affirms the party's core beliefs. The smarter the Democrat, the more likely he or she will be to make Hollywood an early target.


When financial self-interest is touted as one of society's greatest virtues, as it has been lately, individuals will behave badly. The recent paroxysm of greed and dishonesty at places like Enron, Tyco, and scores of other companies is evidence of this point. So is the terrible ethical climate in law and medicine, where a money culture is increasingly subverting professional ethics.