Culture Clash

Brian C. Anderson is senior editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, from whose autumn issue this article is adapted.

The left’s near-monopoly over the institutions of opinion and information is skidding to a halt. The transformation has gone far beyond the rise of conservative talk radio, which, since Rush Limbaugh’s national debut 15 years ago, has chipped away at the power of the elite media to set the terms of the country’s political and cultural debate. Almost overnight, three huge changes in communications have injected conservative ideas into the heart of that debate.

The first seismic event was the advent of cable TV, especially Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel, now in its seventh year. Watch Fox for a few hours and you encounter a conservative presence unlike anything on TV. The channel has prominent liberals on air, too, but to find out what conservatives are thinking, this is where you turn the dial.

Fox’s ratings, already climbing since the station’s 1996 launch, really began to rocket upward after Sept. 11, 2001, and blasted into orbit with the second Iraq war. And not only conservatives are watching. A June 2002 Pew Research Center study showed that of the 22% of Americans who got most of their news from Fox, 46% called themselves conservative, slightly higher than the 40% of CNN fans who did so. Fox is thus exposing many centrists (32% of its audience) and even liberals (18%) to conservative opinions they would not regularly find elsewhere on TV news.


But cable news isn’t the only place where conservatives feel at home. Lots of cable comedy, while not traditionally conservative, is fiercely anti-liberal. Take “South Park,” Comedy Central’s hit cartoon series, whose heroes are four crudely animated and impossibly foul-mouthed fourth-graders named Cartman, Kenny, Kyle and Stan. Now in its seventh season, “South Park” attracts nearly 3 million viewers an episode.

Many conservatives have attacked “South Park” for its exuberant vulgarity. Such denunciations are misguided. Conservative critics should pay closer attention to what the show so irreverently mocks. As its co-creator, 32-year-old Matt Stone, sums it up: “I hate conservatives, but I really ... hate liberals.”

In one brutal parody, made during the 2000 Florida recount fiasco, Rosie O’Donnell swept into town to weigh in on a kindergarten election dispute involving her nephew. The boys’ teacher dressed her down: “People like you preach tolerance and open-mindedness all the time, but when it comes to middle America, you think we’re all evil and stupid country yokels who need your political enlightenment. Just because you’re on TV doesn’t mean you know crap about the government.”

“South Park” has satirized ‘60s counterculture (Cartman has feverish nightmares about hippies, who “want to save the Earth, but all they do is smoke pot and smell bad”); anti-big-business zealots (a “Harbucks” coffee chain opens in South Park, to initial resistance but eventual acclaim as everyone -- including the local coffeehouse’s owners -- admits its beans taste better); pro-choice extremists; hate-crime legislation; anti-discrimination lawsuits, and much more. Conservatives don’t escape the show’s satirical sword, but there should be no mistaking the deepest thrust of “South Park’s” politics.

That anti-liberal worldview dominates other cable comedy too. Also on Comedy Central is “Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn,” a new late-night chat fest where the conversation is anything but politically correct. Then there’s Dennis Miller, whose HBO stand-up comedy special “The Raw Feed” relentlessly derided liberal shibboleths.

Blogger Andrew Sullivan dubs the fans of all this cable-nurtured satire “South Park Republicans” -- people who “believe we need a hard-ass foreign policy and are extremely skeptical of political correctness” but also are socially liberal on many issues. Such South Park Republicanism is a real trend among younger Americans, he says. South Park’s typical viewer, for instance, is an advertiser-ideal 28. Polling data indicate that younger voters are indeed trending rightward, supporting both the Bush administration and the Iraq war by a wider majority than their elders, for example.


The second explosive change shaking liberal media dominance is the rise of the Internet. It’s hard to overstate the effect that news and opinion Web sites like the Drudge Report and Dow Jones’ OpinionJournal are having on politics and culture, along with current-event blogs -- individual or group Web diaries -- such as AndrewSullivan, InstaPundit and “The Corner” department of NRO, the National Review’s online site. Though 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.

The Internet’s most powerful effect has been to expand vastly the range of opinion -- especially conservative opinion -- at everyone’s fingertips. The Drudge Report is a perfect case in point. Five years after Matt Drudge broke the Monica S. Lewinsky story, his news and gossip site has become an essential daily visit for political junkies, journalists, media types and -- with 1.4 billion hits in 2002 -- seemingly anyone with an Internet connection. The site is mostly an editorial filter, linking to stories on other small and large news and opinion sites -- a filter that crucially exhibits no bias against the right.

Although not quite in Drudge’s league in readership, the top explicitly right-leaning sites, updated daily, have generated huge followings. Sullivan’s blog attracted 400,000 visitors in July. David Horowitz’s Frontpage Magazine, vigorously lambasting the antiwar left, draws as many as 1.7 million visitors a month. More than 1.4 million visitors landed on OpinionJournal in March, when the Iraq war began, most to read editor James Taranto’s “Best of the Web Today,” an incisive commentary on the day’s top Internet stories.

It’s not just the large numbers of readers these sites attract that is so significant for the conservative cause; it’s also who these readers are: younger readers. “They think: ‘If it’s not on the Web, it doesn’t exist,’ ” says NRO editor at large Jonah Goldberg.

The speed with which Internet sites can post new material is one source of their influence. It means that from the start, a wealth of conservative opinion is circulating about any new development, often before the mainstream press gets a chance to weigh in and elite opinion congeals.

A case in point is the blogosphere “storm” (a ferocious burst of online argument, with site linking to site linking to site) that, beginning with Drudge, made a big issue out of “The Reagans,” a TV miniseries that many conservatives found harshly unfair. After talk radio and Fox News picked up the story, the mainstream media focused more intently on the controversy. CBS eventually canceled the show.


The third big change breaking the liberal media stranglehold is taking place in book publishing.

Conservative authors long had trouble getting their books published. No more. Nowadays, publishers are falling over themselves to bring conservative books to a mainstream audience. “Between now and December,” Publishers Weekly wrote in July, “scores of books on conservative topics will be published by houses large and small -- the most ever produced in a single season. Already, 2003 has been a banner year for such books, with at least one and often two conservative titles hitting PW’s bestseller list each week.” Joining the conservative Regnery Books in releasing mass-market, right-leaning books are two new imprints from superpower publishers, Random House’s Crown Forum, and Signature, a new Penguin series. Conservative books will also pour forth from publisher Peter Collier’s Encounter Books, Ivan R. Dee, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and other presses.

Crown Forum publisher Steve Ross believes that Sept. 11 shook up the publishing world and made it less reflexively liberal. But what really got the big New York publishers’ attention was the oodles of money Washington-based Regnery was making.

“We’ve had a string of bestsellers that is probably unmatched in publishing,” Regnery president and publisher Marji Ross points out. “We publish 20 to 25 titles a year, and we’ve had 16 books on the New York Times bestseller list over the last four years -- including Bernard Goldberg’s “Bias,” which spent seven weeks at No 1.”

There’s another reason that conservative books are selling: the emergence of conservative talk radio, cable TV, and the Internet. This “right-wing media circuit,” as Publishers Weekly describes it, reaches millions of potential readers and thus makes the traditional gatekeepers of ideas such as the New York Times Book Review increasingly irrelevant in winning an audience for a book.

Here’s what’s likely to happen in the years ahead. Think of the mainstream liberal media as one sphere and the conservative media as another. The liberal sphere, which less than a decade ago was still the media, is still much bigger than the nonliberal one. But the nonliberal sphere is expanding, encroaching into the liberal sphere, which is both shrinking and breaking up into much smaller sectarian spheres -- one for blacks, one for Latinos, one for feminists, and so on.


It’s hard to imagine that this development won’t result in a broader national debate -- and a more conservative America.