For at least the last three decades conservatives have been wringing their hands over liberal dominance in American culture. Every election year the nation’s most beloved artists and celebrities flock around Democratic candidates. And far worse, when they are not actively campaigning, they are creating movies, TV shows, and plays that present progressive ideals as the natural arc of history, while leaving conservative ideals in its rhetorical dustbin. This would be fine if conservatives were able to offer a compelling alternative, as they do in the world of news, but this goal has remained illusive. What keeps the right from establishing a foothold in entertainment?
The answer to this question does not lie in the luxurious offices of television executive producers, it will not be found by revealing a secret left wing cabal among movie producers. The source of conservative consternation over culture flows far below these mountaintops. In small venues, and graduate theater programs and non profit arts organizations all over the country, a progressive hegemony has taken hold. It is a cultural ground game, a well networked, well funded “get out the culture” campaign that conservatives must find a way to compete with, or cede American culture to the left forever.
It is easy to see why conservatives don’t pay much attention to the cultural ground game. It is much more intuitively reasonable to focus on network sitcoms or blockbuster movies which reach millions of people, than some show at the Public Theater or the New York Fringe Festival. Bruce Walker touched on this recently in his article “Creating our Counter Culture” in the American Thinker, he writes:
“What if tens of millions of conservatives formed several corporations, and each purchased a few hundred shares of stock in these corporations? These companies, owned and controlled by millions of small conservative stockholders, could begin to create entertainment television networks, major films...”
The problem with this macro approach is that the artists who create the progressive mass culture don’t fall out the sky with 7 figure salaries and bungalows in the Hollywood hills. They are developed by an infrastructure of dramatic arts so untouched by conservative ideas as to make the notion of a modern conservative theater artist almost an anachronism. To make Mr. Walker’s vision of conservative movies and TV a reality, there have to be content creators, and they must be developed. The example of self described socialist playwright Tony Kushner gives an instructive example of how the cultural ground game is played.
In the mid 80s the small non profit Eureka Theater in San Francisco used NEA grants to offer paid residencies to playwrights. The LA Times recently reported on how Kushner became one of those playwrights:
“Tony Taccone, now the artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, was the Eureka's artistic director in 1985 when he and Eustis [currently Artistic Director at the Public Theater], then the company's dramaturge, got a tip from one of Kushner's NYU professors that his former student, whom they'd never heard of, would be a worthy collaborator for their left-leaning, politically driven work.”
I’m quite certain that in 1985 nobody in conservative circles batted an eye when Kushner received the residency, and the federal dollars that came with it. After all, why should they? Who cares about some lefty show in a little theater in San Francisco? Of course that show became Angels in America, and 25 years later Kushner would pen the screenplay for what will likely be the definitive film biography of Lincoln for a generation. But could anybody have known? Wasn’t it just the lightning bolt of fame that happened to strike Kushner? It wasn’t. Because if it had not been Kushner who became the darling of theater’s kingmakers in New York newspapers, it would have been any one of thousands of other playwrights, developed in the same liberal non profit networks.
I have spent more than a decade working in New York theater, in that time over dozens of shows and hundreds if not thousands of collaborators, I have never worked with another Republican. Ever. And the really bad news is that these are incredibly talented and hard working artists, most of whom have the training and skill to jump right into a mass media entertainment environment.
There is some good news. Over the past several years conservatives hidden away in the corners of the cultural ground game have been finding each other. Last year’s Republican Theater Festival organized by Cara Blouin in Philadelphia was a powerful event for those of us so used to laboring under a progressive flag. We still represent a tiny minority of theater artists, but at least we aren’t alone anymore. At the same time, the well oiled machine of non profit theater is showing significant wear, and frankly, its progressive echo chamber is getting boring, indeed the only transgression left in theater is to be conservative.
Developing a new generation of conservative dramatic artists will not be an easy task. But even small first steps can have a big effect, because they are so different, so new and unexpected that they will demand attention. The conservative counter culture so long sought after by those on the right can be a reality. Over the next several months the pages of this blog will be dedicated to exploring how to create our own cultural ground game.