Frank Rich Speaks

Try to read Frank Rich's column this morning in The New York Times. Rich argues that despite the conventional wisdom that the country is turning more conservative, the evidence suggests that the much talked about conservative values are nothing more than a facade, hiding us all from the "excess and vulgarity [that is] enjoyed by a vast, bipartisan constituency." In fact, as the article points out, those casting stones are as guilty of deteriorating values as anybody else.
There's only one problem with the storyline proclaiming that the country swung to the right on cultural issues in 2004. Like so many other narratives that immediately calcify into our 24/7 media's conventional wisdom, it is fiction. Everything about the election results - and about American culture itself - confirms an inescapable reality: John Kerry's defeat notwithstanding, it's blue America, not red, that is inexorably winning the culture war, and by a landslide. Kerry voters who have been flagellating themselves since Election Day with a vengeance worthy of "The Passion of the Christ" should wake up and smell the Chardonnay. The blue ascendancy is nearly as strong among Republicans as it is among Democrats. Those whose "moral values" are invested in cultural heroes like the accused loofah fetishist Bill O'Reilly and the self-gratifying drug consumer Rush Limbaugh are surely joking when they turn apoplectic over MTV. William Bennett's name is now as synonymous with Las Vegas as silicone. The Democrats' Ashton Kutcher is trumped by the Republicans' Britney Spears. Excess and vulgarity, as always, enjoy a vast, bipartisan constituency, and in a democracy no political party will ever stamp them out. If anyone is laughing all the way to the bank this election year, it must be the undisputed king of the red cultural elite, Rupert Murdoch. Fox News is a rising profit center within his News Corporation, and each red-state dollar that it makes can be plowed back into the rest of Fox's very blue entertainment portfolio. The Murdoch cultural stable includes recent books like Jenna Jameson's "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star" and the Vivid Girls' "How to Have a XXX Sex Life," which have both been synergistically, even joyously, promoted on Fox News by willing hosts like Rita Cosby and, needless to say, Mr. O'Reilly. There are "real fun parts and exciting parts," said Ms. Cosby to Ms. Jameson on Fox News's "Big Story Weekend," an encounter broadcast on Saturday at 9 p.m., assuring its maximum exposure to unsupervised kids.
I think a paraphrasing of an old adage is in order here: Where there is hot air, there is fire. Bill O'Reilly, Bill Bennet, and Rush are the three poster boys for what really is the conservative paradox: Those who rally around moral values the most, tend to rally around those that are morally bankrupt. In pointing this out, Rich highlights Thomas Franks' What's the Matter with Kansas?, an excellent book that is devoted to this subject. One of Franks' main arguments is that conservatives truly interested in moral values tend to vote for people who appeal to their values only in so far as it gets the politician elected. Once elected, the politician abandons these people and their values for corporate interests, which ultimately hurt the interests of the constituency that elected him/her in the first place. It's a vicious circle in that the longer people keep electing politicians like this, the worse off they will get, which in turn increases religious and moral fervor enough to keep them voting on values. On this point, Rich is more clear than me:
Mr. Wittman echoes Thomas Frank, the author of "What's the Matter With Kansas?," by common consent the year's most prescient political book. "Values," Mr. Frank writes, "always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won." Under this perennial "trick," as he calls it, Republican politicians promise to stop abortion and force the culture industry "to clean up its act" - until the votes are counted. Then they return to their higher priorities, like cutting capital gains and estate taxes. Mr. Murdoch and his fellow cultural barons - from Sumner Redstone, the Bush-endorsing C.E.O. of Viacom, to Richard Parsons, the Republican C.E.O. of Time Warner, to Jeffrey Immelt, the Bush-contributing C.E.O. of G.E. (NBC Universal) - are about to be rewarded not just with more tax breaks but also with deregulatory goodies increasing their power to market salacious entertainment. It's they, not Susan Sarandon and Bruce Springsteen, who actually set the cultural agenda Gary Bauer and company say they despise.
It is hypocrisy, plain and simple, and I've attended enough Catholic schools to know that hypocrisy is never the answer to WWJD? (Interestingly, I also learned what hypocrisy is from the Catholic Church!) Democrats need to reformulate Rich's article into a stump speech, because I think it will have a lot of traction in areas that should vote Democratic, but don't for the reasons discussed by Franks. It might not convince everyone, but I think it is more convincing than what we've been doing.