In my blog post today about Daniel Frick’s Reinventing Richard Nixon: A Cultural History of an American Obsession, I’ll use as my starting-point a passage on pages 167-168. There, Frick states:
“For liberals, Richard Nixon serves as more than an easy target—-he functions as a touchstone for the validity of their values. In ‘Angst for the Memories,’ a September 1993 episode of Murphy Brown, a situation comedy about a 60 Minutes-like television newsmagazine, Murphy (played by Cand[i]ce Bergen) lands an interview with the reclusive author of a landmark 1960s novel, Technicolor Highway. The excitement of this scoop fades when Murphy discovers that her literary hero has become a virulent neoconservative. Commiserating afterward at their favorite tavern, Murphy and her co-workers admit that they too have changed. One by one, these denizens of the liberal media offer confessions—-one now believes that many welfare recipients are lazy, another has considered purchasing a gun—-until one of them cuts to a final test: ‘Does anyone here think Nixon might have gotten a raw deal?’ Instant denials reassure them, and, with great relief, Murphy and her colleagues clink glasses, toasting, ‘At least we’ve still got that,’ affirming Nixon’s villainy as their one bedrock belief.”
I checked the Internet Movie Database for this episode, and I noticed that Martin Sheen was on it. I wonder if he was the actor who played the author who became a neoconservative. It would be cool if he was!
Change. I’m interested in shows that depict a change in one’s ideology or religion, whether that change be from right to left, or from left to right, or from either extreme to someplace in the middle. I was intrigued when I read a description of an episode of Family Ties, “My Back Pages,” which was during Season 5: “An old college friend comes to Steven to ask his help in starting up an old left wing political magazine, ‘The Scavenger.’ But after hanging around with the other staff, Steven realizes he no longer has the same ideals he had back in the 1960’s, fearing he has accepted the middle of the road thinking he protested against as a youth.” What specifically was Steven’s ideological change? Essentially, he came to support the PTA, and he voted Democratic rather than taking the radical approach of rejecting both parties.
Frick elsewhere in his book talks about people’s ideological changes. There was Ron Kovic, whose belief in American myths about America being the good guys and the good guys being winners were undermined by his own experience in Vietnam, along with its aftermath. There is another Vietnam vet Frick quotes, who said that he realized that the American soldiers in Vietnam were like the Redcoats during the American revolution, the ones who were depicted to him as evil back when he was a child.
A conservative relative of mine once told me that more liberals become conservatives than vice-versa, as if liberalism is naive idealism, whereas conservatism is a more realistic, “grown-up” perspective. But my conservative relative is wrong, I suspect, in saying this, for I know a number of conservatives who became liberals as a reaction against the extremism of the Tea Party. While I believe that the inefficiencies and intrusiveness of government can convince a liberal to question his or her faith in big government and to become a conservative, I also think that a conservative can lose faith in the tenets of conservative mythology, as they shatter against the brick wall of reality: that everyone has a chance to succeed in America, that many who are poor are poor due to lack of effort, or that America is consistently a force for good in the world.
A problem that Frick highlights more than once in this book is that liberals have not successfully replaced the widely-accepted conservative mythology with their own narrative that can catch on. There may be some truth to what Frick is saying. I can think of reasons that cause me to doubt his sentiment. For example, liberals are good storytellers in terms of crafting populist narratives. Which is more inspiring: the little guy taking on a big corporation that is polluting his area’s water supply, or a corporation resisting big government regulations? I suppose that Atlas Shrugged is a fairly good story, even though it’s in the latter category, and yet I find the former narrative to be more widespread and inspiring. Championing the downtrodden against the rich and powerful makes for good storytelling.
But I cannot deny that conservatives have crafted quite an influential narrative. During the debate on Obamacare, a liberal I know was complaining that, although Democrats were in power at the time, conservatives had still managed to shape the debate about health care. We were hearing, and many were assuming, standard conservative lines about the issue: that government-run health care is a bad thing, that the Canadian health care system is terrible because it has long lines, and the list goes on.
One problem, if you will, with the liberal narrative may be that it just does not resonate with a number of Americans. That does not mean that the liberal narrative is necessarily false, but rather that it’s not what many Americans may want to hear. In a country that prides itself on rugged individualism and pioneer spirit, many may not want to hear about community, or the importance of society taking care of the least of these. In a country that sees itself as a force for good in the world, many may not want to hear the argument that America does not consistently do good when it comes to its intervention in other countries. I realize that my definition of “liberal narrative” here is rather simplistic, since there are times when a liberal might support American interventionism into other countries, whereas a conservative may not. But it is often those on the left who question the assumption that America is a force for good in the world.
Anyway, that’s my rambling for the day!