Although the seemingly unstoppable march of cultural liberalism took pause during the years of Ronald Reagan and even into the 1990s, it is back on track. Liberals will applaud it and conservatives will dread it, but it is silly to deny its strength.
Television and movies reflect our current values and concerns, but they also help mold public opinion. For decades, that message has been one encouraging more equality, diversity and multiculturalism — and less tradition and religion. This isn’t all that surprising considering the ideological bent of most entertainers, producers, directors and writers.
Starting with TV shows like “All in the Family,” “Diff'rent Strokes” and “Maude,” progressing to the very funny “Will & Grace” and going right up to today’s most obvious example, “Glee,” television has pushed socially progressive themes. Socially progressive characters are enlightened and admirable, while traditionalists are unappealing, to say the least.
Of course, popular culture has not limited its “teaching” to cultural themes. The business community usually gets more than its share of contempt. One of my favorite recent TV series, “Damages,” which starred Glenn Close, based every season’s story on vile, corrupt, deceitful, money-grubbing, power-seeking businessmen who had little or no respect for human life.
But business has gotten off easy, compared with cultural conservatives who don’t have financial networks and savvy corporate CEOs to present an alternate perspective.
The public and TV networks’ reactions to two recent Supreme Court decisions, one invalidating Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the other invalidating the Defense of Marriage Act, were noteworthy.
Both decisions were 5-4, but only about the Voting Rights Act decision did I hear the high court widely described as “bitterly divided.”
In the days after the Voting Rights Act decision, you might have thought that the high court had taken away the right to vote from African-Americans. Journalists gave plenty of attention to voices opposing the decision and arguing that the ruling would overturn all the progress of civil rights since the 1960s.
The media’s coverage of the DOMA decision, on the other hand, was almost euphoric, geared overwhelmingly toward those celebrating the decision.
Admittedly, opponents of the decision were noticeably quiet after the court’s ruling. Of course, opposing gay marriage has increasingly been equated with intolerance, meanness, bigotry, religious fundamentalism and lack of intelligence, so many displeased by the ruling may have figured that silence was the safest course.
The type of coverage of the two decisions undoubtedly also reflects the fundamental values of most journalists, who are generally more liberal than the country as a whole. There appeared to be plenty of cheerleading after the two rulings on same-sex marriage, and not merely from the obvious voices on MSNBC.
But it wasn’t only surrounding the Supreme Court’s opinions on marriage that some of the recent media coverage seemed tilted.
On his final show hosting CNN’s "Reliable Sources" on Sunday, media critic Howard Kurtz commented on the media’s very sympathetic treatment of Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, whose 11-hour filibuster at the end of a special session prevented the enactment of a bill limiting abortions and requiring facilities performing abortions to meet certain standards.
“If Wendy Davis had been conducting a lonely filibuster against abortion rights,” Kurtz asked, “would the media have celebrated her in quite the same way?” Kurtz didn’t offer an answer — because he didn’t have to. The answer certainly would have been “no.”
For social conservatives, the greatest problem may be the undermining of traditional religious authority and belief.
While Gallup showed only a slight annual increase last year in the percentage of people saying that they had no religious identification (up to 17.8 percent in 2012), the trend is clear.
“The rise in the religious 'nones' over time is one of the most significant trends in religious measurement in the United States. ... The percentage who did not report [a religious] identity began to rise in the 1970s and has continued to increase in the years since,” wrote Gallup in a January 2013 report.
In the 2012 exit poll, President Barack Obama won 62 percent of voters who never attend religious services but only 39 percent of those who attended weekly. He carried 70 percent of those voters who said they had no religion, compared with only 42 percent of Protestants and 50 percent of Catholics.
(Next month, I have tickets to see the Broadway hit “The Book of Mormon,” which lampoons not only Mormonism but all organized religion and literal belief. Is there a Broadway blockbuster that mocks an iconic liberal value?)
Social conservatives probably see Obama, liberals on the Supreme Court and Democrats in Congress as their main adversaries. But they are wrong. The most important leaders of cultural liberalism may well be the members of the media and entertainment communities, and social conservatives simply have no strategy to deal with that.