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There is a tremendous amount of money, time and effort spent on promoting political ideas through think tanks, political action committees, cable news stations and a myriad of other sources. Billions are spent on elections, and woe betide anyone unfortunate enough to live in a swing state, doomed to unrelenting robocalls and political advertisements for months on end.
All of this is important, but the political sphere is only a small slice of a country’s culture. Those interested enough to read op-eds and policy papers make up a scant minority of the American electorate. People have busy lives, and most of them have neither the time nor the inclination to wade through the mass of political drivel to uncover meaningful information.
A poll conducted by Pew Research in 2011 found that only 35% of Americans follow political news very closely. This means that the bulk of commentary and analysis laboriously provided by policy wonks is largely wasted on 65% of Americans. No amount of charts, graphs and budget tables will make these people change their minds about which candidates they support. Rather than dismiss them as unswayable, however, we must recognize how they come to form their opinions in the first place.
Most people form their political opinions not based on the teachings of economists or political scientists, but rather on intuitive feelings fostered by the culture in which they are raised. A major reason why the left has been so successful in pushing its agenda is due to the dominance of their ideas in popular culture. While President Obama was very good at utilizing his appearances on entertainment programs to make his case, real influence comes from a more subtle injection of principles and mores into otherwise apolitical storylines.
It is a mistake, then, for those who wish to effect change to put all their eggs in the proverbial basket of political science. Those who want to change the world must first work to change the culture.
Libertarian ideas were once a prominent part of pop-culture, finding perhaps its greatest expression in the dystopia genre. Books like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, illustrating the dangers of an overly powerful government, used to be required reading for every educated person. Over time, however, as the shadow of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia receded into the past, the threat of totalitarianism began to seem little more than a paranoid fairy tale and progressivism began to crowd out these no-longer relevant classics. Now, messages about environmentalism and social responsibility are latent in practically every television show and movie, not put forth as a topic for debate, but assumed to be the obviously correct position in the same way that young New Yorkers are always shown living in unrealistically spacious apartments. The rich industrialist twirling his moustache is the villain. We all know this.
It is these sorts of conventions that activists should be trying to counteract, not through public demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns, but by creating good, engaging media that presents an opposing view. The libertarian mind is creative in its individuality. Let’s harness some of that creativity to produce novels, television shows, movies and music. There are some people already doing this, to not inconsiderable effect.
The irreverent adult-oriented cartoon South Park has always been influenced by the libertarian attitudes of its creators, and has effectively used edgy satire to take such pro-liberty positions as “big business is good,” “smokers should be free to smoke,” and “hate crime laws are hypocritical.” While now a mere shadow of its former glory, South Park has undoubtedly influenced the thinking of many young people, even inspiring a political ideology labeled “South Park Conservatism.”
More recently, the show Parks and Recreation, a political sitcom from the creators of The Office, features an openly libertarian character named Ron Swanson who inspires a little girl to write a two-word essay for her class on why government matters (“it doesn’t”) and has achieved sufficient popularity to have sparked numerous internet memes devoted to his sense of manly self-sufficiency, his love of meat-based breakfast foods and his impressive moustache.
People don’t relate to these shows because of their political message, they relate to them because they are funny and well written. The message is incidental, and yet it has a cumulative impact.
At the end of the day, cultural norms play a large part in determining political attitudes, and all the logic-based rhetoric in the world will not counteract a sense of intuition acquired through cultural osmosis. The lesson is a simple one, yet it is not repeated often enough. If you want to educate, entertain!