Recently, Hollywood went through its annual Bacchanalia of back-patting, formal-wear, and good feeling; I refer, of course, to the Academy Awards—the Oscars. Traditionally, one of the most popular activities among conservatives on Oscar night is declaring, loudly and publicly, how utterly uninterested they are in watching the award ceremonies. Conservatives appear to love proclaiming how tedious they find (as one friend put it) the “self-congratulation of a bunch of rich Hollywood elites.” In the larger context, these sentiments are of a piece with the passion conservatives seem to feel for disavowing popular culture in general, and Hollywood in particular.
It’s old news that Hollywood is unabashedly Left-wing politically, hostile to the ideals of conservative America. It’s entirely understandable, therefore, why conservatives often feel the need to return that hostility measure-for-measure. From irritating PSAs featuring Hollywood stars proclaiming the importance of regulating guns or ending global warming, to the lavish fundraising parties for liberal politicians, the American film industry gives conservatives every reason to feel attacked.
No mystery, then, that the American right feels an impulse to repudiate Hollywood in turn. Yielding to that impulse, however, is a terrible mistake.
We all know that the political landscape in America is profoundly divided—but not always in two. Quite frequently, and arguably more and more often, we are divided into three parts: Left, Right… and Middle. When this is the case, the voters in the middle are the ones that politicians tend to focus on, for obvious reasons. Folks on the Left will never, ever vote for someone on the Right. Folks on the Right will never, ever vote for someone on the Left. But people who fall into that middle segment—sometimes as much as 20% of the electorate—may vote either way. Control over the direction of the country depends on that middle section of America.
And what do you think those middle-bloc voters were watching on Oscar night?
It’s a fairly well-understood principle that, all other things being equal, people tend to like to vote for people like them, people they can identify with. In a well-known poll taken after the 2012 election, voters identified Romney as the candidate they trusted most on the economy, on jobs, on national security, but identified Obama as the candidate most like them—the candidate they identified with the most. And Obama won. The importance to conservatives of maintaining a sense of identification, of connection, between themselves and the voters in the middle, would seem to need no further explanation.
Yet somehow, over and over, conservatives seem willing to go to incredible lengths to destroy that sense of connectedness; the dismissal of Oscar Night is just the most recent example.
This isn’t just unproductive, it is foolish. Like the Superbowl, or the World Series, or the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, the Oscar broadcast is one of those cultural landmarks that punctuates the year. It’s a night when much of America gathers around televisions to absorb the same moments: the embarrassingly long acceptance speeches, the trips and stumbles and flubs, the unexpected moments of eloquence and profundity. The day after, people across the country relive those moments via Twitter and Facebook, with intimate friends and with strangers alike.
Call it a shibboleth, a cultural password that conservatives seem mystifyingly eager to exclude themselves from.
For all its self-importance and mawkish sentiment, the Oscars broadcast is capable on occasion of genuine grace. The “In Memoriam” section, commemorating recently deceased celebrities and filmmakers, is a reliable example every year. The inclusion this year of Robin Williams in particular, whose suicide unified much of America in grief and reflection, renewed that sense of profound loss. And the haunting performance of the song “Glory” (from the movie Selma) by John Legend and rapper Common brought visible tears to the eyes of many attendees. It had much the same effect on me, and stood out from the atmosphere of typical Oscar Night schmaltz as a moment of poignant eloquence.
When conservatives take pains to vocally disavow the Oscars, they don’t just alienate liberals; they alienate everyone in the political middle. They alienate the people who generally don’t care about politics, but who found the same lingering beauty in that performance that I did. They alienate, once again, every black voter who found the song a moving reminder—who found the movie Selma an important memorial—of one of the most important political events of the last century. And they alienate everyone, black or white, for whom the story of Selma is a powerful symbol of uplift and redemption.
This is not to say that conservatives need to worship at the altar of Hollywood, or to take the Academy Awards as seriously and earnestly as its participants. It’s a great game to gently mock the over-earnest self importance of the Oscars, and of the celebrities who over-magnify their stature. When a starlet known more for her curvaceous figure than for her intellect (I’m not naming names, so stop asking) reads over-wrought presentation text, or in between mentions of her agent and her parents goes way over the top in political advocacy, everyone joins in the fun of poking fun. But there’s an important line that one must be careful not to cross, between participatory teasing and judgmental snark, between loving criticism and spiteful desecration of one of the altars of popular culture.
Whether conservatives like it or not, America has a civic religion that now includes that popular culture. When conservatives use Oscar Night—one of its High Holy Days—to make their disdain for that civic religion clear, they exile themselves from popular culture, signaling their overall disconnect from mainstream America. Worse, they feed a widespread perception of conservatives as bitter and angry at everyone who doesn’t see the world as they do.
For those trying to shape the future of America, that’s pure poison.