Russell Kirk once famously predicted that liberalism would collapse because of its failure of imagination, that is, its inability to create a world that inspired affection and loyalty. Instead, liberalism relied on a merely utilitarian calculus or the endless assertion of limitless rights. But Mr. Kirk likely would not have anticipated the messengers of liberalism’s end: the South Park conservatives, who have entered the picture as a growing political and social force.
Who are the South Park conservatives? They are devotees of “South Park,” a wildly successful cartoon TV series revolving around a group of schoolchildren and their dysfunctional elders. The show is crass, filthy and most definitely a cartoon for adults only. But as Brian Anderson shows in this provocative new book, “South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias” is in some respects also a deeply conservative program. It also may be a harbinger of a major rightward shift in the popular culture in America.
Mr. Anderson, an editor of the prestigious City Journal published by the Manhattan Institute, uses the South Park conservatives as a wedge to introduce a host of new cultural indicators that show that the hegemony of liberalism in the nation’s cultural life may be ending. In a series of short, pointed chapters, he analyzes the rise of conservative talk radio, the Internet, mainstream media and, of course, “South Park” itself.
As he notes, “Almost overnight, conservatives have mastered the proliferating new media of talk radio, cable television and the Internet, and they have benefited from a big shift in book publishing.” This shift has had significant repercussions already. Recognizing the explosion of a right-leaning audiences, mainstream publishers have established imprints to find and sell conservative books, and mainstream networks (such as MSNBC) have hired right-wing hosts.
More importantly, the new conservative media has scored some effective points against the old establishment. In particular, Mr. Anderson notes that the controversy over CBS News’ use of forged documents in an anti-Bush piece was spurred at first almost entirely by conservative Internet sites. Mr. Anderson even credits President Bush’s 2004 election to the rise of conservative media; right-wing talk shows and Web sites plugged books critical of John Kerry and forced the media — and the Kerry campaign — to belatedly respond to charges that in a different era would have been ignored.
“South Park” itself, as the author explains in a chapter on the show, mercilessly exposes liberal pieties about politics and society with an intensity and wit that has perhaps never before been seen on television. Mr. Anderson ties its humor to a long tradition of anti-elitist humor and sarcasm, which has been a staple of American social criticism but which seemed out of place in the liberal consensus.
Mr. Anderson concludes that while it is too early to dismiss liberalism’s still-dominant presence in media, entertainment and education, he is hopeful that the tide has turned. Interviewing college students, for example, showed him how impatient they were with liberal pieties.
The author identifies several reasons for the change, including the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the “Left’s broader intellectual and political failure.” College students, who grew up after Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War, and for whom segregation and the economic stagnation of the 1970s are just a dim memory, simply do not accept the liberal worldview, and they have equal impatience with the permissive individual values that students of a previous generation believed were “liberating.”
It is perhaps a slight exaggeration to call the groups Mr. Anderson profiles all conservative. They are more precisely anti-liberal. Whether these rejections of liberal groupthink will blossom into a more substantive conservatism remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the cultural trends Mr. Anderson has discovered are only likely to increase over the next decade or so. “South Park Conservatives” is an important guide to the first major cultural shift of the 21st century.
Gerald J. Russello is working on a book on the ideas of Russell Kirk.