The American Interest
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Why Republicans Should Watch More TV
Published on January 8, 2013

Republicans are poised to take the semi-deserved brunt of public anger after the maddening fiscal cliff “showdown”, a further hit to a brand already tarnished by the 2012 election results. To all the political theorists, intellectuals, and social scientists cooking up strategies to revive the party, I say: Watch more TV.

I don’t mean, of course, the garish reality shows and talent competitions that increasingly dominate the airwaves. The best and most instructive shows are the various multi-year series on cable, which have benefited from technology that allows episodes to easily be viewed repeatedly, and whole seasons in a condensed period. And the distance between the movie theater and home viewing is narrowing all the time. The best of the TV shows are now on the whole superior even to many Oscar-winning films. Many of the best actresses and actors now even seem to prefer them.

Beyond their artistic value, these highly intelligent and savvy shows provide some of the most penetrating social and political commentary found today. Three of them in particular can guide reflection about the meaning of the 2012 election results: Girls, a black comedy about the sex lives of Brooklyn twenty-somethings; Big Love, which follows a beleagured polygamist and his three wives, and Friday Night Lights (a show based on Buzz Bissinger’s book of the same name), about an admirable coach and his noble players in a west Texas town with nothing much going for it but high-school football.

Why those three? Well, to begin with, the creator, star, and director of Girls, Lena Dunham, made a controversial campaign spot for the president aimed at privileged single women, one that encouraged girls to have their first time (voting) with Obama. Big Love anticipated some of the dilemmas associated with “the Mormon moment”—the Romney moment—in American political life. And Romney tried to appropriate some of the wholesome, robust small town virtues of Friday Night Lights when he deployed (and sort of mangled) Coach Eric Taylor’s “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” slogan for his campaign.

That Lena Dunham commercial might have made a real contribution to enhancing the president’s turnout, for all I know. Certainly it was consistent with the Democratic convention’s insistent appeal to women’s rights, especially the rights of single women. But there’s at least one irony: Dunham is a genuine defender of women’s right to choose, but her characters so rarely actually choose well. So we conservatives are tempted to say we have no reason to believe their voting behavior is better than, for example, their sexual behavior.

The girls on Girls—mostly graduates of elite liberal arts schools—have no idea who they are and what they’re supposed to do. Despite their privileged backgrounds, they have almost no manners and no morals. The Dunham character, Hannah Horvath, is the most confused of them all. She does manage to say thank you for the rare, ambiguous compliment that comes her way. But she’s also just about never moved by generosity or charity or even ordinary self-restraint, and neither are the others. Hannah is a film studies major who hasn’t learned much in college (that’s generally true of majors ending in “studies”); she comes to the big city to write, but she lacks the education, talent, and discipline. Like most of her friends, she has no marketable skills, no work ethic, and a rich sense of entitlement. So she sponges off her parents until they abruptly cut her off.

The quality of relational life on the show is often abysmal—with the resulting visit to the abortion clinic, STDs, various pathetic hook-ups, and whiny pretend marriages. It turns out that these girls, like us all, want meaningful work and authentic love, but they have very little idea how to find them. We just know those girls would be happier if they could live for something greater than themselves, for some principle or family or their country or even God.

There are reasons for conservatives to recoil from or refuse to watch Girls. We could begin, of course, with the fact that we see way too much of Hannah way too often. From a merely artistic view, the show is oblivious to the sound principle that when it comes to nudity on the big screen, less is more. We could go on to get all indignant about other disgusting incidents so casually depicted. But, as Ross Douthat wrote, the show’s “critique of contemporary (New York, upper middle class, white) sexual mores is explicit rather than esoteric”, in neon letters rather than between the lines.  Things that are really revolting from a moral or relational point of view are portrayed quite negatively. And whether or not it is Dunham’s intent, the show’s message is that these girls suffer from lack of character; they are, to a point, victims of an easygoing world of privilege that deprives them of the experiences that allow them to develop character. And if you want a basically a conservative (or even libertarian) indictment of what passes for “liberal education” these days, watch Girls.

Dunham herself would reject the solution of returning to the “repression” of traditional religion and morality. But true conservatives agree, after all, that there’s never any simple going back. And social scientists on both sides have to admire a show that so precisely defines social and relational problems while suggesting that there are no easy solutions.

The other HBO series, Big Love, is still relevant years after it ended. The show’s central family of dissident Mormons grapples with the challenges of polygamy in the age of feminist egalitarianism. We learn how hard polygamy is on the husband (each wife has her own house!) if his wives really expect equal treatment. We see him popping Viagra desperately, because it’s really not possible by nature to love all your wives the same all the time. (We also see him having sneaking around for a while with his first wife at the expense of the others as if it were an affair.) We also wonder whether polygamy, in his case, flows from his authentically interpreted religious principle or from his weakness for younger women. It’s strange to see wives accepting the fact their husband is dating again. And we’re shown that a downside of polygamy is that your oldest son might become almost fatally attracted to your youngest wife. Your oldest son can also get dumped by a very promising girlfriend when he tells her she’ll only be his first wife. The more prudent approach, followed by his dad, is to break the news to her well after they’re married.

On the other hand, there’s no denying how much this family’s father is willing to sacrifice to keep everyone together (more than any of his more ambivalent or relatively self-obsessed wives), and he thinks of his family in terms of eternity. Big Love is about a new kind of polygamy—far different from the sinister form that put Warren Jeffs on trial—struggling to emerge from the shadows and gain acceptance. Big Love‘s Bill is a good guy and a respected community leader with a problem with the law we’re led to think he doesn’t deserve to have.

Not incidentally, the creators of Big Love are gay and interested in promoting the cause of same-sex marriage. The pathologies connected with being gay and being a polygamist both come, they suggest, from the shame of being closeted. The kids struggle pretty desperately on Big Love, but maybe they wouldn’t if their loving family could live loudly and proudly in the open. The show presents gay Mormons stuck with denying or hiding the truth about themselves (and even being driven to suicide).

Big Love is a politically cutting-edge show in suggesting that marriage ought to include gay couples as well as polygamous units. In the late 19th century the Republican Party forced Utah and so the Mormon church to abandon polygamy as a condition for becoming a state. The Supreme Court, in an opinion that arguably allowed Christian religious prejudice to trump the Mormons’ free exercise of religion (an opinion that has no value as a precedent today), refused to intervene. The 19th-century Republicans understood polygamy to be a relic of barbarism. But what about genuinely consensual and richly feminist polygamy, a kind of polygamy compatible with the wives’ autonomy and fulfillment? Once we’ve accepted two moms, why not three?

Big Love seems, at first, ineffective as propaganda for same-sex marriage. Opponents often argue that if same-sex marriage is a right, then so is polygamous marriage. Most proponents assure us that there’s no such “slippery slope” from one to the other, largely because support for their cause would dwindle if the prospect of polygamy were a real issue. But the show’s creators, by identifying “marriage equality” as including the highly relational, genuinely religious, fecund, and self-sacrificing polygamists, insist that in our time marriage can take many forms. To revise the public understanding of marriage is not to empty the institution of significance or responsibility.

Big Love was also cutting-edge in evoking the deep suspicions many Americans have about the incompatibility between Mormon life and our increasingly libertarian idea of personal freedom. The public response to the show’s characters may point to why Romney’s Mormonism made his electoral challenge somewhat more difficult. He’s been quite a successful businessman, but also a devoted father, leader of his church, and exceptionally charitable and generous with his time. But he thought being a Mormon limited how much he could dare show us who he is.

Most Americans, it goes without saying, are repulsed by the unproductive, narcissistic, and amoral very extended adolescence of the girls on Girls. So as the Obama campaign pandered to that show’s demographic, the Romney campaign, now and again, countered by identifying itself with a more edifying cable series—Friday Night Lights. (FNL actually begin as network show and remained comparatively restrained but not unrealistically prudish in its use of language, sexual situations, and so forth when it was forced to migrate to cable, and back again to the network.) Taking place in west Texas, the show espouses a very southern understanding of what’s important about life: family, hometown roots, a worthwhile vocation, grit and God.

Friday Night Lights centers on the football team’s coach—Eric Taylor—who is an altogether admirable and talented leader of men. For the young athletes schooled by his leadership, a key formative experience of their lives—in some cases, the only great experience of their lives—will be how they perform as part of the team. And identifying with the team—being PANTHERS–is, of course in many ways the heart of the town, the only thing that genuinely invigorates the often disappointing and dreary lives of most of its citizens.

Romney sometimes psyched up his crowds with a spin on the inspirational words with which Coach Taylor concludes each of his pre-game talks: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” There’s nothing pious about the coach’s words; they’re the code of the warrior, the southern stoic, the classical man of moral virtue. The coach, of course, respects religion and sometimes joins his players in prayer, but that’s what any gentleman would do.

One sign of Romney’s tone-deafness is the way he changed Coach Taylor’s words: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, America Can’t Lose.” Not only is the cadence of the original screwed up, but Romney never called for Americans to sacrifice for a team as citizens. Worse, he seemed ignorant of the significance of what the coach says and does, the ways his example might actually inspire most Americans. He probably never even saw the show, but it’s not too late for other Republicans to  gain somewisdom from it to help secure future victories.

Friday Night Lights, like Girls, is about how hard it is to find meaningful work and love these days in our country, though it focuses on a quite different, more economically and educationally unfortunate, and arguably more compelling demographic. Shrinking small-town America, and the sinking lower-middle-class, are, we learn from Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, viewed with a mixture of indifference and condescension by our increasingly libertarian meritocratic elite. Romney seemed sometimes to share that condescension, particularly with his notorious comment that his job is not to worry about the 47% of Americans who “don’t pay taxes.” From the point of view of FNL’s Dillon, Texas, both political parties are too oligarchic, equally remote from their economic and cultural concerns, particularly those related to family life.

Much of the show is about very disadvantaged players often heroically struggling to improve their dysfunctional families, most of which are fatherless in some way. They know far better than the grown-up kids of Girls that familial responsibility is the foundation of a good life, no matter how the ideal eludes them. Consider the artistic, underdog quarterback Matt Saracen, with an estranged mother and a father in Iraq, knocking himself out to care all alone for his grandmother with Alzheimer’s; or and the two Riggins brothers, also without parents, seeing each other through life’s trials despite their frequent flare-ups. Tim Riggins even serves what ought to have been his brother’s prison term so that his nephew can have what they didn’t—a father.

The point of these narratives is that the so-called 47% is hardly wallowing contentedly in the thrall of government dependency; we are not a nation divided into “makers” and “takers”, as some have put it.

FNL is all about real men and women living admirably and having to struggle much harder than they should to sustain meaningful work and stable families. If these young men are nonetheless better off than their counterparts on Girls in some crucial ways, it’s party because they have been slapped pretty hard by the adversity that builds character. And thanks to football, a strong and persistent southern sense of family, and, yes, even religion, they have been, despite at all, better raised.

In its present disarray, Republicans should be looking for a leader who is clear-eyed about the threats to a dignified life shaped by love, work and community portrayed in both Girls and in Friday Night Lights. That means the Republicans have to become less oligarchic and less libertarian—and more genuinely meritocratic—than they have been in recent years. They have to somehow become less callous and condescending and speak in terms of magnanimity, the significance of families, and the dignity of real work. The party leadership should have a proper appreciation of the virtue and aspirations of ordinary Americans in the increasingly vulnerable middle-class.

If you think about it, the conservative impulse in our country is to counter threats to middle-class virtue. That means opposing the degraded and clueless thought and behavior displayed on Girls. And it means opposing government programs that undermine personal responsibility. Those programs don’t include our relatively minimal entitlements—such as Social Security and Medicare—that function to hold families together. There’s a theory, traced usually to the distinguished sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, that the welfare state would keep individuals from either having children or caring for the elderly, because they could afford to live well on the government’s dime without those entanglements. But Social Security hardly pays the elderly enough to fend well all alone, and it more often helps to allow children to stay connected with the old and frail parents.

Until very recently, the main cause of our birth dearth was low fertility among those who don’t need or benefit that much from government programs. Most of the young people represented by Friday Night Lights are very open to kids, and some of them are having them very young. If you want to find lots of kids in our country, hang out with small-town members of the lower (or at least not upper) middle class. There’s evidence that the birth dearth has spread in the direction of even that portion of the middle class in the last few years, probably because of their rapidly deteriorating economic condition, which also means fewer children have the benefit of married parents. If that’s so, the remedy isn’t, of course, condescending welfare or make-work programs. It is, in part, the return to prosperity promised by Republican deregulatory and “supply side” economic reforms, but it’s also, in part, programs aimed at supporting—not replacing—struggling families.


Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and executive editor of Perspectives on Political Science.