"Dispatches From the Culture Wars"

What the tone-deaf Democrats are missing. An excerpt from Danny Goldberg's new book.


Salon Staff
June 18, 2003 12:59AM (UTC)

It may seen a little ridiculous for someone like me, a guy in the music business, to be criticizing the Democratic party and the American left, but I'm sick and tired of watching the ideas that I believe in lose political ground. Like other people in my field, I've been able to meet many of the intellectual and political leaders whose beliefs I share. I usually come away inspired by their policy ideas and deeply depressed by blind spots that doom those ideas. A political ideology whose purpose is to help and empower ordinary people is often directed by leaders and strategists to whom the public is an alien beast and to whom young people seem to be, astonishingly, irrelevant.

Even though majorities of the American public regularly tell pollsters they want national health insurance, tighter gun control, better pay for schoolteachers, energy independence, and stronger environmental regulation, advocates for these causes seem unable to translate this public support into political results. Not only has the Democratic party grown considerably weaker over the past few decades, but mainstream Democrats have moved steadily away from progressive causes. The 2002 election was merely the latest example of Democrats walking away from millions of their supporters and potential supporters, supposedly for politically pragmatic reasons, but with toxic political results.

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The weirdest thing about the political shift to the right is that it has occurred during a time when virtually every cultural battle in America has been won by the left. People who have fought for abortion rights, free speech, gay and lesbian rights, and racial equality can look at a country transformed in their image. Yet most leaders in the political left and the Democratic party have profoundly mixed feelings about their cultural allies.

People in the entertainment business, especially the music business, are linked in the public mind with profound cultural changes over the last several decades. So, without ever planning it that way, I've become an enemy in the "culture wars," not only in the minds of conservatives but to many Democrats and others on the left whose policy goals I passionately support.

I have been in the music business for more than thirty years as a PR guy, a personal manager, and for the last decade as a record company president and owner. I have worked with rock legends such as Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, KISS, REM, and Nirvana, with pop icons such as Diana Ross and Madonna, with politically committed musicians like Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and Steve Earle, and with gangsta rappers, singer-songwriters, boy bands, heavy metal icons, classical tenors, country divas, jazz masters, and critical darlings, as well as with such counterculture icons as Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, William Burroughs, and Cornel West.

I am 52 years old, a "baby boomer" and an "aging hippie." I am also a businessman. I live in New York now, which is where I was born, but for most of the 1980s I lived in Los Angeles, and when I visit there I am still a "Hollywood liberal," working at times with such conservative targets as Norman Lear, Barbra Streisand, and Jane Fonda.

I am an activist as an avocation. Except on issues that pertain to my business, I am certainly no expert. People in the entertainment business who support causes do so primarily as cheerleaders, sometimes as fund-raisers, and occasionally to help frame and transmit messages for their side.

What exactly is "my" side? In previous eras there were more clear-cut definitions of what "left" and "right" were. Today there are dozens of variations. On economic issues I'm a typical liberal. Having run my own businesses and having worked for big corporations, I have a basic belief in capitalism, but I think that government, representing the collective will of the citizens, has a special obligation to balance out the excesses of the marketplace. I wouldn't mind paying higher taxes to have national health care, better paid schoolteachers, smaller class sizes in public schools, and more jobs programs to help get people out of poverty and help average-income people deal with their lives more easily.

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It seems to me that many Western European countries have been better at supporting people on the low end of the economic spectrum than Americans have, and the extent of poverty in America seems immoral to me given our country's wealth. Although I've never been a member of a labor union, I believe they should be stronger. Corporations have so much power that it seems healthier to me for there to be a strong counterweight on behalf of workers. I also think our country should be more generous with foreign aid given the immense poverty around the world.

Conservative rhetoric that implies that private charities can replace government doesn't ring true to me. I know that governments tend to be inefficient, but there are some things that only government can do, such as build highways, protect the environment, provide police protection, etc. The environment is an area where it's particularly important for government to enforce the public interest when it clashes with the economic interest of businesses.

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And by the way, there's plenty of corruption and inefficiency in the business world as well. I'm fascinated by the antiglobalization movement and I suspect that important moral leadership will emerge from there, but I'm not particularly sophisticated about many of the underlying issues.

Although some of the artists I've worked with have been involved with a wide array of issues and I try to read on a variety of topics, my primary interest is American culture and my primary field of activism has been about individual rights. It drives me crazy, for example, that the United States has so many of its citizens in prison, most of them for nonviolent crimes. Many of the people I know both in the business and in the political worlds would have spent time in jail if these laws were enforced against everyone.

I am an ardent civil libertarian and have been an officer of the American Civil Liberties Union since the mid-1980s. The ACLU was started in the 1920s as an advocacy group for the Bill of Rights with special emphasis at that time on the right to unpopular criminal speech in the wake of people who opposed World War I. During World War II the ACLU defended Japanese Americans who were interred by the Roosevelt administration. The ACLU has been involved with many landmark legal cases, including the court decisions that legalized abortion, that banned prayer in public schools, that gave accused criminals the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney, and virtually every case in which the government has attempted censorship of the arts.

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It was the latter area that drew me to the ACLU when the music business was attacked, but I soon found myself enthralled with the organization's deeply idealistic vision of democracy, and it's the one political place where I've been involved as a participant as well as a supporter.

A belief in progressive economic policy doesn't automatically go with a commitment to civil liberties. For example, there are many left-wing Catholics who favor making abortion illegal. There are progressive college professors who favor "speech codes" on campus. There are members of "identity groups" representing the interests of gays and lesbians, feminists, African Americans, Jews, and so on who support boycotts of media offensive to some members of their groups.

I am an absolutist on free speech. I believe strongly in protections for those accused of crimes. I am against the death penalty, I am prochoice, and I am in favor of affirmative action to get racial minorities and women into positions that have been historically closed to them. Having been associated with the ACLU as an officer since the mid-1980s, I am often getting into arguments with progressive friends who disagree with the ACLU on one issue or another, none more than the organization's belief that many campaign finance laws such as McCain-Feingold interfere with freedom of speech. (The ACLU supports complete public financing of political campaigns as the solution to this problem and I agree.) Paradoxically, there are numerous conservative libertarians who agree with the ACLU on these issues but with whom I personally disagree on a wide array of economic issues.

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Similarly, foreign policy in the post-Cold War period does not lend itself to traditional left-right divisions. I don't know much more about foreign policy than what I read in the newspapers, so I'm not inclined at this juncture to give a shopping list of every superficial foreign policy opinion I've ever had, but growing up during the Vietnam War has certainly made me suspicious of convoluted government rationales for military action. However, I am not a pure pacifist and I agree there are rare occasions when killing people with the military is the least bad course of action.

There are millions of people who share this set of beliefs. My lament is that the political culture whose role it is to advance the progressive agenda has grown increasingly elitist, snobbish, and removed from huge chunks of the American people, including most young people. This cloistered retreat is responsible for twenty years of regression for progressive policies after decades of progress during most of the twentieth century. There is no one reason for the disconnect between progressive politics and young people and much of Middle America, but I think that my own experiences in walking between the worlds of politics and entertainment can shed light on some of the neuroses that have made the political left far less popular than the ideas it champions.

Although I've supposedly been in the middle of one, I've always found the phrase "culture war" bizarre, especially as it applies to entertainment. No one ever talks about a culture war in the music business. We talk about "great records" and about "hits." We talk about "artists" and about "fans," and we talk about the ways to connect those two groups: radio, record stores, TV, concerts, press, and recently a lot about the Internet, CD burning, and new economic models. And we talk about how much money everyone risks and everyone makes. We don't think of ourselves as being at war with anybody, except maybe metaphorically with one another. We just want to get our ideas and products out. If people don't like them or want to criticize them, no problem. No one has ever suggested passing a law mandating exposure to dirty movies or rap music or beatnik poetry, nor boycotting retailers that choose not to carry R-rated videos, nor "shaming" people in bow ties who want to return to the culture of the good old days.

Having been a teenager during the Vietnam War, I have connected rock and roll with politics as long as I can remember. By the 1970s, after attaining enough success in the music business to be able to help political causes I believed in, I began by working with rock artists who did benefits for environmental groups. I later got involved in e$orts to prevent a Reagan-era war in Central America. It never occurred to me that the way I made my living would itself become a political issue, but in 1985, when I read of Tipper Gore's efforts to intimidate record companies into instituting a ratings system for lyrics, I felt compelled to defend my colleagues in the music business and the adolescents who loved and helped create the culture that was under attack. Since then, a substantial amount of my activist avocation has focused on the intersection between popular culture and politics.

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This book is a memoir based on fifteen years of experience at that intersection. At every place in the ideological spectrum, from moderate Democrats to movement radicals, again and again, in dozens of different ways, my experience is that the left avoids reaching out to large masses of Americans. For example, as I was finishing this book, journalist Jack Newfield told me he had just had lunch with a senior Democratic campaign advisor whose clients had included Senator Charles Schumer. When Newfield referred to Eminem, whose rap album is by far the most successful recording in the United States this year and is filled with political references, the political maven look puzzled and confessed he had never heard of Eminem. Similarly, I was recently on the phone with one of New York's most progressive congressmen who had never heard of Russell Simmons, the rap producer who has become one of New York's leading black activists.

If one is a classics professor or art critic, there is nothing wrong with having tunnel vision and an aesthetic or philosophy that ignores popular taste and trends. Such independence of thought can be a virtue in those professions. But for the vocation of politics, the goal of which is to move majorities to support policy goals, such parochial myopia is outrageous. Without mass public outreach, politics, especially progressive politics, cannot succeed.

The phrase "culture war" is itself deceptive. It seems to me that several different culture wars have been going at the same time. The "culture war" most commonly described is driven by attacks on popular culture by conservative cultural critics. Cultural conservatives believe that American society reached its moral zenith in the early 1950s. Then a supposedly dreadful decline began with the advent of the beatniks, hitting bottom in the late 1960s with the hippies and the antiwar movement.

One archetypal cultural conservative is Jerry Falwell. After September 11, 2001, Falwell joined fellow conservative Christian Pat Robertson on The 700 Club and blamed gays, feminists, and the ACLU for the tragic attacks in New York and Washington, claiming that left-wing libertines had driven an angry God "to remove his protection from America." Even President George W. Bush criticized Falwell's remark, but there's no denying that Reverend Falwell spoke for a certain constituency that remains part of America's cultural mix.

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Similarly, George Will, Lynne Cheney, Pat Buchanan, William Bennett, Robert Bork, and Norman Podhoretz all talk about a "coarsening" of American culture since the Fifties. Their opposition to pop culture has been perfectly consistent and can be traced back to attacks on early rock and roll and Beat poetry by conservatives in the Fifties, and to Vice President Spiro Agnew's demonization of the Beatles in the sixties.

Cultural conservatives like Bennett claim that high divorce rates, drug addiction, and teen violence are all the result of modern culture. They want a return to the authoritarian America of the 1950s, when the Catholic Church could make books "banned in Boston" and J. Edgar Hoover and the acolytes of Senator Joseph McCarthy could marginalize and terrorize any kind of unorthodox political or cultural thought. Not surprisingly, cultural conservatives frequently bemoan the state of the popular entertainment culture. It was ever thus.

Most of my own battles, however, have been with liberals and Democrats, many of whom I've supported in political campaigns. Starting in the mid-1980s, Democratic politicians and left-wing intellectuals began agreeing with cultural conservatives about the supposedly negative effects of popular culture.

The Democratic party's commitment to culture bashing was exacerbated during the Clinton era and reached a new pinnacle with the national ascendance of Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. But it's not only so-called New Democrats who have embraced attacks on pop culture. So have important voices on the political and academic left, including, at times, Ralph Nader and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

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Most liberal snobs are from my own generation, the so-called baby boomers. Cultural conservatives want their children to grow up like they did; liberal snobs are afraid theirs will. Conservatives attack pop culture going back to the turn of the last century. Liberals will extol the virtues of pop culture well into the Sixties and conveniently claim that "something changed" shortly after they themselves came of age.

Liberal snobs tend to focus on violence and bigotry, cultural conservatives on sex. There are virtually no Democratic voices sticking up for youth culture. Although conservative Christians are a vital part of the national Republican coalition, many Republicans are actually more open-minded on the issue of free speech and pop culture than many Democrats, and I'm not just talking about libertarian conservatives such as P. J. O'Rourke and Ann Coulter. President George W. Bush was seen on magazine covers with U2 lead singer Bono following a meeting about debt relief in the third world, and Bush cracked jokes while welcoming rock/reality-TV star Ozzy Osbourne to a White House dinner. There are no policy implications to any of this, but politically it sends a message that Bush is a "regular guy," whereas Democrats, whose actual agenda is far more relevant to young people, come across as uptight, preachy elitists.

One problem seems to be that many members of my generation, the generation now in power, have a basic resentment toward young people. This is a particularly foolish position for people to the left of center, since no progressive change has ever occurred anywhere in the world without the energy and inspiration of young people, who traditionally have provided the shock troops for the left. Liberal snobs and cultural conservatives alike often are what free speech activist Marjorie Heins calls "metaphorically challenged." Usually educated in law, journalism, political science, or sociology, politicians and pundits spend decades viewing human behavior in a linear, literalistic way. They frequently interpret art and entertainment as if they were devoid of metaphor, humor, irony, or Aristotelian catharsis. Looked at through this lens, neither fairy tales nor Greek tragedies nor classic opera would pass moral muster.

The same snobbery and insensitivity to young people that drives culture bashing has created a Democratic party and a public-interest left whose leaders appear unwilling or unable to communicate with the "unwashed" masses who do not read newspaper op-ed pages or watch public television. This isn't exactly a culture war so much as a disconnect between progressive political leaders and the culture of the people they want to lead.

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By tone-deaf mavens, I mean the self-insulated consultants and pundits who have enormous influence on American politics and who, for the most part, are much more tuned in to other mavens in Washington than to what Americans are really thinking.

Conservatives, who control far more media than left-wingers, are clever enough to promote the spokespeople who have "working class" styles, like talk show propagandists Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. The mystery is why so few progressives do the same cultural homework. The obvious exception is Michael Moore, whose populist style has created an enormous audience for his progressive views despite the media bias.

The fact that academics with radical new ideas no longer reach out to a mass audience was lamented as long ago as 1986 by Russell Jacoby in "The Last Intellectuals." By contrast, he cited Galileo, whose "crime" was not to have revolutionary thoughts about the solar system, but to publish them in colloquial Italian instead of academic Latin. Most progressives today express themselves in language that might as well be Latin. And it's not just Democrats like Al Gore using incomprehensible insider jargon like "Social Security lockbox."

When I interviewed Gary Hart for this book he speculated that American politics was less progressive now because more of the public was "less compassionate" than they had been in the 1960s. If this were so, Republicans would have increased their share of eligible voters. Instead, the big increase has been among nonvoters, and more recently, Nader voters.

If Hart were correct, George W. Bush would not have described himself with the poll-tested phrase "compassionate conservative." The moral lessons of the 1930s and 1960s have been ingrained in the majority of the public. There is a consensus against racism and for fairness. The debate that conservatives have cleverly constructed is not about compassionate goals but about whether or not progressive programs actually work. The failure of progressives has been their inability to explain to average Americans why their particular solutions are better or even how their ideas are different. On the weekend before the 2002 election, the New York Times published the results of a poll of Americans in which they asked people about their sense of the vision of each major political party. Forty-two percent felt that the Republicans "had a clear plan for the country," if they gained control of Congress. Only 31 percent felt that the Democrats did.

Organizations on the far left are even less likely to communicate in the cultural language of mass America. "The left likes to talk to itself," says my old friend David Fenton, whose PR firm Fenton Communications has represented a Who's Who of progressive organizations over the last twenty years, from Greenpeace and Amnesty International to the NAACP Voter Fund.

"The do-good sector," says Fenton, "is filled with wonderful people who don't have business backgrounds. So they haven't had to think about mass audiences and mass communications and affecting mass behavior. I think that there's a cultural antipathy toward the mass market, a cultural alienation from television and other forms of mass communication. "How many groups do you know, who, when you ask them about themselves, will hand you a video?" Fenton adds in frustration. "For young people, videos and computers are the dominant form of communication and it's not like that's a new phenomenon."

Many on the left blame their communication breakdown on the vast sums of money behind right-wing media such as Rupert Murdoch's Fox News or Rush Limbaugh's widely syndicated radio show. But the right wing has always had huge amounts of money and powerful media allies, like Henry Luce and William Randolph Hearst. In ages past, the left wing trumped reactionary media ownership with charismatic and creative populist messages. Bill Clinton had personal charisma, but he used it more for defense against the right wing than for the advancement of pro- gressive issues or for party building. Otherwise, the image of the Democratic party on the national stage for the last few decades has been as dull as dishwater. Jack Newfield asked me rhetorically, "How did we get these fucking zombies as our candidates? If you put Mondale, Dukakis, and Gore next to each other, they couldn't utter an interesting sentence between the three of them."

A big part of the problem for Democrats is that they keep narrowing the spectrum of political debate, fearful of alienating anyone. In 2000, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg urged Democrats to run a campaign stressing moral and religious values, because he said that the Monica Lewinsky scandal had "again associated Democrats with Sixties-style irresponsibility." This argument ignored poll after poll showing that most Americans were not as offended as Washington pols and pundits by Clinton's sexual misconduct. This sort of advice helped persuade Al Gore to choose culturally conservative moralist Joe Lieberman as his running mate, and to run a shambles of a campaign that reduced the Democratic margin of young voters (ages eighteen to twenty-four) from 19 percent in 1996 to zero in 2000. It was as if the Democrats had written off the young vote, so important to them in the past. Because of the shibboleth that "young people don't vote," younger voters are rarely included in the focus groups that drive campaigns. This has created a vicious cycle of self-destructive thinking by the Democrats: Young people don't vote, so don't bother with issues and techniques that might attract young votes.

In 2002, the experts hired by Democratic politicians told them to focus on the need for affordable prescription drugs. This is certainly a morally and politically viable issue. But it is not the only such issue. Prescription drugs are particularly important to older voters and less important to younger ones. The mavens didn't see any need for Democrats to have an issue that mattered to young people. The same mavens told Democrats not to criticize President Bush after September 11. This certainly made moral and political sense for the first month or two. But the Washington geniuses extended their noncriticism of Bush for fourteen months, until the 2002 election. There was no fierce scrutiny of the systemic breakdowns that allowed the September 11 attack to happen, nor criticisms, nor call for resignation of any senior or junior staff in any security agency, nor any vocal Democratic calls for greater funding of security of harbors, train stations, and so on. Most notably, there was barely criticism of Bush's radical shift in American foreign policy.

Another vicious cycle was created. Bush gains popularity as a figurehead after a national tragedy. Democrats don't criticize him for fourteen months. Bush, uncriticized and unchallenged, remains popular. Bush uses that popularity to defeat Democrats. It's not just the loss of younger voters that should concern Democrats, it's the loss of youthful energy and innovationthe loss of teen spirit, embodied in a popular culture that almost inevitably is created by the young and then spreads into the rest of the population. It wasn't just voters from ages 18 to 24 who were turned off by the sanctimonious yet wishy-washy Gore-Lieberman campaign. Millions of Americans who believe in free speech and who want universal health care and gun control and higher public teacher salaries and tougher environmental regulations were not convinced that the Democrats agreed with them, because the party's message was so cautious and muted and clumsily presented.

Given the intricacies of public policy, it seems trivial to some of my political friends that I spend so much time and energy worrying about "packaging" instead of "substance." But in a democracy, politics without communication is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest without a witness. The unseen and unheard message might as well not exist.

During most of American history, liberals and progressives understood how to communicate with average people through popular culture. The legendary American radical Emma Goldman once said, "I don't want to be a part of any revolution I can't dance to." Harriet Beecher Stowe's melodramatic popular novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of the catalysts that galvanized Northern white support for the opposition to slavery. Lincoln, upon meeting the diminutive novelist, is supposed to have said, "So you're the little lady who started the big war." Upton Sinclair's muckraking novels helped launch reforms of factory conditions. Woody Guthrie's music was intertwined with the growth of American labor unions.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the architect of modern liberalism, calmed American fears after the Great Depression and sold his New Deal program through his mastery of a relatively new medium, the radio, with his fireside chats. John Kennedy was elected in large part because of his mastery of another relatively new medium of popular culture, television, and his popularity soared as a result of his casual, youthful energy, his sense of fashion, and his relaxed and witty televised press conferences.

Martin Luther King was a master of media strategy as well as the most compelling orator of the second half of the twentieth century. King knew exactly how Bull Conner's police dogs attacking children in Alabama would play on television and prick the conscience of mainstream America. At the March on Washington in 1963, King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech followed performances by Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez.

It is impossible to imagine the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the protests against the war in Vietnam, the environmental movement, the women's movement, and the struggle for gay and lesbian rights without the powerful catalysts provided by the energy and inspiration of the young and their popular culture. The Democratic party and the left will either heed that message or find themselves doomed to more decades of cultural victories and political defeats.

Excerpted from the book "Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit" (Miramax Books). Reprinted by permission.


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