As far as Hollywood, Netflix and the American cultural establishment are concerned there is little point in taking conservatives seriously. They are seen and represented as basically hillbillies and rednecks who feed on a diet of kitsch and trashy reality shows. That is why they don’t know what to make of Yellowstone – one of the most watched cable series in the US. Even the most bitter critic of conservative values cannot dismiss Yellowstone as trash. TV Guide refers to it as “prestige TV for conservatives” before adding that “prestige TV is for liberals”. TV Guide’s commentator correctly notes that “in the genre of conservative prestige drama, Yellowstone is almost alone”. That’s because Hollywood patronises conservatives to the point it seriously believes that conservatives lack the taste and artistic sensibility to appreciate prestige drama.
In the main, cultural critics have responded to Yellowstone by not responding to it. Since they are not interested in engaging with people who are not like them, they have ignored a program watched by tens of millions. Writing in Vanity Fair, one commentator wrote “Here’s to Yellowstone, the Most-Watched Show Everyone Isn’t Talking About”. The few critics that have bothered to review it can barely hide the contempt for a modern Western that extols traditional virtues and avoids the woke cliches much loved by Hollywood.
Writer Kathryn Van Arendonk was seething with anger when she described the show as “a desperate and threatened appeal to American identity and white masculinity”. She acknowledges that she feels anger towards John Dutton, the main character in the show played by Kevin Costner, since he is “so blind to his privilege”.
That Yellowstone has become caught up in America’s culture war was acknowledged by The New York Times this week. One of its commentators, Tressie McMillan Cotton, noted “while liberal audiences mostly ignore it, this soapy conservative prestige television juggernaut is gobbling up audience share”. In an attempt to account for the culturally polarised reception to this show, she drew on academic expertise. As one expects, her expert, Clayton Rawlings, asserted that conservatives are narrow-minded people with limited cultural interests. He added that in contrast to liberals, “conservative audiences do not consider reading, watching or listening around a mark of status or identity”. Evidently prestige television is not for them.
Tragically, McMillan Cotton, like America’s cultural oligarchy, cannot maintain a distinction between art and politics. She treats Yellowstone as if it is a political advert for the Republican Party. She warns that the “show shares a problem with Republican Party electoral politics: Neither offers a compelling vision of the future”. Almost imperceptibly, the fictional characters in a television drama are denounced for their lack of political vision. From her perspective the conservative folk who inhabit Yellowstone are just as bad as the ones that vote Republican. “They buy guns and hoard stolen power” is her concluding remark.
The cultural establishment that dominates the media landscape in the Anglo-American world actually believes conservatives are both aesthetically and morally inferior to people like them. In their fantasy world, the people not like them are in search of simplistic black-and-white answers. In private conversation they refer to people who watch Yellowstone as rednecks, Nascar dads, tabloid readers, who are likely to be crass, materialistic simplistic, sexist, racist and homophobic.
That is why Hollywood, Netflix and the television media tend to portray conservatives as unpleasant and not very nice people. Like Mr Garrison in South Park, they are not only small-minded and racist but are psychologically messed up. In typical conservative fashion, he refuses to acknowledge his emotional and psychological issues. Like many other fictional conservative characters, Mr Garrison is in denial.
Homer Simpson is a blue-collar conservative. Therefore, the producers of The Simpsons felt obliged to portray him as a bumbling and insensitive husband and father, who over the years has turned into a self-aggrandising fool. Fortunately, Homer’s psychological deficits are compensated for by his daughter, Lisa, who because she is very liberal must be portrayed as sensitive and emotionally literate.
The media is particularly unkind to conservative women. The abusive mother Adora Crellin in miniseries Sharp Objects is one of the most repulsive characters you are likely to encounter on your screen. She is cast in the role of a small-town, Southern conservative woman, whose Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome has led her to poison and kill daughter Marian.
But it is Sue Sylvester in Glee who more than anyone else offers an over-the-top caricature of a right-wing conservative woman. Her authoritarian personality coexists with a profound sense of personal insecurity and unrestrained narcissism. She exudes malice. That she calls for the abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts, one of the left’s favourite federal arts agency, signals that her politics are not only wrong but also sick.
As far as media culture is concerned, conservatives possess unattractive psychological characteristics. Typically, conservatives are portrayed as mediocre and undistinguished characters who possess outdated and often, repulsive sentiments. Predictably, woke media culture can draw on academic experts, particularly psychologists, to reinforce its anti-conservative prejudice.
If the numerous research papers recently published in psychology journals are to be believed, conservatives are sexually repressed, lacking in empathy and intensely conformist.
The invention of the unimaginative, humourless and intellectually challenged conservative originates from the 19th century. At the time, JS Mill, the 19th-century liberal philosopher, described the Conservative party as “the stupid party”.
He took great delight when he went a step further and stated that his attribution of intellectual inferiority was not merely directed at the party but also at people who possessed a conservative outlook. When criticised for his remark, Mill replied that “I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative”.
In recent decades, Mill’s verdict about the inferiority of conservatives has been recast in the language of psychology. Numerous so-called studies have published research purporting to prove the intellectual inferiority of conservative people. An example of this form of tendentious research is the study published by two Canadian academics a decade ago. Titled “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact”, it suggests that stupid simpletons go on to become prejudiced right-wingers.
Some psychologists claim their research shows that socially conservative people feel more insecure than liberal. Others have discovered that liberals are far better at reorganising their thoughts in flexible ways than conservatives. Advocacy research claims to have discovered that “religious conservatives make poorer moral decisions than liberals”.
Some psychological studies have concluded liberals and conservatives differ in cognitive style. As you would expect, liberal cognitive styles are far more attractive than those of their conservative peers. “Liberals are more flexible, and tolerant of complexity and novelty, whereas conservatives are more rigid, are more resistant to change, and prefer clear answers,” argues one paper. Liberals also possess greater “neurocognitive sensitivity” to cues than their far more rigid conservative counterparts.
The representation of conservatives as less intelligent than their left-wing counterparts is frequently communicated by “research” on the so-called conservative syndrome. The flattering hypothesis of this syndrome is that conservatism and low cognitive ability are directly correlated.
A commentator in progressive magazine Mother Jones wrote in 2014, that “10 years ago, it was wildly controversial to talk about psychological differences between liberals and conservatives. Today, it’s becoming hard not to”. As it happens Hollywood has been talking about this for a very long time. Through its alliance with advocacy research, it has succeeded in constructing a stereotype that deprives conservatives of any redeeming features. That is why it has to either ignore or lay into Yellowstone.
Frank Furedi’s The Road to Ukraine: How The West Lost Its Way will be published by De Gruyter next month
1/ Kevin Costner stars in the TV series Yellowstone. Picture: Supplied
2/ Homer Simpson at an all-you-can eat buffet.
3/ Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester in Glee.
The novels of CJ Box are another example of underappreciated conservative popular culture