Andrew Breitbart‘s insight that “politics is downstream from culture” is usually treated by right-of-center activists as a form of cocktail banter rather than as a key strategy in effectuating societal change. Breitbart’s observation came to my mind after I had read contributing New Republic editor Tim Wu‘s article “Netflix’s War On Mass Culture” published in December, 2013. The gist of Wu’s article is that the radical changes in the traditional media business model as exemplified by the rise of Netflix will have an as-yet-not-quite-understandable impact on America’s culture:
History has shown that minor changes in viewing patterns can have enormous cultural spillovers. CNN can average as few as 400,000 viewers at any given moment-but imagine what the country might be like if cable news had never come along. Netflix’s gambit, aped by Amazon Studios and other imitators, is to replace the traditional TV model with one dictated by the behaviors and values of the Internet generation. Instead of feeding a collective identity with broadly appealing content, the streamers imagine a culture united by shared tastes rather than arbitrary time slots. Pursuing a strategy that runs counter to many of Hollywood’s most deep-seated hierarchies and norms, Netflix seeks nothing less than to reprogram Americans themselves. What will happen to our mass culture if it succeeds?
Wu points out that new technologies at the dawn of the Twentieth Century were viewed by both corporatists & socialists as an important tool not only in controlling the masses but in molding their sense of a common cultural identity:
The National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) pioneered our understanding of what the concept means back in 1926, when it partnered with AT&T to create the first lasting national broadcast network. Until then, American home entertainment had been necessarily local-radio stations, technologically, only reached their host city or community. The founding idea of NBC was to offer a single, higher-quality product to the whole country. It was an idea of a piece with the late 1920s and 1930s, before fascism became unfashionable and nationalism was all the rage. A mighty and unifying medium fit with an era during which Fortune would praise Benito Mussolini as presenting “the virtue of force and centralized government acting without conflict for the whole nation at once.” The national network was an effective way to put people on a common daily cultural diet.
The advent of even newer technologies today have threatened the stranglehold that Big Media has over the country. The GOP as a group is (as usual) oblivious to the implications of this tectonic shift. Democrats, however, not only understand the impact but have fought among themselves over how to deal with a change that could affect them culturally, economically, & politically. That’s why the fight between Democrats over issues such as “net neutrality” or SOPA are fraught with significance. SOPA in particular for Democrats is a war between Hollywood liberals & Silicon Valley liberals. The divide on this issue is no less heated in the Republican Party between the party’s corporate wing & its neo-libertarian wing but the issue isn’t as pronounced for Republicans as it is for Democrats simply because the GOP doesn’t have as strong a presence (or as strong an interest) in the power struggles between Hollywood & Silicon Valley.
But the Democrats – both the New Left & The Old Left – have a better grasp of the implications that will spring from the changing media landscape. Both factions have sought to adapt themselves in order to preserve their respective economic & political perks. Conflict between content providers & content distributors will occur with greater frequency.
The GOP should wake up & take advantage of the coming societal change that will in the long run benefit the party’s philosophy. If America’s culture & economics becomes more decentralized, why should its politics remain unaffected by such a change in paradigm? And while Democrats fight among themselves to either resist or adapt to the forces of decentralization, shouldn’t the GOP – at both the national & state level – embrace this mega-trend in such a way that its “progressiveness” as the party of the “conservative liberals” distinguishes itself from those “radical liberal” Democrats who, with their obsessive need to be in control over everything (from what we eat to which god we worship), will be viewed increasingly by the public as profoundly reactionary – if not profoundly anti-American?
Whether a future based fundamentally on fandom is superior in any objective sense is impossible to say. But it’s worth keeping in mind that the whole idea of one great entertainment medium that unites the country isn’t really that old a tradition, particularly American, nor necessarily noble. We may come to remember it as a twentieth-century quirk, born of particular business models and an obsession with national unity indelibly tied to darker projects. The whole ideal of “forging one people” is not entirely benevolent and has always been at odds with a country meant to be the home of the free.
Certainly, a culture where niche supplants mass hews closer to the original vision of the Americas, of a new continent truly open to whatever diverse and eccentric groups showed up. The United States was once, almost by definition, a place without a dominant national identity. As it revolutionizes television, Netflix is merely helping to return us to that past.