In the Age of Obama, many conservatives are consoling themselves with this thought: Conservatism wins on the issues. Polls show majorities of Americans want less government and fewer and lower taxes; they want leaders who will stand up to our enemies; they are skeptical about the science of global warming; they want public policy to show respect for human life at all stages, and, yes, most Americans still believe marriage should remain between a man and a woman.
A Gallup poll this week showed 40 percent of Americans interviewed describe their political views as conservative, while just 21 percent self identify as liberal. Though conservative values remain popular among Americans overall, they have never been embraced by the popular culture. Hollywood, the music industry, sports and the fashion world are all overwhelmingly liberal. In these sectors of American society, conservative positions almost always lose.
These realities make the recent Sarah Palin-David Letterman dust-up quite interesting. For decades conservatives have engaged the popular culture at their peril. Whenever conservatives pushed back against the excesses of the pop culture, they risked getting labeled bigoted, ignorant or, worst of all, prudish. But Sarah Palin has proved that conservatives can fight the pop culture and win. That’s because while many Americans consume the entertainment of people like David Letterman, they embrace the values of people like Sarah Palin.
The controversy surrounds comments made more than a week ago by the "Late Show" host. Letterman joked that Palin, who was in New York City to attend an autism event, had bought makeup from Bloomingdale’s to update her “slutty flight attendant” look. He later added that Palin had attended a New York Yankees baseball game, and that during the seventh inning stretch Palin’s daughter had been “knocked up” by Yankees’ libidinous third baseman Alex Rodriguez. Letterman claims he was referring to Palin’s 18-year-old daughter, Bristol, but only Palin’s 14-year-old daughter, Willow, attended the game with her mother. So Letterman ended up joking about statutory rape.
Initially, Letterman did not apologize. While jokes that sexualize kids are “crude, sexist, perverted,” as Palin stated in response to Letterman, they have sadly become a comedic staple. Watch the most popular comedians and you’ll find many jokes are intended to humiliate, demean and tear down. Throw in some disgusting sexual references and you have a perfect recipe for big laughs in today’s popular culture. And if the target of the comedian’s demeaning sexual jokes is a conservative politician, so much the better. There is an obvious double standard. What would have happened had Letterman made the same joke about Barack Obama and his family? We know. Letterman would have been forced into early retirement, and perhaps prosecuted under some “hate crimes” statute.
Letterman then offered a snarky non-apology apology in which he insisted he had meant to suggest that Bristol, not Willow, had been “knocked up” by A-Rod. While there is a significant legal difference, only according to our cultural elites could the addition of four years transform a beyond-the-pale insinuation into an acceptable punch-line. The target of his cruel insinuations remained a young girl who, through no fault of her own, is the daughter of a political figure.Finally, after a week, Letterman offered something closer to a legitimate apology, which Palin graciously accepted.
I doubt Letterman would have apologized had he not been forced to do so. But his jokes caused a huge backlash among his viewers, some of whom formed a campaign to urge CBS to fire him. Viewers were so irate that one "Late Show" advertiser pulled its sponsorship. Letterman was slammed by women’s groups across the ideological spectrum. Even the National Organization for Women denounced him for “snicker[ing] about men having sex with teenage girls (or women) less than half their age…”Despite the strong backlash, some conservatives argued that Palin was wrong to call out Letterman for his outrageous remarks. One commentator predicted that critiques of Letterman would lead to a form of censorship, while a former GOP advisor said going after Letterman made Republicans look small, and insisted the entire episode was a “win-win for Letterman.” Letterman has enjoyed a temporary ratings boost, but there’s deeper meaning in the incident.
The cultural left lampoons Palin because her values and life are completely foreign to them. They find it bizarre that she hunts, prays and says things like “you betcha.’” They can’t fathom that she brought a child with Down syndrome to term and that she didn’t pressure her daughter into aborting an unexpected pregnancy. Letterman may not know anyone who would vote for Palin or a family that looks like hers. But his Palin joke backfired in part because scores of millions of Americans are living lives that more closely resemble Palin’s life than Letterman’s. Like Palin, they pray in churches, hunt and fish and raise imperfect families with unconditional love. They are more than uneasy about the culture’s sexualization of children and its infantilization of adults.
The cultural left mocks Palin’s values, but its taunts often fail to gain traction, because Palin’s politics and principles are much more main-stream than those of her critics. Sarah Palin is a false target for the popular culture. It can’t resist the temptation to ridicule and lampoon her, but she offers too much common sense and inspiration to make for good jokes. In the Age of Obama, pop culture elites may be excused for their over-the-top bashing of conservatives. Liberals have always controlled the popular culture, and now they control government too. They probably assume most of the country has shifted leftward and come round to their view of the world. But it hasn’t. Just ask David Letterman.
Former presidential candidate Mr. Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.