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Friday, March 22, 2019

This week, Weekend Reader brings you an excerpt from Hollywood Left And Rightby film historian Steven J. Ross. Recently, there has been a consistent relationship between mainstream politics and the entertainment industry — movies like Argo and Lincoln can attract large audiences because Hollywood films have made historical political figures and events so accessible. Celebrities influence politics like never before — between Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s fundraising for President Obama, Ted Nugent and Clint Eastwood promoting the Republican Party, P.Diddy and Russell Simmons advocating for Rock the Vote, and Ashley Judd considering a run at a U.S. Senate seat, entertainers have pretty much infiltrated the political scene. Hollywood Left and Right provides an engaging and historical look at the courtship of D.C. and Hollywood, politician and celebrity.

You can purchase the book here.

Introduction: Movie Stars And Politics

Political Hollywood started much earlier than most people realize. In 1918, FBI leaders William J. Burns and J. Edgar Hoover were so worried about the power of movie stars to affect the political consciousness of a nation that they ordered secret agents to maintain close surveillance over suspected Hollywood radicals. Four years later, Bureau agents confirmed their worst fears. “Numerous movie stars,” they reported, were taking “an active part in the Red movement in this country” and were hatching a plan to circulate “Communist propaganda . . . via the movies.” The Cold War politicians who launched the Red Scare’s infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s also feared the power of movie stars to alter the way people thought and acted. They understood that movie audiences were also voters, and they asked themselves: Who would people be more likely to listen to: drab politicians or glamorous stars? What if left-leaning celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, and Edward G. Robinson used their star appeal to promote radical causes, especially Communist causes?

Such fears about radicalism in the movie industry reflect long-standing conventional wisdom that Hollywood has always been a bastion of the political left. Conventional wisdom, however, is wrong on two counts. First, Hollywood has a longer history of conservatism than liberalism. It was the Republican Party, not the Democratic Party, that established the first political beachhead in Hollywood. Second, and far more surprising, although the Hollywood left has been more numerous and visible, the Hollywood right—led by Louis B. Mayer, George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, and Arnold Schwarzenegger—has had a greater impact on American political life. The Hollywood left has been more effective in publicizing and raising funds for various causes. But if we ask who has done more to change the American government, the answer is the Hollywood right. The Hollywood left has the political glitz, but the Hollywood right sought, won, and exercised electoral power.

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Can such a counterintuitive argument really be true? What did the Hollywood right achieve to merit such a claim? There have been two foundational changes in twentieth-century U.S. politics. The first was the creation of a welfare state under Franklin D. Roosevelt, a development that established a new relationship between government and the governed and crystallized differences among conservatives, liberals, and radicals. The second was the gradual dismantling of the welfare state that began under a movie star, Ronald Reagan. The conservative revolution of the 1980s could not have happened without the groundwork laid by Louis B. Mayer, his protégé George Murphy, and his protégé Ronald Reagan.

Although movie industry conservatives began wielding power in the 1920s, the Hollywood right did not emerge as a major force in American politics until after the postwar era. Once they did, their impact was tremendous. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Murphy and Reagan used their fame, charm, and communication skills to help build an insurgent grassroots constituency by speaking to conservative groups throughout the nation. The two stars articulated an ideological agenda that called for dismantling the New Deal, returning power to the state and local levels, reducing taxes, and waging war against all foes of American security—Communists in particular. During the mid-1960s, the two former stars designed innovative campaign strategies that drew on their experiences as actors to accomplish what more established politicians like the prickly Barry Goldwater could not do: sell conservatism to a wide range of previously skeptical voters. By making conservatism palatable, Murphy and Reagan helped make the conservative revolution possible.

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3 responses to “Weekend Reader: Hollywood Left And Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics

  1. Allan Richardson says:

    I have observed that Hollywood people who have PRIMARILY portrayed characters who were SUCCESSFUL and NEVER got into a position of powerlessness, such as Charlton Heston (played Moses), John Wayne (played cowboy heroes and Marines at war), Ronald Reagan (Knute Rockne), tend to become conservative in their politics, since their choice of roles never challenged the assumption that self-reliance ALWAYS produces success and America NEVER persecuted anybody. In contrast, actors who have played POWERLESS characters, even those whose stories ENDED happily, have tended to understand the struggles that people, even those IN the power structure, have to fight AGAINST the power structure: actors such as Tom Hanks (played Forrest Gump, a delivery courier stranded on an island, a gay lawyer with AIDS — I bet Heston wouldn’t touch THAT role with a ten foot pole), Will Smith (played a homeless single father with a son, trying to enter and finish business school without an address). If anyone has some more examples, please post them; since actors have to empathize with their characters, and some characters (at least in SERIOUS movies) suffer things the average person never would suffer, there must be some emotional impact.

  2. FredAppell says:

    I hope this article has it all wrong. I worry when I look at the state of the entertainment
    industry these days. There’s a lot of morons in the industry and the thought of the general public taking their cues from these people is too frightening to contemplate.
    Don’t get me wrong, there are a few good ones out there that stay far away from the industry culture and they may even try to bring attention to some worthwhile causes
    that don’t require a Left vs. Right debate but there are also quite a few loonies who receive far too much attention from the general public. The entertainment business
    has been force feeding mediocrity on us far too long and it reflects heavily in many

  3. Cal says:

    It’s true that more Hollywood conservatives have had visible political power and position (Reagan, Sonny Bono, Clint Eastwood, Heston), but Hollywood has always pushed liberal ideas and made them mainstream. “Will & Grace,” “Philadelphia,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Roseanne,” every movie and TV show in the last 20 years showing the person in charge (including the President) being black. The list goes on of the most influential shows pushing progressive ideas and helping shape American culture before these things were common and accepted. The ones that try to push more conservative ideas usually don’t do as well. Especially on TV.

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