South Park Conservatives by Brian Anderson

Book titles are tricky things. Editors and publishers want to sell books; grab the potential buyer’s attention. Authors and readers prefer a title that accurately reflects the content of the book. Perhaps, I am in danger of over-generalization, but this strikes me as the usual state of affairs. Why do I bring this up? I have once again encountered a book whose title is a less than perfect description of the content of the book (see here for another example).

Brian Anderson’s South Park Conservatives is less an exploration of the conservatism of fans of the popular Comedy Central show than a look at the ways in which an ossified and politically correct elite has turned off large segments of the population. Given the media’s tendency to call anyone who isn’t fully comfortable with the left’s entire (multicultural, politically correct, secular, and largely socialist) program a conservative, I guess it isn’t surprising that we can have “South Park Conservatives.” But for those looking for a deeper analysis of how this anti-liberalism equals conservatism, or how young people today are conservative in different ways than previous generations, Anderson raises more questions than answers.

No, what Anderson really explores is the changing media and political landscape that has developed as modern liberalism has hardened into a shallow, stuffy, and easily offended caricature of itself. The mainstream media, having been captured by this ossified liberalism, has seen its power and influence wan as alternatives have sprung up and grabbed market share. Those swarming to these alternative mediums, however, are hard to coral into any intellectually coherent box, hence the struggle with “South Park Conservatism.”

Anderson, Senior Editor of City Journal, is a skilled writer and South Park Conservatives is an easy and enjoyable read. If you are not a regular reader of conservative opinion, or a denizen of the Blogosphere, much of what he lays out will be of interest. But this philosophical conundrum weakens the book, if not fatally.

Weaving together ideas and themes from his City Journals articles (see here and here) Anderson describes the rise of alternative media like talk radio, Fox News, the rise of conservative book publishing, and the Blogosphere contrasting them with what he calls Illiberal Liberalism. This liberalism avoids debate and engagement and instead relies on invective and demagoguery; calling everyone outside their ideologically pure lines as racist, homophobic, sexist, etc.

Those not comfortable with this stifling rigidity find themselves in opposition to elite liberalism and categorized as conservative; or at least right-leaning. In a central chapter Anderson focuses on the South Park contingent of this group of anti-liberals. The vulgar animated Comedy Central show is the hook, but Anderson also discusses stand up comics like Collin Quinn and other forms of satire. Most of what is on display here is an insistent anti-PC attitude and a sort of populism that sees no reason to respect or listen to the mandarins of elite liberalism anymore.

Andrew Sullivan, who coined the term, described “South Park Republicans” as people who “believe we need a hard-ass foreign policy and are extremely skeptical of political correctness.” Sullivan also noted that they are also socially liberal on certain issues. In a recent interview, Anderson spoke in similar terms: “a kind of irreverent post-liberal or anti-liberal attitude or sensibility, one very in tune with popular culture. But it’s not a coherent, fully developed political philosophy.” But if you dig very deep you find little beyond a desire to not be seen as a geek. One student quoted in the book accepted the South Park label gratefully:

The label is really about rejecting the image of conservatives as up tight squares – crusty old men or nerdy kids in blue blazers. We might have long hair, smoke cigarettes, get drunk on weekends, have sex before marriage, watch R-rated movies, cuss like sailors – and also happen to be conservative, or at least libertarian.

This is a “conservatism” defined in more ways than one by what it is not.

Anderson explores this further in a chapter entitled Campus Conservatives Rising. Looking at the data and interviewing students across the country Anderson concludes that college students are moving rightward but in idiosyncratic ways. They are very in touch with and comfortable in popular culture and yet pro-life and supportive of the war in Iraq. They are anti-PC yet more tolerant of homosexuals than their elders; comfortable with civil unions and not necessarily constitutional amendments banning homosexual marriage. But again, what seems to unify these ideas is a rebellion against what is seen as a dominant and stagnant liberalism.

It is hard to judge what all this adds up to in the end. It is in many ways an interesting and well written synopsis of another chapter in the “Rise of the Right.” Despite the shrieks on the left, talk radio, Fox News, and other alternatives to mainstream media are no longer fringe activities but normal for a growing chunk of the population. Anderson succinctly and fairly rebuts this lefty hysteria. Likewise, Anderson’s description of those seemingly caught between a stale liberalism and a more traditional conservatism also makes for interesting discussion. In a vein similar to David Brooks, Anderson is a sort of journalist as popular historian and sociologist.

But what seems to be lacking is any attempt to dig deeper or explore the tensions involved. Anderson doesn’t define conservatism except in opposition to Illiberal Liberalism. He admits that many conservatives reject South Park as vulgar and demeaning but insists that since the show skewers liberalism it must be on the right. What of classical liberalism or libertarianism? There is no clear indication that all of these alternative mediums capture the same group. Is a Limbaugh fan necessarily a South Park Conservative? What about fans of Bill O’Reilly? Is opposition to liberalism all that unites these disparate people? What about people who love South Park but hate Limbaugh? For those familiar with the ground Anderson covers he raises more questions than he answers.

As I stated above, Anderson is a skilled writer who weaves his anecdotes and ideas smoothly into a short and readable story. But I am convinced that a man of Anderson’s intelligence and skill could have given us more. Admittedly these questions lack easy answers and exploring them might have detracted from the book’s breezy style, but it would have added a satisfying seriousness in my opinion.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).