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Conservative 'Sleeper Agents' in Hollywood? The Right Wing's New War for Culture

The new conservative mediamakers are shedding the baggage of culture war hangups, freeing up energy to infiltrate culture industries and attack the left.

“You looking for Hollywood? Come on in!”

I walked into a small but packed room at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) for a primer on entering show business stage right. It was the panel’s second year at the annual convention, and the young people gathered were planning to skip the D.C. internships and look for jobs in film, music and television.

The movement is shifting away from the outright opposition to popular culture that defined the culture wars of the 1990s. They have embraced a two-pronged strategy to get their message out: making their own films and music, and using Tea Party or church networks to distribute them; and working inside the mainstream entertainment industry to release films and other products with movement themes into the mass market.

The prospect of political action and personal fame proves alluring for a generation where online celebrity meshes easily with real-world political power. A young man canvassed the room--“who does video?”--saying that he helps young videographers plug into local campaigns as he passed out his business card. Young men discussed their Twitter feeds, and two others tried to understand Obama through the prism of Star Wars.

Larry O’Connor, editor-in-chief at Andrew Breitbart’s Breitbart.tv (of ACORN and Shirley Sherrod political character assassination fame), delivered an insider account. Before coming to the right-wing web-o-sphere, O’Connor worked as a production manager on Broadway and in Los Angeles. Wearing square-frame glasses, with untucked dress shirt, jacket, and jeans, salt and pepper stubble, and a proclivity to strike a sardonic tone, I would have easily mistaken him for a liberal.

“If you’re thinking about coming to Washington to be in politics or you’re thinking of working for some congressperson and be their aide,” an animated O’Connor told the room, “there are a hell of a lot of people who can do that already...We need conservatives in Hollywood...The culture and what happens in Hollywood and in the entertainment industry is a driving factor for what happens in our country and, frankly, for what happens in Washington.”

“Politics is downstream of popular culture,” moderator Kevin McKeever chimed in. “That’s one of the reasons why we do this panel.”

Presenters encouraged the eager young attendees to paddle upstream. One suggested that young conservatives become “sleeper agents” in the entertainment world: establish yourself doing high quality but conventional work as an actor, agent or producer. Keep quiet on politics until you have established influence and power.

Remarkably, John Nolte, editor-in-chief of Big Hollywood (another Breitbart enterprise), pointed to the gay rights movement as an example of the power of (what conservatives tend to call) “the culture.”

“Look at the issue of gay marriage,” he said, arguing that it was an important case study whatever your position was. (This was itself supporting evidence for his argument, as his comments reflected an important shift: gay rights have become a seriously contested issue at CPAC and throughout the conservative movement.) “Look how far we’ve come on gay marriage in 10 years. In the '90s, we were saying ‘are we gonna' do civil unions, are we okay with that as a country?’ Now we’re one vote away probably from legalizing gay marriage throughout the country. And that’s not politics. That’s the culture. That’s television, and movies, and music changing the way we think, and changing what we believe.”

The new conservative film movement has two main currents: the political documentary and the Christian moral narrative. Fahrenheit 9/11 was a wake-up call for right-wing documentarians eager to match the power of progressive documentary. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ sent the opposite message to conservatives and to Hollywood at large: we have a market.