SOLOMON: Foiled Conservatives

Many conservative politicians and pundits are now struggling with disappointment. Some can't understand why voters confounded expectations and refused to move the country rightward. But the election results might seem less mysterious after pondering why the new movie "Pleasantville" has resonated with audiences across America.In state after state, the Republican candidates who lost on Election Day had devoted much of the campaign to calling for a return to American values that once reigned supreme. Seeking the biggest electoral prize of the year, the GOP's nominee for governor of California began the final debate with his Democratic foe by invoking -- in reverential tones -- the name and legacy of Ronald Reagan.That provides a big clue as to why so many hard-line conservatives faded from contention this fall. The Reagan era was fashioned by strategists who consciously worked to blot out "the '60s" while harkening back to the 1950s. And when Republicans got control of Congress four years ago, the power shift put Capitol Hill under the control of politicians who yearn -- vocally -- for a return to those good old days.Instead of just stoking the visceral fires of their base camps, the GOP leadership could have gained some insight by spending a few bucks and a couple of hours at a movie theater."Pleasantville" is a brilliant deconstruction of '50s nostalgia in a present-day context. When the two epochs collide, the nice defenders of timeworn images turn nasty -- demanding that women remain submissive, ripping up art deemed smutty, burning offensive books and proclaiming that the world must be seen in black and white.Despite all the proclamations of certainty, sacred purpose and patriotic faith, the real world of America in 1998 is brimming with ambiguity and diversity. We may inhabit the same continent, but our experiences and perspectives vary widely. Tributaries of humanity -- from across borders and from people's inner lives -- keep spilling beyond every attempt at containment.Around the country, from the Deep South to the Southern California congressional district where gay-basher and immigrant- baiter Robert Dornan went down to defeat, some leading conservatives could not construct their barricades high enough to prevail.After Republican hopes for gains on Nov. 3 were dashed, Newt Gingrich declared that the news media had impeded his party. The speaker's bid to scapegoat the media was absurd. The national press corps snipes at -- and flacks for -- both major parties in roughly equal measure.But the Republican Party has been at a disadvantage in recent years to the extent that mass media -- and our society as a whole -- have become less tolerant of white-bread cultural rigidity and outright bigotry. Slowly, media outlets are turning away from the confined gender roles, anti-gay straitjackets and racial prejudices of the past.We have a very long way to go. Corrosive biases still infuse much of what passes for news and entertainment. But efforts for women's liberation, the gay rights movement, the ongoing struggle for civil rights and the broadening flow of immigration have positively affected what we see, hear and read every day. More and more Americans realize that those previously viewed as "the other" are -- sometimes literally -- our sisters and brothers.Meanwhile, with varying degrees of subtlety, the Republican Party continues to rely on traditional prejudices to help fuel its political engines. But the latest election indicates that quite a few right-wing politicians are running out of gas.In a two-party system that functions under the umbrella of one big corporate system, the illusions of politics are binary. Although many Americans were gleeful to see GOP standard-bearers stumble, there is no reason to be smug. If the Democratic Party's leaders are less odious than their Republican counterparts, that is faint praise indeed.As it happens, the Clinton adminstration -- while promoting a modicum of social diversity -- has embraced conservative economic policies with a vengeance. At the White House, the rich can bank on loyalty, and the poor can depend on indifference. But as always, a lot of pleasant stories are available.

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