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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Curious Case of Culture11

If traditional print media are watching a disaster unfold, then it’s safe to say that conservative media are feeling the first tremors of their own looming crisis.
Sure, Rush Limbaugh — newly re-elevated by his fight with the Obama White House — claims that his numbers are better than ever.

The dirty little secret of conservative talk radio is that the average age of listeners is 67 and rising.

It’s no different on television — the average age for viewers of Fox News is also somewhere in the mid-60s.
On top of everything else (falling advertiser revenues, the GOP’s identity crisis), conservative media institutions have an age problem which they have no idea how to fix.
Last year, David Kuo (the former head of the Bush White House office on faith-based initiatives) and Joe Carter (a Huckabee staffer and blogger) — with backing from William Bennett — decided to start an online magazine. They hoped to find a way for political conservatives to engage popular society in a way that was culturally relevant. If they succeeded, one obvious benefit would be making their brand of conservatism more appealing to younger generations.
Their model would be a conservative version of Slate — a little bit edgy but appreciative of books, TV, and movies.
They hired smart, young writers like Conor Friedersdorf , a journalist and graduate student at NYU; James Poulos, a PhD candidate in government at Georgetown; and Peter Suderman, a blogger and Libertarian.
They called their project Culture11 and quietly launched the site in beta during the late summer.
As Charles Homans reports in the current issue of Washington Monthly:

For a site that took as its starting point a retreat from the political arena, Culture11 actually had a lot to say about the election, and it was generally more eclectic and off-message than what other political publications had on offer as November approached. This had a lot to do with the fact that Culture11’s editorial brain trust was made up of people who had little concern for—or at least needed a breather from—the self-immolating Hindenburg of movement conservatism.

In many ways, it was the act of being off-message that made Culture11 interesting, and sometimes, very smart. But of course their willingness to flaunt conservative orthodoxy so deep into an election year guaranteed that the new magazine created plenty of critics among ostensible ideological allies.
It occasionally even created friction inside its own newsroom:

In December, when a pseudonymous contributor to Ladyblog, Culture11’s “conservative feminist” forum, posted an entry titled “In Defense of the ‘Hook-up Culture,’ ” Carter yanked it off the blog. (“I didn’t like the content,” he later said. “We wanted dissent within the conservative perspective, but to me that fell out of line.”) The move prompted an in-house uproar and an apologetic response from Kuo, reinstating the post but also averring that “Culture11 is a conservative site. We see the world through a culturally conservative lens. As such the post isn’t something that anyone here particularly agreed with. We don’t believe the hookup lifestyle is good for anyone.” (“I think our disagreements were healthy disagreements,” he told me later.)

It seems that there is a natural limit to what even the most open-minded conservatives can tolerate.
Late last month, after weeks of working the phones and crunching the budget, David Kuo came to the conclusion that Culture11 no longer had a future — at least not in its current form. He called his staff and told them that his board of directors had decided to lay them off. Today, the archives are active and William Bennett still updates his blog, but for all intents and purposes, the site is dead.
While it lasted, Culture11 was an interesting experiment. But even at its best, the writers and contributors were a band of insurgents with minimal establishment support and divergent goals and ideological viewpoints.
Was it all doomed from the start?
One of the overriding themes of the modern conservative movement has been its distaste (and occassional hatred) for popular culture (whatever it was at the time). Just as the old lions wrung their hands at Elvis and comic books, so do latter-day conservatives decry Jay-Z and video games.
Culture11 attempted to exist outside that bubble — written by people who listened to Lil’ Wayne, watched movies where people sometimes took off their clothes, and owned iPhones. But even they couldn’t help but feel superior when it came time to discuss their peers. More telling still was the occasional bit of self-loathing they let slip when it came time to look in the mirror.
Look no farther than Friedersdorf’s piece on the music played at his best friend’s wedding:

Our parents unselfconsciously played “Under My Thumb” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” during family car trips—we turned out fine! Even gangsta’ rap albums we sneaked in our youth hardly caused us to roll down the street “smoking indo, sippin’ on gin and juice.”
Yet we feel uneasy putting our iPods on shuffle if anyone under 15 is around. What explains this attitude shift? Were the prudes right? Is gangsta’ rap uniquely degraded?

Even while acknowledging hip hop’s cultural value, Friedersdorf concludes the piece hoping for a future where the music enjoyed by his children is less profane. Not exactly a message with a lot of Millennial resonance.
As Culture11 floundered, another group of conservatives led by Andrew Breitbart (of Drudge fame) unveiled their own website with superficially the same cultural-commentary mission — Big Hollywood. The new site was greeted with fairly significant praises in right-wing circles, and it gained traction just as quickly as Culture11 lost its footing.
Desipte the theoretical similarity, the two sites could not be more different. Big Hollywood exists to poke fun at the entertainment industry’s excess while Culture11 made a sincere investment in attempting to create intellectually honest criticism. Even the way each site was designed speaks to their differences. Culture11 embraced clean lines and rounded corners — if the editors of Slate unveiled a redesign with the same look and feel tomorrow, not one reader would bat an eye. Big Hollywood looks like The Drudge Report or the homepage for Fox News.
What better evidence exists that the two sites were meant for different audiences?
Big Hollywood is more chum for the conservative base. Yes, it’s an online outlet, and yes, that means that its publishing schedule is a little different. But its message and even its methods are intended for the Rush listener or the O’Reilly watchers. Which means an audience in its 60s.
Culture11 was an attempt to embrace free-form online modes of expression, find a solution to the youth problem, and force conservatives to think differently about popular culture. Given the difficulty of chewing a bite that size, perhaps its failure was no surprise.
But if conservatives are not prepared to grapple with all three problems now, they’ll be forced to confront the future soon. Demographics is destiny, as they say, and right now, the trends are all going the wrong way.

One comment on “The Curious Case of Culture11

  1. Bob Griendling on

    Good piece. But I disagree with
    “One of the overriding themes of the modern conservative movement has been its distaste (and occassional hatred) for popular culture (whatever it was at the time).”
    That’s too broad. Popular culture to conservatives includes American Idol, plenty of music I’m not aware of, movies galore, and much more. I personally don’t interact with too many 30-40 year old conservatives, but I doubt they find all popular culture distasteful (video games?), let alone hate it. Pop culture is not only teen culture.
    And it’s not only conservatives that question certain sexual mores. Young liberalscan have their own reservations.


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