Liberal elites?: A brief history of Hollywood vs. Washington D.C.

Maud Webster seeks to answer the question is Hollywood cinema is a bastion of liberalism?

Maud Webster
26th April 2020
Politicians love using cultural platforms for political gain, and Hollywood is just one of the many ways Democrats and Republicans can apply some political leverage over unwitting Americans.

Republicans are currently slamming Hollywood over their liberal leaning, with award shows seeming to be an epipitomical demonstration of this bias. But with a little uncovering this seems a bit… hypocritical, given Hollywood’s previous conservative alignments - the bias can work both ways. 

Anti-communist activist Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) targeted Hollywood during the 'Red Scare' of the the 1950s. Image:Wikipedia

Many Republicans argue that the film, TV, music and theatre industries are overwhelmingly populated with leftists, claiming this causes a large amount of entertainment consumed by the country to contain ‘propaganda’. Award shows traditionally showcase liberal values: gender and racial equality, human rights, and freedom of the press, often to the point where conservative policies are criticised, such as in the 2018 Grammys when Clinton criticised the Trump administration in a skit. 

Is there any hard core proof that the ‘members of Hollywood’ are more politically left? Well, in the 2016 Presidential Election, Clinton received three votes for every vote for Trump in LA Country in general, with actor-heavy areas such as Hollywood Hills recording an even higher vote share towards the Democrats. The Center for Responsive Politics also found that individuals and firms in entertainment industries (spanning TV, film and music) contributed $84 million to political campaigns during the same 2016 election, with 80% going towards the Democrats. 

On the other hand, the political right have previously taken advantage of Hollywood, such as the case of conservative author and philosopher Ayn Rand, who “encouraged Hollywood to use “good entertainment” to sell the merits of free enterprise, celebrate wealth and promote industrialists as American heroes”. The former president Richard Nixon also solidified a Republican-Hollywood connection by working with athletes, actors and musicians during his 1972 reelection campaign, including the country singer Merle Haggard, whose music relayed conservative messages, and the actress Pam Powell who headed the youth outreach section of his campaign. This focus on infiltrating and using the media benefited both Nixon and the Republican party enormously.   

Moonlight (2016), one of many examples of progressive Hollywood films. Image:IMDB

But why the tendency to be liberal? The Pacific Standard argued last year that highly creative people - including those likely to be working within the filmmaking industries - have stronger empathic abilities and can translate this sense of other people’s perspective onto the screen. Perhaps the rise of the internet and streaming platforms means viewers have more power and more choice in the entertainment they want to watch and how they get this entertainment, so Hollywood has more accountability towards everyday watchers than to big business and conservative politics. If watchers want more diversity in perspective and the characters they see on screen, then it’s probable that the sort of folk dominating Hollywood are better at thinking from other people’s perspective, as we’ve seen a more liberal Hollywood.

Entertainment is always entwined with politics. Whilst Hollywood is overwhelmingly liberal at the moment, both the American left and right have utilised it for political gain over the past century. Though some will argue there is no place for politics in entertainment, and it’s all a sly plot to indoctrinate unwitting people who just want to watch a film or listen to a song, nothing will change as long as we live in a world driven by politics. 

In 2008 American conservative website National Review published its list of the top 50 conservative Hollywood films of all time. Click this link to read the list. Do you agree?

A young James Stewart (1908-1997) in the political epic Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). Frank Capra's film was one of the first examples of Hollywood tackling big political & social issues from a left-wing perspective. Image:IMDB
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AUTHOR: Maud Webster
she/they | third year architecture & urban planning student @ newcastle | co-head of culture for the 21/22 academic year

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