Twilight of the TVcons

American conservatives face a strange conundrum. By and large they want to preserve a revolutionary media environment—the cultural milieu formed by television. This milieu is currently being replaced by a new digital one. But the televisual establishment is under the consolidated control of people who hate conservatism and, increasingly, conservatives themselves. These controllers, often described simply (and misleadingly) as “the media”, institutionalized the revolutionary character of the televisual medium. Conservatives now realize they must either fight for any place within the televisual milieu or, so to speak, to quit before they are fired.

American conservatives are very reluctant to accept the conclusion that the nature of the televisual medium is inherently propagandistic. Having been formed by TV and cinema at the moment of America’s greatest vitality and good feeling following its world triumph in 1945, many conservatives still look to the likes of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan as proof that broadcast imagery can “be conservative” in an authentic way and in fact make conservatives by modeling conservative lifestyles and identities in a healthy and true way.

American conservatives are almost allergic to the conclusion that, however successful conservative messages may have been at using televisual technology in the past, a culture wherein those who best master the mass broadcast of imaged imaginings rule that culture is inherently unconservative.

For while it is true that genuine art, art moved into being by religious consciousness, can become content within the televisual medium, even the best of such art is forced to compete for eyeshare and mindshare with an infinitude of make-believe, the message of which is set by the televisual medium: dreams are our super power, through which we can create and inhabit and destroy worlds and identities as if, in the end, we were gods.

At sea amid such competitive pressure, even geniuses of religious conservative artistry (such as televangelists) are pushed inexorably into becoming just one more set of rival dream-mongers and imagineers, succumbing to the televisual imperative that what appears on screen matters infinitely more than what is in person. Unconservative and irreligious dream masters are destined to dominate such an environment, and so they have.

One would think then that American conservatives would welcome and embrace a new medium powerful and authoritative enough to overthrow the televisual medium and make obsolete its whole structure of psychological and social influence and formation. But in digital technology, where the total recall of disincarnate machines takes psychological and social control away from the professional class of ruling dream-mongers, American conservatives see an alien invasion that threatens their ability to enjoy fundamental freedoms of creativity, play, entertainment, artistry, association, and so on. They see their anti-conservative foes using the power of digital machines to stamp out and punish all conservative creativity and mass culture. And they prefer instinctively to preserve a corner of televisual life for themselves over abandoning the territory in favor of the cold and mechanical realm of the bots. They recoil at the notion that the triumph of the bots means the obsolescence of all make believe and all narrative as the definitive source of moral authority and human identity. They struggle to see how American conservatism can survive without capturing the imaginations of the masses. And so they fail either to seize control of the collapsing and consolidating televisual industrial complex or to establish control of the rising digital industrial complex. A sad fate, brought upon themselves!

But the truth is that digital technology does not destroy televisual technology. It merely turns the televisual into content within the digital medium—changing its cultural and psychological effects and significance. This is the hidden good news for American conservatives about our dizzying technological changes. But only if American conservatives recognize that their woke adversaries are out ahead of them insofar as those adversaries are pivoting from the obsolescing televisual culture of what Willy Wonka called “pure imagination” into the digital realm of religion—of creed as the core of culture, which as conservatives know it always has been. There are many paths for American conservatives to regain the lead and establish a new social-technological regime, but it begins with understanding and making that pivot anew.

James Poulos (@jamespoulos) is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.