Why Last Night Was Not That Important

Last night, while Hillary Clinton accepted her historic nomination as the first female major party candidate for president of the United States, I was watching a musical. Two nights before, when her party made that nomination, I watched a movie. And last week while the Republicans were having their own convention, I plowed through several episodes of a sitcom. That was on purpose. I’m not boycotting politics; I just don’t think it’s that important.

I realize that electing a president is a big deal, but I think we assign it more value than it deserves. Consider an interview I heard recently with Erik Lokkesmoe. He is a political-operative-turned-film-producer. After 12 years writing speeches and serving as a press secretary on Capitol Hill, he realized how backward his approach to cultural change had been. Here’s how he described that revelation.

In 2004, I began to get really restless about the fact that by the time something gets to the house floor – like some topic, some issue – it’s been shaped years before by movies and music and magazine stories and poetry and TV. So if we’re out there trying to stop something like human trafficking or cloning or anything that has some kind of moral bedrock, it’s been shaped long before by songs and stories. And I, as a creative person, began to think, “Ok, I want to be in a place where I’m at the fountainhead of the cultural stream, not the back end of the dam and the sludge that I’m dealing with in politics.”

There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “If you want to change a nation, change the songs it sings.” Every culture in history — from ancient Greece to modern America — is shaped by its myths; the stories it tells and the art is celebrates. Every hero in history — from Heracles to Vin Diesel — is both a reflection and a pedagogue of cultural values. In a very real sense — a sense strong enough to make Erik Lokkesmoe change careers — Hollywood is more powerful than Washington D.C.

In our current climate of career politicians, legislators aren’t leaders. They are followers. Their “convictions” about social issues change exactly as fast as popular opinion does. If a majority of Americans thought we should annex Canada, our politicians would justify it. If most Americans believed abortion should be outlawed, Congress would pass the bill tomorrow. And those popular notions about Canada and the unborn and every other topic are shaped most deeply by our shared stories and images.

In the past two weeks, many Americans have pinned their hopes for social reform on two agents in the political scene. But it may be the scenes on our screens that carry the most votes.