Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Parents, Kids, Corporations and Democrats

While I've been off relitigating the nature of the Confederacy and obsessing about Tom DeLay, James Dobson, and inheritance taxes, the center-left blogosphere has exploded in a dispute over a subject I've written about at some length: marketing of junk culture to kids; its role in the cultural concerns of middle-class parents; and its possible relevance to the weakness of the Democratic Party among this same category of voters.

First up, Dan Gerstein, with his usual light touch, went after Democrats on this subject, unhelpfully choosing the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal as a venue. When I first read the piece, I thought Dan buried some legitimate observations in a landslide of marginally relevant abuse. After all, Frank Rich is not a spokesman for the Democratic Party, and most of the culturally concerned parents Dan's worried about read The New York Times about as often as they play Grand Theft Auto with their church groups. And I also think it's a confusing digression to get into the issue of Democratic politicians letting Hollywood personalities say inane things at campaign rallies (simple solution: let them smile and strut and wave, but keep the mikes off). But when you cut through the static, Gerstein's praise of Hillary Clinton's approach is quite measured:

She does not demonize cultural producers, overstate the extent of the problem, or let parents off the hook. She frames the culture's influence as a public-health issue as much as a moral one, and cites research showing the potentially harmful effects of screen sex and violence. And she is honest about the limits of that research, which is why she has joined with Sen. Joe Lieberman in introducing a bill to fund more studies of the electronic media's impact on children.

In the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog, Amy Sullivan mildly echoed Gerstein's argument, and responded to some of the more specious arguments she's heard about the perils of Democrats treating entertainment corporations like other corporations. And since then, she and Matt Yglesias have been talking past each other in a discussion of this issue.

I respect both these folks enormously. And while I'm basically on Amy's side on this issue, I do think Matt raises the right questions about it: (1) What's the real problem here? (2) What, specifically, is the public policy lever you propose to use to address it? and (3) If you can't answer (1) and (2), aren't you just engaging in demagoguery?

Since Matt includes me in the circle of demagogues on this subject (which I don't take entirely as an insult), I'll answer these questions for myself. In passing, I will refer to Barbara Defoe Whitehead's recent paper on the subject, published by the DLC's Progressive Policy Institute.

(1) The problem is that a combination of new, personalized technologies and highly sophisticated marketing methods has created what can only be described as a corporate campaign to bypass parents and sell a variety of products, trends, and attitudes to kids, of questionable moral quality. It's not just about sex and violence; it's also about consumerism, fashion-and brand-consciousness, and a generally superficial approach to life. You know, those cultural products that have so endeared America to the rest of the world.

I stress this point because Matt is simply wrong to assume this is all about some "New Prudishness." As a parent of a teenager, I am not that worried that the ever-present marketers will turn him into a sex-addict or a sociopath; I'm more worried that he will turn into a total greedhead whose idea of the good life is stuff, and whose idea of citizenship is to demand a better personal cost-benefit ratio on his tax dollars. To put it another way, I'm worried he'll turn into a Grover Norquist Republican.

In terms of macro, as opposed to micro, factors, Matt repeatedly says the social indicators show the kids are all right, except they are getting mighty fat. We could have a debate over those indicators, if he'd specify them; and I'm sure they would be great comfort to the parents whose children's cohorts haven't quite yet entered the data base. But more generally, there are, as Gerstein mentions, and Whitehead cites, a variety of reputable studies indicating the kids may not be all right, at least when they are exposed redundantly to violent, sexual, misogyinist, and hyper-commercial images.

The bottom line is that there's enough smoke out there for Democrats to at least call in the smoke detecters, and beef up the firefighters. And for all the alarm about censorship and Puritanism, that's mostly what people like Clinton and Lieberman--and Gerstein and Sullivan--are calling for.
But that leads me to Matt's second question:

(2) What, other than agitating the air about it, are some of us Democrats actually talking about doing, if it's not censorship? First, as already suggested, we think it's helpful to take the complaints of parents seriously enough to study the problem seriously. Second, we think entertainment corporations, and anyone who directly markets products to children, should admit some social responsibility, and work with public officials to (a) develop, to the maximum extent possible, parental information and control mechanisms, like a unified rating system for television shows, video games, and movies, and like technologies that are more effective and user-friendly than the V-Chip; (b) create a "zone of protection" for really young kids by eschewing direct and indirect (i.e., television and internet) marketing techniques aimed at children too young to distinguish truth from hype and crap; and (c) provide some transparency about the most egregious of those marketing techniques, such as the practice of hiring "alpha kids" to wear brand name products to influence their peers.

And if cooperative efforts to secure voluntary measures don't work, then we can talk regulation--just like we do with other corporations--if necessary.

(3) If there's a problem, and at least some sorts of tangible public-policy solutions, then the argument that this is "all about politics" loses some of its sting. But of course, you "can't take the politics out of politics," so yeah, Democrats should look at this politically as well. And Amy is absolutely right that Democrats tend to view "cultural issues" as limited to abortion and gay marriage and other Republican-dictated agenda items, and Gerstein is absolutely right that such issues are often just the ways voters use to figure out whether politicians actually believe (a) there are principles more important than politics, and (b) there is such a thing as right and wrong.

The whole hep Democratic world right now, from Howard Dean to George Lackoff to Bill Bradley right over to the DLC, says it's important that Democrats clearly identify "what they believe" and "where they stand" and "what values they cherish." If all the evidence--some scientific, some anecdotal or intuitive--suggesting that parents believe they are fighting an unequal battle with powerful cultural forces over the upbringing of their children is at all correct, then we have to take a stand there, too. It may matter a whole lot, if you look at the Democratic vote among marrieds-with-children--steadily dropping from a Clinton win in 1996 to an eighteen-point loss in 2004, a disproportionately large swing.

And if there's a problem, and if there's a solution--however mild, cooperative, and at most regulatory--what's the problem with identifying with middle-class, working parents upset with big corporations? And that's where Amy Sullivan's, and my, injunctions against Democratic hypocrisy on this issue come into play.

The New Republic's Noam Scheiber suggests this issue has exposed a deeper libertarian-communitarian rift in Democratic ranks that we need to talk about. That may be true as well. Matt, in one of his posts, cites my mockery of Paris Hilton's First Amendment rights as problematic. Actually, First Amendment jurisprudence has long acknowledged the legitimacy of "time, place and manner" restrictions on even the most protected (e.g., political) expressions, with a lower standard of protection for "commercial" speech. There's no need for either side to get absolutist about it, but I don't really think us communitarians are really on the brink of calling in Torquemada here.

But any way you look at it, the willingness, or unwillingness, of progressives to identify with the parenting struggles of middle-class voters--in terms of basic economics, health care, work-family issues, taxes, and yes, corporate marketing to their kids--is an issue on which progressives, and Democrats, will ultimately be judged by history, and by voters.
-- Posted at 7:46 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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