Cultural Power Isn't Political Power

In an interview with “The New Yorker Radio Hour” the other day, John Stewart said something so succinctly and so spot-on, in my humble opinion, that I titled this column after it. 

In the United States, cultural power does not equal political power. This is a tragic misconception that probably began in the 1960s when rebellious middle-class white college students, high on fomenting change, began shouting, “The whole world is watching!” Yes, the whole world was watching those anti-war protests in Chicago 68 and elsewhere, but in the long run, very little changed. Lyndon Johnson resigned, for sure, but then Richard Nixon won the Presidency over the anti-war candidate, George McGovern, in one of the biggest landslides in American history, and except for a brief pause for Jimmy Carter, the Republicans ruled for the next 24 years! The whole of America was watching, for sure, but flat-ass didn’t like what they saw.

And so it is with today’s media and entertainment, including Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” which ran for sixteen years and won 21 Emmy Awards. Everyday comedians, political commentators, the vast majority of the biggest-circulation newspapers, and 99% of Hollywood celebrities decry “The Big Lie” and a thousand other untruths and cynical maneuverings emanating from leading powermongers nationwide and still six in ten Republicans and right-leaning Independents believe the last election was stolen and that the voting system is rigged.

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In many ways, what cultural taste leaders say has only a marginal effect on who gains real power. One more for instance: middle-class, multi-dimensional African-Americans have been front and center – and highly rated -- on American TV since Dr. Huxtable walked into our living rooms in 1984. No doubt, Black Americans have gained a measure of media presence and power. But, as George Floyd underscores, they are still struggling to be accepted by the majority White society, let alone given an equal shot at success and, in too many cases, even survive.

The impact of popular culture on the nation’s politics comes slowly, at best. How does this affect the progress of disability rights and inclusion? The more people see and accept disabled people in film and on TV, the more they will accept them in real life, no? That’s the assumption I have personally run with for the 25 years I have been paralyzed. Since people with disabilities are still only a blip on the vast media landscape, maybe it’s simply too soon to tell. But politically, I think it’s naïve to think this will mean the Golden Age of Disability Power is upon us. Maybe, as in Texas, disability will not become a hindrance to public office, but it’s unlikely to mean that every disabled candidate will see the world like FDR.

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So, as usual, I end up somewhere in the middle. Of course, disability representation on TV and film matters. More disabled people find careers, more disabled kids at home identify with TV/film characters and hopefully see a brighter future, more people lose common stereotypes and assumptions about the disabled. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into equal rights and opportunities for 61 million disabled Americans. Politics is politics. It demands political engagement, like, you know, voting. Funny jokes and Nielsen ratings apparently don’t matter.

I’m a creature of the 60s. We were sure that by dominating TV coverage and college campuses and pop culture, we would defeat the war, homophobia, racism, sexism, and all the other evil isms. Sixty years later, I now see. It doesn’t work like that.

About the Author - Allen Rucker

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

Allen Rucker

The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.