Entertainment: The Next Frontier for Political Tribalism

Manu Meel

American culture has never been completely separate from our politics. From the social media trends we follow to the movies we watch, our culture has always been a subtle reflection of societal values, and oftentimes, has served as a platform for new ideas. And yet, the recent push to use movies as tools for fighting our political battles is turning what was predominantly a mode of entertainment into a mode for our culture wars. Those pushing tribalist entertainment must be held accountable before the industry is also a means for tribal politics. 

Take “The Interceptor”, a top 10 movie on Netflix right now, as an example. If movies used to be 90% entertainment and 10% politics, “The Interceptor” is 50% entertainment and 50% politics. I could not go 5 minutes without coming across an obvious jab at the American Right. And the obvious jab was not featuring a female actor as the lead protagonist; representation in casts is an example of subtle political expression, which is inevitable and oftentimes needed. The obvious jabs were when the lines coming out of the character’s mouth were indistinguishable from the lines I hear from political pundits. And I know I am not the only one to complain: “The Interceptor” received a whopping 19% on Rotten Tomatoes.  

Importantly, there is a difference between having more women play lead roles and having a movie imitate a 1 hour 40-minute talk show produced on a Hollywood set. There is a clear dividing line between movies that contain subtle expressions of values and movies that are being produced to fuel a cultural arms race that threatens to consume every part of American society.

I am not naively advocating for a world in which our movies are milquetoast, feel good sessions that do not reflect the world we live in. Rather, I am sticking up for everyone that simply wants to watch a movie and not have to feel like they just sat through a political rally.    

Elsa Pataky as Captain J. J. Collins in The Interceptor, 2022.

And the tribal entertainers are not just contained to the Left. The Daily Wire is also turning a profit by producing movies that serve as propaganda for the American Right. For example, “Run Hide Fight” is an obvious jab at those on the Left who believe that guns have no place in America. What’s more, The Daily Wire makes no attempt to even conceal the overt political goal of the movie.

To those that see entertainment as a space to fight their culture wars, stop. The push from the temperamentally extreme Left and Right to turn every aspect of society into their political octagon will backfire. It will lead to more political apathy and disengagement amongst everyday Americans. It will further divide American society. And it will allow the political elite to continue profiting off our divides.

In terms of apathy, the data on an increasingly apathetic populace is clear: More In Common’s Hidden Tribe report found that the “exhausted majority” represents the largest group of Americans. Americans are frustrated by division, tribalism, and toxic rhetoric, and they want politicians to focus on problems instead of culture wars. By turning entertainment into a political battleground, the political elite are taking away one of the few remaining escapes from politics. That will further exhaust Americans who are giving up on the political process. 

Second, tribal entertainers who believe political movies are an important way to convert Americans to their cause fail to understand basic psychology. Thousands of experiments have confirmed that being confronted by rational arguments and appeals that challenge one’s beliefs will not change their mind. In fact, being constantly shown narratives that challenge your core beliefs will only harden your beliefs and make you more resistant. Not only is tribal entertainment making people more apathetic, but it is hardening Americans’ views to their respective causes, furthering divides across cultural lines at a time when Americans desperately need common narratives.

Finally, the profit incentive to produce movies that traffic in culture wars is significant.

We must acknowledge that the tribal elites on the Left and Right are not just innocent ideological purists; like the rest of us, they are at least partially driven by profit. As humans, we like choosing sides. We like buying products and stickers that show our support for our teams. And we will buy experiences that make us feel safe in our echo chambers. Perhaps, this is the most substantial reason to be skeptical of our modern entertainment. Even if we believe it should strongly reflect what we believe, we must be honest about the money that is made from waging our culture wars.

While it is true that movies have always subtly expressed our values, we must be very quick to challenge anyone that turns our movies into their political battleground. Because it will not just stop at movies. Tribalist entertainment is only one small part of the broader Left and Right who are marching on every institution in American society. Yes, our culture cannot and should not be divorced from our politics. Yes, our movies serve as important mechanisms for highlighting ideas and challenging society. And yes, we can go too far.

After all, there should be a clear difference between attending a political rally and watching a movie.

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