Why It’s Important To Stop Putting Token Conservatives On Television
Every few months, publications on the political left generate a new think piece noting which identity does not have enough of a presence in the cultural conversation. However, one area in which the left rarely discusses representation is ideological diversity.
Any right-leaning person who likes television will quickly realize that conservative characters are remarkably few and far between. When they are actually shown, they usually can fall in two categories: hateful monsters or liberals who want low taxes.
Nevertheless, the landscape is far less bleak than it can sometimes appear. There are a surprising number of interesting, well-written conservative characters on television.
Actual Representation (Sort Of)
Despite how it can often feel, there are some legitimately great conservative characters on television. They’re allowed to be interesting, human, flawed, and multifaceted, just like their liberal counterparts. While most conservative characters in fiction feel artificial or even antithetical to the lived experiences of right-leaning people, these characters prove that right-leaning individuals can be portrayed with depth.
The eponymous character of “Rosanne” is not a conservative in the traditional sense, but she did provide a dramatically underserved population excellent representation — the working-class Trump voter, portrayed by real-life Trump fan Rosanne Barr. By speaking to an underserved community with sensitivity, the revival of the popular sitcom gained a huge following, pulling in enormous ratings.
Upon Barr’s firing for a racist tweet, the spinoff continued, focusing on her remaining family after the eponymous character’s death. However, “The Connors” does not have nearly the same appeal, with ratings down 55 percent from the “Rosanne” revival, likely in part due to the show now exclusively containing a liberal ensemble.
Mike Baxter (Tim Allen), the protagonist of “Last Man Standing,” has firmly defended conservative values, patriotism, and Christianity throughout both the ABC and Fox runs of the sitcom. As such, it’s developed a strong following, especially from moderates and conservatives who enjoy a respite from the oppressive liberalism that has overwhelmed the tv landscape.
While the then-scandalous hit show “Sex and the City” portrays a world of sexual promiscuity and an astonishing lack of consequences that would make any family-values conservative blush, one of the central four shines as a testament to a more traditional lifestyle — Charlotte York. Several times throughout the series, it is stated that Charlotte is a Republican. Of course, her party affiliation is not a major plot point in the sex-and-relationship-focused comedy, nor does it influence much in the show, but it is nice to see the sweet, supportive, family-oriented Charlotte as both a Republican and a positive character.
I’m going to slam Aaron Sorkin later in this article for his typically terrible portrayal of Republicans on “The West Wing,” one of my all-time favorite shows, but he really nailed it with one character: Ainsley Hayes (Emily Proctor). Ainsley is a Republican commentator and attorney hired by a Democrat president for the White House Counsel’s Office due to her intelligence and fierce love of country.
Her first scene shows her destroy White House Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) in a televised debate, and from there, one of the best conservative characters of all time was born. She is allowed to be interesting, moral, and conservative, firmly and intelligently advocating her positions in fierce debate against her mostly liberal coworkers. Never is Ainsley shown to be stupid or shallow due to her disagreements with the show’s liberal bent, a model for ideological diversity that should have been better shown throughout the series.
Aside from Hayes, “The West Wing” had two other well-written conservative characters. Speaker of the House Glen Allen Walken (John Goodman) is a very conservative Republican, who fundamentally disagrees with the president and his staff on most key issues. When he must take over for the President while Bartlett’s daughter is kidnapped, it is expected that he will be an unreasonable tyrant due to their past clashes. However, he is a thoughtful and reasonable leader, making the necessary decisions while retaining compassion.
The other character only appears in one episode, but it is a great one. Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) spends an entire episode debating Republican Rep. Matt Skinner on a gay marriage bill, which culminates in Josh asking how he can support the Republican Party since he is openly gay. The congressman’s response is a beautiful, clear defense that will ring true for anyone who has been accused of betraying some group their due to conservative politics.
There may not be a dreamier Republican character on television than Sen. Robert McCalister, played by Rob Lowe, on the ABC drama “Brothers and Sisters.” He is not always the best representation ideologically, as he is well-shown to be moderate enough to be elected senator in the hyper liberal California, but the more his character is developed, the more the show highlights his voting record as decidedly right-wing.
Further, his politics don’t detract from his love-interest status to protagonist and fellow conservative Kitty Walker. It’s such a treat to see a handsome, charming Republican who is as important and nuanced a character as any of his liberal compatriots.
“Brothers and Sisters” also gives the fantastic Kitty Walker (Calista Flockhart), one of the eponymous siblings. Kitty is a commentator turned communications director for McCalister, and her conservative politics often put her at odds with her bleeding-heart mother, Nora (Sally Field) and brother Kevin (Matthew Rhys).
However, the debates between Kitty and her family are not borne out of hatred, just genuine disagreements. While the Walker family will never agree politically, the love they share can easily cover any partisan divides.
Exaggerated Characters in Exaggerated Worlds
Some shows, however, do not operate in the real world. They’re not fantasies, but the spaces they occupy are so exaggerated and extreme that they don’t resemble reality, even if recent events make our world seem increasingly like satire with every news story. However, as no one in these comedies behaves like a grounded human we would be likely to encounter, it would be unfair to hold them to the same standard as characters in more realistic comedies and dramas.
Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) from “Parks and Recreation” is a local government employee who hates the very idea of government. He is not just a libertarian, he believes government ought to be one man in a room who decides who to bomb. He is a caricature of rugged masculinity whose distrust in the government would put the most rabid conspiracy theorists to shame. But that is what makes him such an excellent character.
One of the central themes of the NBC sitcom “30 Rock” is the odd friendship between protagonist Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and her boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin). She’s a bleeding heart liberal comedy writer, while he’s an emphatic Republican businessman. Neither of their beliefs is portrayed as better or worse than the other, with both serving as the punchline when the circumstances allow.
The best demonstration of “30 Rock’s” hilarious two-sidedness to politics comes from the episode when both Liz and Jack realize that the shallow Jenna Maroney’s (Jane Krakowski) insane popularity in swing-state Florida means her endorsement may determine the fate of a presidential election. Her disastrous interviews with Chris Matthews and Tucker Carlson is the culmination of excellent comedy as both attempt to sway the suggestible and politically apathetic actress.
The denizens of “Psych” are some of the wackiest and most endearing of recent years, finding an excellent balance between exaggerated goofiness and relatable humanity. One of the funniest characters is head detective Carlton Lassiter (Timmothy Omundson). Lassiter believes in law and order above all, loves his gun with a passion, and will violently lash out at anyone who disrespects Ronald Reagan.
He serves as a beautiful comedic foil to the slacker Shawn Spencer and the uptight Burton Guster, who can sometimes serve as a liberal straw man for equal comedic effect. Lassie’s conservatism is not the punchline, but how he applies the same insane degree of intensity to his politics as he does to everything else.
For many series, calling a character a conservative is an addition in a list of undesirable traits. For these characters, their political orientation is a short-hand for either evilness or stupidity. Preference for low taxes and regulations are looked on as not caring about others. Distaste with identity politics is framed to appear as bigotry.
This type of characteristic is all too common for portrayals of conservatives on TV. I will definitely not be able to list every example below, but here is a sample of how most conservatives are presented on in pop culture.
It’s such a shame that the show that created Ainsley Hayes also created some of the worst straw conservatives put to screen. In seasons three and five of “The West Wing,” President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) is facing reelection against Florida Gov. Robert Ritchie (James Brolin), an overwhelmingly dumb politician who uses folksy charm to mask his utter incompetence.
The religious right are presented throughout the show as vindictive people who use their faith to justify oppressing others. Other Republicans are either cruelly attempting to get in the way of the righteous liberal protagonists’ good work or they’re idiots.
“Arrested Development” follows the misadventures of the unlikable members of the Bluth family. The matriarch, Lucille (Jessica Walter), is no different; she is selfish, cruel, and vindictive. She also happens to be politically conservative.
The problem with Lucille Bluth is not that she is a bad person. Practically every major character (save for the straight-man protagonist and his hapless son) on the show is morally reprehensible. However, not only is Lucille potentially the worst of the very bad bunch, but her conservatism is played off as another facet of her selfishness.
There are a lot of awful people on HBO’s “True Blood,” but Christian fundamentalist and conservative political player Sarah Newlin (Anna Camp) may be one of the worst, and that’s saying something. Her hatred of vampires and attempts to see them eradicated is clearly analogous to other forms of bigotry, which the show portrays as aligning beautifully with her conservative values. Part of the show’s happy ending includes her mental and physical torture for all eternity, atoning for her variety of sins.
Hulu’s dystopic feminist series “The Handmaid’s Tale” explores a world where women are fully stripped of their rights in a pseudo-Christian society in the aftermath of a fertility crisis. One of the darkest and most interesting characters early in the series was Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), a former conservative commentator and advocate for traditional values who is implied to have inadvertently aided in bringing about the oppressive regime under which she suffers. Her right-wing values are presented as a direct aspect of her coldness and evil.
While she does gain some character development as the series continually strays from Margaret Atwood’s original novel, her conservatism will always be an aspect of her evil. In fact, the entire government and ruling class of the repressive and cruel Gilead — the Christian fundamentalist group that took over the United States — is meant to be an evil Republican fantasy.
Throughout the first half of the short-lived teen series “Freaks and Geeks,” popular cheerleader Cindy appeared perfect, an idealized dream girl for geeky protagonist Sam. However, once the pair start dating, the formerly sweet and goodnatured girl is revealed to be both cruel and conservative. The reveal of Cindy’s politics seem to directly influence her sudden personality transplant.
Cat Grant on “Smallville” is a judgy Republican stereotype with a grating voice and a weird habit of blaming anything she doesn’t like or understand on “the liberals.” She is clearly written by people who have never met a conservative in real life, based on their biased opinions of what Republicans believe and how we behave. To make it worse, in the “Smallville” universe, Republicans are openly against superheroes.
Technically a Republican
Sometimes TV shows, especially those with a political bent, want to have the image of ideological diversity without backing it up with genuine portrayals of conservatism. These characters are more often than not barely conservatives, despite technically registering with the Republican Party.
For the writers to show this character is “one of the good ones,” he will be predominately socially liberal with one or two conservative opinions. These characters imply that real conservatives cannot possibly be likable or sympathetic, so they must be watered down with progressivism not to alienate any leftists watching.
After creating “The West Wing,” one of my favorite shows with some of the best and worst conservative characters on television, Sorkin centered his next political show, “The Newsroom,” around an allegedly Republican news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). McAvoy spends more time criticizing the Republican Party and conservative ideals than he does highlighting conservative positions. It’s as if Sorkin used his state as a “registered Republican,” something he reminds people of constantly, to get away with the blatant conservative-bashing the show engaged in weekly.
Even some of the characters I listed as “good representation” will often soften their views, particularly on social issues, depending on the episode, in order to maintain audience sympathy. Despite Charlotte on “Sex and the City” being the closest thing the show has to a socially conservative character, her politics are left mostly undiscussed, especially in comparison to the ardent feminist Miranda.
Kitty and Robert on “Brothers and Sisters” appear to be fierce conservatives in comparison to Kitty’s liberal family, but since every other conservative on the show is a far-right bigot or buffoon, the show sometimes uses their moderate conservatism to highlight their comparative virtue.
Implications of This Cultural Bias
If you spend a considerable amount of time with young people, or on the internet, it becomes abundantly clear that many liberals have a warped view of what conservatives are. If you have a fraction of a soul, it is assumed that your conservatism runs very shallowly, either due to closet moderate-ness or naive influence towards the right-wing by outside forces.
I’ve had conversations with intelligent, politically engaged liberal friends who were surprised that I had reasons for my conservatism, assuming that as a young woman, I was either brainwashed by conservative parents or sat far more to the left than I do. Others were shocked that someone who votes Republican can be a kind person. A friend once actually said, “You showed me that Republicans can actually be nice.”
All of those anecdotes are to highlight that the harmful implications of a generation having limited exposure to conservatives has created a culture of hatred and mistrust between the parties’ respective youths. Liberals only have malicious stereotypes for their views of what conservatives actually are like, and therefore assume that’s reality in absence of alternatives.
The cultural fracture is growing increasingly wide, and polarization is toxically strong, so it is easier than ever to demonize those who disagree with you. And when the only representation you see of Republicans is heartless people whose ideals reflect their idiocy or selfishness, many will write off a large portion of the population as beyond redemption.
As there continue to be pushes for diversity so the media we consume better reflect the world we live in, we must not forget the importance of diversity of opinion. Shows tbat feature earnest and human conservatives have been rewarded with high ratings despite some cultural outrage form the left.
By presenting Republicans as flawed but not evil, who genuinely feel like actual people with actual right-leaning beliefs, TV shows could open themselves to right-leaning audiences desperate for shows that portray them with a sense of reality, while showing left-leaning viewers that, despite what past shows and the internet says, conservatives can be nice, interesting, thoughtful, and complicated people.
Paulina Enck is an intern at the Federalist and current student at Georgetown University in the School of Foreign Service. Follow her on Twitter at @itspaulinaenck