Roseanne Barr is not a conservative. Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley were not exactly her favorite people. She supported Bill Clinton’s first presidential run to the point that she claimed her number one-rated show, Roseanne, helped put Clinton over the top by complaining about the crummy economy a week before the 1992 election. She’s had as much use for the “family values” conservatism of Phyllis Schlafly as a fish has for a bicycle.
And if Roseanne and her namesake ABC network comedy hated conservatives, then 80s and 90s conservatives loved to give it right back. Alongside Married with Children, no other contemporary sitcom (including All in the Family) “normalized” foul-mouthed put-downs and gay kisses and mocked “traditional family” roles to the extent of the Connor clan.
Yet in spite of all that, it is completely predictable—even almost inevitable—that Roseanne would have voted for Donald Trump, just like the 80,000 or so voters who made the difference for The Donald in the Rust Belt “swing states.”
As we all know, American political culture today is all about “representation” and “visibility.” When Roseanne was at the apex of its fame and influence, Bill and Hillary Clinton promised that forgotten Americans “would be forgotten no more” and that the little guy would have a voice in American politics, that it would be all about “the economy, stupid.” And as pro-Clinton loyalists will remind you, during Bill’s (and Hillary’s) first two years in office, they balanced their trademark third-way New Democrat futurism and comparative conservatism (NAFTA, the “three strikes” crime bill, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) with the most stridently liberal legislation since LBJ and Nixon: the (failed) 1994 health care bill, the assault weapons ban, the 1993 tax increase, family and medical leave, the Violence Against Women Act, and more.
Then came Hurricane Gingrich in 1994, followed by Monica and impeachment and Al Gore’s train-wreck attempt to succeed Bill and Hill in 2000. And while Clinton’s bubblicious second term did indeed bring prosperity for many, what few gains trickled down to the lower-middle class were quickly erased by the Enron-era dot-com meltdown, the Bush-era wars, and the 2008 collapse.
At this crucial point, the new fetish in Clinton and Dubya-era politics became “Swing Voters.” These were best defined as American Beauty-style professional husbands and fathers and (even more so) their SUV-driving, soccer-and-wine wives—secular or “mainline” religious, two-story suburban, money in the bank, “good college”-educated, and, for the most part, white.
By the end of the Clinton era, the Democratic Party of Robert Rubin, Paul Volcker, and Joe Lieberman was stronger than ever. Meanwhile, their counterparts to the left—Robert Reich, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Michael Moore—went out the spit valve. As they say in Roseanne’s native Hollywood, it was as though Bill and Hillary had told their working class constituency, “Love ya babe—but we gotta lose ya!”
Instead of ordinary people, the Democrats were now catering to Ordinary People. Instead of “centering” on waitresses and factory women, the focus was now on—in Roseanne’s own words—a bunch of “enterprising, overmedicated, painted-up capitalist whores claiming to be housewives.”
The late Clinton and George W. eras proved that the Krystle Carrington world of conspicuous consumption, casino capitalism, and invisible poor people had become the New Normal. It was the grungy, ironic, early 90s intercession of Tupac & Biggie, Kurt Cobain, Married with Children, Do The Right Thing, Falling Down, King of Queens and, yes, Roseanne, that served as the brief exception. And so it would remain, right up until the economic meltdown of 2008.
This wasn’t just limited to politics. By the end of Roseanne’s initial run, that same “swing voter” audience was also the only demo that Hollywood (or the news industry) cared about. In the decade between Clinton’s exit and the 2008 meltdown, it was all about upscale “prestige TV” ensembles, from the high-tech models of CSI, The West Wing, and Grey’s Anatomy, to self-consciously “chic” shows and movies like Sex and the City, Will & Grace, American Psycho, Mad Men, The Devil Wears Prada, and fantasy “rom-coms.” In the late 90s and 2000s, the single-minded pursuit of the “upscale” 18-to-49-year-old professional was complete and total—along with the marginalizing of everyone outside that target audience.
The one (big) exception, of course, was talk radio and Fox News. Interestingly, the main reason Roger Ailes was so successful in appealing to his famed “55 to Dead” demographic was because the Big Four networks (including Fox TV) and major cable were systematically, purposefully dumping that audience at the same time. Remember what happened to Matlock, Murder She Wrote, Dr. Quinn, Diagnosis Murder, and Touched by an Angel? They still had relatively high ratings almost to the end—but not in 18-to-49 and $100,000-plus households.
It should also be noted that for people of color, this era meant even worse than mere stasis—it was an actual step backwards. In the 80s and early 90s, you had the Jeffersons, the Huxtables, A Different World, In Living Color, Martin, and Spike Lee joints. In the late 90s, you had Moesha and Homeboys in Outer Space. If you thought the “Oscars (were) So White” a couple of years ago, you would probably go snowblind looking at the casts of late 90s and early 2000s faves like Friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek, Party of Five, and 90210—shows then considered on the cutting edge of cultural hipness and youth. Most of them were also set in mega-diverse California or New York—call it The Case of the Missing Minorities.
The Great Recession might have had the potential for a reboot, but for every Casey Affleck movie that looked at a suffering member of the White Working Class, there were half a dozen pictures that drooled over the status-symbol trappings of banksters, hucksters and professional criminals while claiming to deplore them (The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short.) To the fury of lefty film critic Dennis Lim, director Jason Reitman released the story of a yuppie efficiency expert downsizing people in Up in the Air—told from his POV—during the worst of the recession. Instead of “centering” on working people, they were used as plot devices used to tell the stories of the Masters of the Universe.
Meanwhile, TV doubled down on its devotion to the lifestyles of the rich and infamous (the Kardashians, Real Housewives) while prestige TV remained exactly that, largely bypassing the Great Recession present altogether for stories set in the long-ago past (Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones). The booming (and long overdue) interest in TV and films centering on people of color (Precious, The Help,Twelve Years a Slave, Straight Outta Compton, Empire) only underscore how invisible the Roseannes and Dans of the world had now become.
A big reason why enough of Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 voters crossed the aisle to swing the election to Trump—and the reason why Bill and Hillary have been despised by Bernie/Nader economic leftists for some time—is because they said that they cared, that they “empathized” with the working stiffs of the world, even when they were cheating on Main Street with Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Michael Moore said that the election of Donald Trump would be the biggest “screw you” in modern American political history, but it was actually the worst breakup this side of The Bachelor.
Whether it was “Time for a Change” in 1992 or “Change Has Come to America” in 2008, many of the Roseanne Connors just didn’t think they had enough change left in their pockets after all was said and done. The revival of Roseanne (the character), who voted for Trump (reviewers, unsurprisingly, were scandalized), is the inevitable return-of-the-repressed revenge. Roseanne (and Roseanne) is getting up in our faces and gloating, “This time, I was the real Swing Voter—so DEAL with it!”
Some of us may want to Resist and change and overcome that inconvenient truth. Some may celebrate it as a long-deferred victory. And some may now consign her and her show to the Basket of Deplorables.
But that’s not the point. The point is that we have to “deal with it,” in our families and friends, in how we vote, and in how we process the news, for the foreseeable future. Whether we want to or not.
Telly Davidson is the author of a new book on the politics and pop culture of the ’90s, Culture War: How the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”