I know you’re going to think I’m obsessed with “Mad Men” because I keep writing about it. It’s not an obsession, just musing as I play the finale over in my mind and read varied responses to it. The more I think about it, the more I see how conservatives can learn a lot from Don Draper and his hilltop inspiration. So this isn’t just another post about the ending of a very well-written television show, but a commentary on how its final themes can apply to our political world today.
I’ve found it interesting that so many people are cynical about Don’s newly found, hippie-inspired peace. Peter Augustine Lawler at National Review even called the smile on Don’s face, as he meditated on the California bluff, a “smirk.” While Lawler found all the other characters to have a personal, relational ending to their individual stories, he called Don superfluous, a leftover, and questioned his empathy despite the scene where Don hugged a weeping man who had poured out his heart about being invisible.
Lawler thinks Don is as cold a fish as ever (a description of Don throughout the series), that his conjuring of the hilltop Coke commercial isn’t born of a sincere change of heart about love and happiness, but is merely Don revitalizing his creativity for advertising and grabbing hold of a marketing ploy of the Seventies. Unlike other characters who ended the series in a personal way, Lawler says, Don fails to make that kind of connection. “His redemption is impersonal but, we have to guess, real.”
At least Lawler gives Don that much. It is real, but it’s more real than Lawler and other cynics give him (and the writers) credit for. The scene where Don hugs the sobbing man is every bit as sincere as it appears. Why? Because Don never shows his emotions like that, not to strangers and not among a bunch of artsy hippies.
Don’s a New Man
Remember that throughout the series, starting with his first lover who was an artist, Don flirted with the multicultural hippie culture. He seemed both attracted to it and repelled by it. But he was always above it, and critical of it—precisely because he wasn’t willing to connect with other people in a personal way, which is what hippie culture is all about. Even at the retreat, when he is walking among people in one of the sessions, he is patronizing and above it all. That’s why the old woman pushed him in the “express your feelings silently” exercise. She knew he wasn’t connecting with anyone, that he wasn’t loving, that he wasn’t real.
It took Stephanie telling him that his plan to run away and reinvent himself was a farce, then his confessional phone call to Peggy where he admitted his sins, to realize that he was a man bereft of human connection and love. When the man in the session said he felt invisible, it wasn’t the invisibility that Don related to, but the reason for it—people love him, they seem to, they try to, but he’s the one who doesn’t love. He’s the one who has withdrawn his affections. He’s the one who has been disconnected from the world around him and who has been a mere observer instead of a participant. He’s the one who has refused to love.
But that changed in a moment. Probably one of the most personal scenes ever on “Mad Men” was when Don stood up in the midst of people whom he had always held in contempt, and walked over and wrapped his arms around a sobbing man and cried with him. How much more personal can it get? To call Don superfluous or impersonal at this point is to give yourself completely over to cynicism.
Don, now having forgiven himself and discovered what it means to love—to connect with others, to be among them, not above them—joins them on a hilltop. He wouldn’t be there if he didn’t want to be. He didn’t have a woman with him, dragging him to the bluff. He had rediscovered himself without being defined by his sins, and he found an inner awareness of love. He was at peace and connected to those around him. That gave him the idea for the Coke ad—and the smile that followed was genuine.
What Don Draper Can Teach Conservatives
So, what can Republicans learn from this? We have a culture today that is very concerned about community, being personal, and connecting with others. Many people in our society care about love and harmony—and, yes, peace—but conservatives seem to have trouble building bridges and relating to others. There are a lot of reasons for that—ignorance that pervades our culture is certainly one of them. But there’s also another aspect, something those on the Right are doing wrong.
Like it or not, many people, especially young people, see conservatives as distant, cold, impersonal, and corporate-minded. They see Republicans very much like Don Draper had been—only concerned about making a buck and not really interested in people as people. Of course, such a generalization isn’t entirely fair, but if we’re honest, there is some truth to the charge.
I know this from interacting with Republicans (and libertarians). I’m an artist with a personality type that’s more “emotion”-oriented, and I sometimes feel like a fish out of water among my more aloof, logical-minded conservative friends. I’m logical, too, but I am very aware of feelings and human connections. Whenever I write about anything that is sympathetic to pop culture, I get blowback from the Right (not the Left), and God help me if I emphasize love instead of truth—not that I ever abandon truth, but truth without love really is completely meaningless, isn’t it?
I know what they’re reacting to—the extremes on the Left—but it’s never a good idea to go in the other direction. Too often, conservatives do just that. They can be impersonal, with a “just the facts, ma’am” kind of outlook, an aversion to feelings, and a dismissal of “hippie” (or, as we call it today, indie or artistic) sensibilities.
People Need a Personal Connection
If Republicans want to impact today’s culture, they need to become more personal. They need to don that hilltop mentality and speak of love, community, and harmony. Our candidates need to be real and connect with people on an emotional—as well as a factual—level. Sadly, Democrats get a pass on this, and a sense of personal connection is imposed on them by the liberal media. Republicans don’t have that advantage. They can’t pretend and expect the media to cover for them. Ask Mitt Romney. The personal connections need to be from the heart—they need to be real.
This is true not only for candidates (politicians are, after all, not the best examples of “being real” in any setting), but it is especially true for everyday people. Conservatives need to be willing to connect with people who are different from them in an intimate way, express feelings, and not just throw facts at people. This doesn’t mean they should abandon truth, but facts without a personal connection can breed cynicism.
I’m not saying conservatives need to put on flip-flops and sing Kumbaya, but they do need to be cognizant of the importance of being personal in a society longing for connection and love. If we truly want to rebuild civil society, there needs to be personal connections and mutual affection among citizens. If conservatives can do a better job at being “person-to-person,” at being real, then they just might build more bridges and save our country from those who want to tear down personal connections and level the civil society and the love that binds it together.