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The Politics of ‘Mad Men’ Reconsidered


“This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life.”
“So you think those things are unrelated?”
—Peggy and Don, “Mad Men (“The Forecast”)

Now that “Mad Men” is over, we begin by remembering that it was a deeply political show. The lives of particular people were intertwined with the big events that moved the whole country—elections, assassinations, riots, and the noble national achievement that was the landing on the moon (then thought to be the first giant step for mankind in the conquest of space).

The show engaged in good old-fashioned American self-criticism, displaying the contradiction between our principles and our residual racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, classism, fundamentalism, and homophobia. It also celebrated the genuine meritocracy based on productivity that is American capitalism. Skill and talent were shown triumphing over especially WASPish prejudice, stupidity, and cruelty, even as there was an awareness of the relational costs of our individualistic and self-inventive understanding of freedom.

There was enough there that liberals, conservatives, libertarians, all could have a love-hate relationship with the show. For now, let’s stick with the love.

Why Libertarians Loved ‘Mad Men’

Libertarians love the celebration of capitalist ingenuity, creativity, and self-reliance. Those who can prove their value to a company see real advancement, while those who don’t become entrepreneurs. We see the government try to regulate advertising and harmful products, but this just makes the ad people more creative and sends consumers to other forms of self-harm. (The series begins with tobacco and alcohol, and ends with cocaine and Coca-Cola.)

We see the government try to regulate advertising and harmful products, but this just makes the ad people more creative and sends consumers to other forms of self-harm.

The rise of women and African Americans is facilitated not by laws but by a combination of chance, merit, and necessity. Not only that, the show feeds into the libertarian view of progress in which more and more people find self-expressive fulfillment both at work and at home. Reason magazine’s Nick Gillespie predicted that “Mad Men” would have to end with Don Draper either dead or in some way gone with the wind, because he was too scarred by his hard-bitten origins to be able, finally, to fit in among revelers in free markets and free minds.

Rather than fit in, though, Don transforms himself with his yoga-facilitated insight into the newest form of enlightened selfishness that was the Spirit of the Seventies. He comes up with Coke’s “Hilltop” commercial—“I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” That commercial might be viewed as a malignant capitalist appropriation of New Agey pantheism. But according to the show’s creator Matthew Weiner, those who dismiss “Hilltop” fail to appreciate the unprecedented inclusivity it represents. All the people of the world are liberated to be as one in the global marketplace brought into being by the screen-based marketing of products such as Coke. (They are all different yet looking in the same direction, and all the lines of the song begin with “I,” not “we.”)

Although Don—a Lothario, but probably the most well-meaning Lothario ever depicted on American television—has been a failure in his relationships, he can invent advertising that brings people together by freeing them of the baggage of their repressive cultural particularities. It’s in the marketplace, libertarians tell us, that we are open to the world of free producers and consumers, and we sing in harmony through the hidden hand that aligns our interests and preferences.

What’s In ‘Mad Men’ for Liberals

Now for the liberals. They love the show’s chronological sweep, from the late 1950s to the 1970s, depicting progress in social justice, and in health and safety. They cherish the episodes that gave us feminist triumphs in the face of Neanderthal male behavior. The struggles of African-Americans were less emphasized, as “Mad Men” consistently focused on the very white advertising world. (Truly, the lives of black people are not as important to liberals as the way liberals feel about black people—Weiner seems satisfied by seeing black people and white people appearing in the same soda-pop ad.)

Liberals like seeing the havoc caused by instabilities in the business cycle and the whims of rich men.

Liberals like seeing the havoc caused by instabilities in the business cycle and the whims of rich men. Don and his colleagues suffered consistently from Conrad Hilton’s pique and the tobacco companies’ zeal to go after the smallest increases in marginal profits.

The character of Henry Francis—a fundamentally decent and responsible man—reminded us that there used to be moderate Republicans. Indeed, “Mad Men” dared to show us the election of 1960 from the point of view of Nixon supporters. Don, though undeniably the show’s hero, revealed a shocking affinity for Nixon, saying: “Kennedy? Nouveau riche, a recent immigrant who bought his way into Harvard. Nixon is from nothing. Abe Lincoln of California, a self-made man. Kennedy, I see a silver spoon. Nixon, I see myself.”

Both Nixon and Draper are highly competent and enjoy bursts of stunning success, but they’re also dangerously unreliable neurotics with self-esteem issues flowing from bleakly lonely childhoods. And Don isn’t his real name, after all—the flashbacks to boyhood show he was born with Nixon’s first name.

For Conservatives, a Riff on Family Breakdown

What do conservatives love about the show? It’s tempting to say its subtextual affirmation of the late 1950s and early 1960s as a time of real men who knew how to dress and act and were so in love with life that they’re weren’t afraid to have three (or more) Martini lunches, smoke like chimneys, and avoid health-preserving exercise. Certainly there was, besides the personal liberation, the family breakdown that is often associated with it. For a while, all the main male characters were divorced and rather pathetically clueless as a result.

For a while, all the main male characters were divorced and rather pathetically clueless as a result.

The time period depicted in “Mad Men” saw both gains and losses, clearly. Conservative critic Thomas Hibbs criticized the overwhelmingly upbeat final show, saying it contradicted Weiner’s pervasive skepticism that people can really change their characters and dispositions. But Weiner also said that, as the show went on, his thought was that the general arc should be that people get a bit more happy. They don’t get happier, though, by changing who they are, which is what each tries in some way to do. They can only getter happier—and this is a rather conservative conclusion for the show to come to—by discovering who they are and, therefore, what they’re supposed to do in the world as it is.

Many a character comes to accept not only the love of others, but the demands—social and personal—that come with it. They can reconcile work and family, be creative and still make a living, be themselves and still work for The Man. Peggy and Pete manage this, if not with each other. At the end of the first season, Peggy was made into the first female copywriter at the firm (since World War II), only to realize that she’s pregnant with Pete’s child. She gives the baby up for adoption—we see her literally turn her face from it—and her subsequent story shows that such an act can be done with some pain and regret but one can, in her case, “move forward.” One of the most famous exchanges in the series was the flashback to Don visiting Peggy in a mental ward, where he states his creed:

DON: What do they want you to do?

PEGGY: I don’t know.

DON: Yes, you do. Do it, and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much this never happened.

The last line is a killer, and it turns out to be both true and not. Peggy is the only woman Don succeeded in saving, and he did it by telling her to be what the world demands she be while carving out space to make her own demands. The vicissitudes of their working relationship give her opportunities while causing her pain, and she’s never finally free to care about another man until Don goes away and Stan—her subordinate and longtime pal, who knows about her baby— presents himself as the kind of career woman’s supportive husband who didn’t seem really to exist until about 1970. Peggy can be and have what Don can’t be and can’t have.

With the other characters, as well, resolution arrives through acceptance of the world and their social roles in it. They know they should do right by their families and do good work, either by starting their own businesses or happily serving their bosses and clients. As Weiner observed, “I might have started off the show in some way trying to do a critique and an observation of what had gone wrong in America. But I completely changed my opinion as I worked on it.”

‘Mad Men’ Told Americans About Themselves

As for Don, he longs for a love that only gives while expecting nothing in return, but he knows there is no such thing. It seems he will end up alone, lost in his own head no matter how many people are around him. Stealing another man’s name ends up not mattering that much. Meditating at Esalen, Don hears, “A new day. New ideas. A new you.” Many of Don’s colleagues were able to find themselves, while Don is able, at last, to lose himself in the world, for a moment, and have a new revelation about the evolution of the American heart and its longings.

The Coke commercial conveys this gifted ad man’s insight into what changed in the American consciousness in the previous decade.

So we get the Coke “Hilltop” commercial. It conveys this gifted ad man’s insight—and his impersonal manipulations in advertising have all along depended on deeply personal insights—into what changed in the American consciousness in the previous decade. The American belief in progress, in taking action to save the world, has changed. It’s not about actually helping, but about the purity of your heart in wanting to do good in the world. You still have to let people be what they are, free to turn away from you.

A last note: It’s not unambiguously clear in the final episode that Don comes up with the “Hilltop” commercial, though Weiner has since said that he does. Still, it would be hard to imagine Don creating the ad without input from Peggy, especially since her work frequently involved the appropriation of religious imagery for secular ends. Peggy had once confided to him that her goal was to “create something of lasting value,” and he scoffed at the possibility of such a thing in advertising. The show’s finale seems to rebuke that attitude. Perhaps the commercial is the product of Don and Peggy’s collaboration. Perhaps he’s not alone after all.

This article is reprinted, with permission, from the blog of the Library of Law and Liberty.