Two of the most famous figures in the Democratic Party, Senators Joseph Lieberman and Hillary Clinton, have introduced the Media Marketing Accountability Act of 2001, which, among other things, would make it illegal to market or promote adult-rated rap and rock-and-roll albums to kids under 17 and would empower the Federal Trade Commission to decide which R-rated films may be marketed to minors.

In April, Senator Clinton said, "If you label something as inappropriate for children and then go out and target it to children, you are engaging in false and deceptive advertising." And this summer Democrats, occasionally joined by some Republicans, have browbeaten entertainment-industry leaders at Congressional hearings, accusing them of evading the rating system and selling salacious material to young people. But the R rating on films doesn't mean kids under 17 shouldn't see them; it means they shouldn't see them without an adult. Many parents want their kids to see such R-rated films as Billy Elliot and Erin Brockovich. As for records, the "parental advisory" sticker informs the buyer that the record contains profanity, but it does not have an age recommendation.

Lieberman disingenuously says, "We're not asking the FTC to regulate content in any way, or even to make judgments about what products are appropriate for children." But that's precisely what his radical bill does. It empowers the FTC to "establish the criteria" for new ratings for records and films, and would legally require record companies and film studios to create and implement "an age-based rating or labeling system." Marketing would be deemed to be targeting minors if "the Commission determines that the advertising or marketing is otherwise directed or targeted to minors." With the FTC defining marketing to minors on the basis of FTC-mandated ratings criteria, backed by the crippling financial penalties for "unfair or deceptive acts or practices," it would be able to decide which music and movies could be mass-marketed and thus, by and large, which ones would be released.

Lieberman and Clinton apparently believe that federal bureaucrats are the ideal arbiters of the appropriateness of entertainment for teenagers. Lieberman told, "We know the difference between Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan and some of the slasher flicks that are aimed at teenage boys. That's a decision best left to the administrative agency."

Two days before the legislation was introduced, the FTC issued a surreal report that criticized record companies for advertising stickered albums on the World Wrestling Federation TV show SmackDown! because 36 percent of its audience is under 18. So according to the FTC it's OK for younger teens to watch guys knocking the living daylights out of each other, but it's not OK to sell rap music to those same kids! Not surprisingly, more than 70 percent of the albums the FTC monitored were by African-American artists. (The FTC also included the rock band Rage Against the Machine, whose lyrics are frequently political, on the list.) At the Hip-Hop Summit in June, attended by African-American leaders including Cornel West, Martin Luther King III, Louis Farrakhan and several black members of Congress, even those who criticized the content of certain albums agreed that this legislation is dangerous and unfair.

While the FTC investigation was conducted in response to the Columbine murders, Lieberman is a one-man slippery slope who makes no bones about his desire to regulate nonviolent dirty words, complaining that "the leading music companies…have been doing little if anything to respond to the FTC report and curb the marketing of obscenity-laced records to kids."

Although the Washington elite focuses its rhetoric on corporations, young people view these outbursts as attacks on youth culture. Just as baby boomers didn't view Bob Dylan and the Beatles as "products" of CBS and EMI, today's young people view rap and rock music as their own culture, which appears to be precisely what middle-aged pundits hate about it. George Will, for example, castigated rap lyrics last September on ABC's This Week. Six months later, Will lavished praise on Sopranos executive producer David Chase for his creation. Both Eminem's Slim Shady and Chase's Tony Soprano are violent, bigoted characters whose humanity and contradictions are nonetheless illuminated by their creators. The primary difference is that rap is the cultural language of young people.

Obviously, people of good will disagree about culture, and there is nothing wrong with fierce criticism of any genre. But Lieberman et al. want to go far beyond criticism. They want government to have veto power over the marketing, and thus the economic viability, of entertainment.

By supporting this legislation Democrats may pick up a few "swing voters" who like the symbolism of entertainment-bashing, but in doing so they risk alienating young voters, fans of pop culture of all ages and civil libertarians. It is hard to imagine the young people who still turn out in the thousands to hear Ralph Nader speak at campuses being attracted by Lieberman's approach. Voter turnout among young people is at an all-time low, around 28 percent; and according to Voter News Service, while Clinton had a 12-percentage-point margin over Bush among 18-29 year olds in 1992 and a 19-percentage-point margin in 1996, Gore-Lieberman won this demographic by a mere 2 percent in 2000. None of the published postelection analyses by Democrats have focused on restoring turnout or Democratic margins among young voters.

Condescending to, alienating and demeaning young people is bad morally and bad politically. No progressive movement has ever succeeded without young people. Continued culture-bashing by Democrats opens the door for more erosion of their natural base to culture-savvy libertarians like Jesse Ventura.