Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The anti-democratic strain of political films

I just finished watching and discussing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) with my students today. Man, what a rich film. It really captures machine politics so much better than just about any other film I've seen. What really caught me was this quote from Sen. Paine, as he's explaining to Smith the harsh realities of political life:

I compromised—yes. So that all those years, I could sit in that Senate and serve the people in a thousand honest ways…. I've served our state well, haven't I? We have the lowest unemployment and the highest federal grants. But, well, I've had to compromise, had to play ball. You can't count on people voting, half the time they don't vote, anyway. That's how states and empires have been built since time began.

Doesn't that just nail it? Bosses don't need to control their politicians all or even most of the time. Machine politicians are free to represent their constituents on all but just a few key bills, and then they have to do as they're told. And the machine politicians can rationalize it because, most of the time, they're giving the people what they want, even though they're counting on people not to notice the graft they're enabling. Man, I spent four years figuring this out during my dissertation research. I should have just watched this movie.

Okay, so that's great. But I couldn't help noticing that Sen. Smith was basically the one honest guy in the Senate, and, not coincidentally, he was the only one that hadn't been elected. Apparently, the electoral system taints anyone who goes through it. I noticed the same thing in The Candidate (1972), which I'm showing my students next week. In that one, McKay starts out as a passionate, liberal anti-poverty lawyer. Then he runs for office and is told to stifle his true passions. By the time he wins, he has no idea what he stands for. Elections have ruined a decent man.

And isn't it the same thing with Dave (1993)? In that one, a cynical president who has worked his way up the political chain to the highest office in the land is struck down by illness and is replaced by a guy who looks just like him but, thanks to his lack of electoral experience, isn't jaded. So basically you just get a de-electorized version of the same president, and it turns out he's much better.

Look, I recognize that there's plenty in elections to be cynical about. But it really annoys me when filmmakers - and political pundits - speak about elections as though they were a distraction from good government instead of the cause of it. We heard that from the Baker-Hamilton commission last year when they insisted on releasing their Iraq report after the 2006 elections so as not to inject politics into it, as though the war weren't the crucial issue in the elections.

Jacobs and Shapiro summed it up best in their book Politicians Don't Pander:
Why has the derogatory term "pander" been pinned on politicians who respond to public opinion? The answer is revealing: the term is deliberately deployed by politicians, pundits, and other elites to belittle government responsiveness to public opinion and reflects a long-standing fear, uneasiness, and hostility among elites toward popular consent and influence over the affairs of government.


Anonymous said...

Try thinking of it in aristotelian terms (modified). Society can be governed by the few or the many, and government can be enlightened or selfish.

The best form of government is enlightened popular rule, with a population of citizens who govern themselves well by voting and behaving as if their only concern was the good of the polity.

The second-best would be rule by a benevolent dictator who overrides the selfish or ignorant tendencies of the general population with firm, enlightened wisdom.

The worst form would be rule by a selfish despot who uses the power of government to increase his own pleasure and power.

3rd best is what we've got: voters who are often selfish and/or ignorant and a system of rules that binds politicians to such voters. In doing so we lose out on the full benefits of a great leader (e.g. Redford's character at the beginning of The Candidate) but we avoid (or punish) politicians who are completely corrupt. That is, we force our politicians to heed our wishes, then we spend our time wishing that Britney wasn't so, you know, trashy that we can't tear our eyes away.

The movies you cite are fantasies--"what if we could have uncompromised leaders?"--but that's what movies are for. Hollywood could just as easily make horror films about BAD uncompromised leaders, but that would not be as profitable.

lidzville said...

Surely someone has studied people serving in elected office by appointment. Do we know if they behave like Mr. Smith? Did the Johnson and Ford presidencies, for example, share any characteristics that were tied to how those guys arrived to the office?

Seth Masket said...

Good question, but I don't think we'll get any leverage on it from the presidency. Ford was the only one who got in there without winning a national election, and his behavior can't tell us a whole lot.

There is some literature on the way termed out legislators behave in their final term. They shirk. That is, they're less likely to follow district public opinion when the reelection incentive is gone. There's no clear answer as to whether that's a good or a bad thing. Shirking can be an act of political courage or one of selfish stupidity.

Bush is termed out right now and is currently shirking public opinion on the war. Is this stupid or courageous? Depends who you ask.

Seth Masket said...

Responding to Anonymous up above, doesn't our theory of democracy suggest that we needn't distinguish between selfish and enlightened voters? That is, isn't the whole idea that millions of people pursuing their own private ends wind up enhancing the public welfare? Maybe I'm reading too much Adam Smith into my James Madison, but I'm a bit ooged out by the notion of leaders basing their decisions on their impression of whether voters were being selfish or public-minded in the last election.

I see your point about Hollywood fantasies, but wouldn't it also be possible to produce a fantasy in which an election makes politicians better rather than worse?

Anonymous said...

"I see your point about Hollywood fantasies, but wouldn't it also be possible to produce a fantasy in which an election makes politicians better rather than worse?"

Possible, yes. That would mean a script in which a fundamentally corrupt person runs for office and is "cured" by the act of campaigning. Usually, I would think it would be difficult to convince the audience that elections are redeeming. However, isn't that the gist of Eddie Murphy's "The Distinguished Gentleman"?

I should add that there are some movies about the corruption of politics but the end result is that good folks run for office themselves, e.g. "City Hall":