A couple of weeks ago I watched The Ides of March, George Clooney’s new film about the Ohio primary race in a Presidential election campaign. A wide-eyed optimist (Ryan Gosling) works for a candidate’s campaign team because he believes him to be an honourable, honest, liberal politician of complete integrity. Indeed, for two thirds of the film audiences are led to believe that both men have the same approach to public service and morality. So when Gosling discovers that Clooney has feet of clay how does he react? Well, by selling his silence in return for promotion within the campaign team and a guaranteed senior staff job in the White House if Clooney wins. The two ‘good’ guys turn out to be corrupt and corruptible.
Would anyone in the audience have been surprised? I doubt it and that’s because most of us have a very jaded view of politicians. I can’t think of many films or programmes which cast them in a good light. The Thick of It, House of Cards, Our Friends in the North et al portray them as already corrupt, easily corruptible or active corrupters of others. Even a programme like Yes Minister shows them to be pompous, gullible and flexible—in every sense of that word. Opinion polls consistently put politicians either at, or very near the top of the list of most mistrusted professions.
The rot may have set in with Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which was probably the first major studio film to suggest endemic corruption at the very heart of American politics: with James Stewart as a fresh and very naive senator battling for truth and for his own reputation when others try to stitch him up as the fall guy in a land deal scam. In the end, however, the “little man” triumphs. Yet what director, writer or producer would opt for that ending today? Evan Almighty (2007), which deals with a similar plot, gets around the problem by having a direct intervention from God, albeit in the guise of Morgan Freeman. No-one, it seems, would buy the idea of mere mortals being able to conquer corruption!
The 1939 film caused problems for Joseph Breen, head of the Hays Office (the official moral censor of the US film industry between 1930 and 1968), who objected to “the generally unflattering portrayal of our system of Government, which might well lead to such a picture being considered, both here, and more particularly abroad, as a covert attack on the Democratic form of government.” Indeed, he tried to insist—unsuccessfully—that the director make it clear that “the Senate is made up of a group of fine, upstanding citizens, who labour long and tirelessly for the best interests of the nation.” Can you imagine anyone thinking that they could get away with saying that about today’s Senate, or any other body?
Sixty years later The West Wing went for a slightly different approach, trying to explain how generally decent, well-intentioned politicians have to constantly compromise with unpleasant political and electoral realities, losing most of their passion, vision, hope and ideology along the way. So if politics is capable of corroding so much of what it touches maybe we should consider two questions: what attracts people to politics in the first place and what sort of people are attracted to it?
Politics is about the needs of the party rather than the beliefs of the individual representative. The ‘whipping’ system in most Parliaments and Legislatures tends to emasculate individuality. The Press Office stifles freedom of thought. Ruthless control and manipulation of the selection process weeds out the mavericks at an early stage and keeps potential troublemakers under control. The promise of promotion, trinkets, peerages, honours and quango chairmanships down the line keeps most people on message and in the right voting lobby. Most of the people I have ever known—here and further afield—who have wanted to be MPs, MLAs or councillors are well aware that that’s how the system works: yet even in the smallest parties there’s never a shortage of candidates.
While it may well be true that there was a time when a certain type of person (mostly well heeled and well educated) and another certain type of person (determined to champion the huddled masses) looked upon a political career as a civic, social or moral duty, I’m pretty sure that those types are now few and far between.
I’m old enough to remember the great intellectual, ideological spats between left and right, when politics seemed to teem with idealists of one sort or another. Today, though, it just looks like an awful lot of clones battling for control of the so-called centre ground. Political parties say and do nothing until it has been road tested by polling exercises and focus groups: and I know one thing for sure, poll respondents and focus group members don’t display any signs whatsoever of radical thought or a willingness to endorse difficult decisions. So what we get is mere pap, with agendas and manifestoes so nuanced and dog-whistled as to be almost meaningless. Is there any surprise then, that fewer and fewer people bother to vote and that politicians as a breed are regarded with such ill-disguised contempt?
How many of them, I wonder, actually believe that they can make a difference? How many of them even want to make a difference? How many of them, on the other hand, look upon a career in politics purely in terms of salary, publicity, vanity and personal ambition? When was the last time you listened to a politician who moved you and inspired you with his dreams and his agenda? When was the last time you felt motivated to do something positive as a result of listening to a politician? When was the last time that you felt that you could sit back in your chair reasonably confident that the politicians in Westminster or the Assembly or anywhere else in the world really were acting in the best interests of your country?
Barack Obama is a classic example of how the system can destroy the individual politician. For all of the fact that I fundamentally disagreed with key parts of his political analysis I did believe that his was a big enough voice with a big enough vision to face down the weight of the Senate and Congress voting fodder which would be lined up against him. Yet they have dragged him down into the mud with them for the pitched battles and dream shredding compromises which have, in turn, shredded the hopes and enthusiasm of the millions of new and first-time voters who rowed in behind him. Mr Smith went to Washington in 1939 and beat the system. President Obama went to Washington in 2008 and the system seems to have won. He may defeat Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney next year—but so what? You never get a second chance to beat the system.
Down the centuries individuals and movements have championed democracy, representative government and voting rights for all classes, creeds and genders. Freedoms that most of you reading this take for granted were hard fought and hard won. Yet the political institutions and political representatives we have today seem to me to be a poor legacy of those struggles for freedom and democratic government. It’s a precious legacy, but I see little evidence that modern politicians even recognise it as a legacy worthy of protection and promotion. Too many of them are cogs in their party political machine and content to be cogs in the machine. It rewards them well for compliance and Pavlovian obedience.
Democracy should never be taken for granted and insipid government by equally insipid party hacks should never be tolerated, either. Turning off, tuning out and staying at home on election day is the worst possible option, irrespective of how bad you believe your choice to be. Better that millions of people send a message by spoiling their ballot papers than that falling turnout is dismissed by politicians as a sign that most people are broadly content with the status quo. And maybe, just maybe, if enough people do spoil their voting paper it will encourage new thinking, new boldness, new parties, new hope and re-energised political institutions.
Perhaps the only change you really can believe in is the change you make for yourself. Do you remember Howard Beale, from the film Network (1976), telling us to go to our windows and shout to the world, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”? That time has arrived. Go on, get up, go to your window and shout. Because what’s the point of welcoming the Arab Spring while still putting up with the politics and governments we have across most of the Western world?