Politics as Spectacle: Cinematic Campaigns and Political Message

Lurking in the shadows throughout America are citizens who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. I’m one of those people, proud to have voted for Nader (with the rationalization that I lived in a “safe state” – Washington – where Al Gore won by a substantial margin).[1] Many other Nader sympathizers resist answering the question, relying on that hoary old American notion that your vote is a private thing. I don’t condemn them for their reticence: most of the time the question is asked by a sore Democrat who wants to land a few blows of blame on someone who merely exercised their democratic right.

Most of those who voted for Nader did so out of what they perceived to be a lack of difference between the two parties. Nader himself campaign on this theme, pointing out that candidates Al Gore and Joe Lieberman has just as many corporate ties and big-money pals as George Bush and Dick Cheney. Any differences between them were insignificant, Nader claimed. “The only difference between Gore and Bush is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when big corporations knock on their door,” Nader repeated throughout his campaign. Any perceived differences between the candidates, Nader claimed, has “more to do with words than deeds.”[2]

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A similar situation has been forming in the 2004 election. Nader is again pursuing the gold ring of the Presidency, though this time without the backing of the Green Party. Most of the Nader supporters from 2000 are planning to vote for John Kerry – or perhaps more accurately, vote against George Bush. Discussions of the merits of the two men abound in both the physical and virtual worlds. Not only are many online discussion boards devoted to political talk, even boards on sites like Cinematography.com or 8mmFilmShooting.com have their occasional political rhetorical bouts.

Politics by its very nature is not private. Derived from the Greek word for city – polis – it has to do with the affairs of the city-state, the relations between citizens. It is not strictly limited to the affairs of government: politics occurs in boardrooms and bedrooms, in back alleys and on the streets, in colleges and churches. If there is a group of people, politics is likely going on. After all, “Man is by nature a political animal.”[3]

In contemporary American society, electoral politics has evolved an elaborate ritualistic system of speeches, debates, and other public appearances (known as “photo ops”). Coupled with the mass media madness of television, American politics takes on the absurd grandiosity of Japanese Noh drama, mixed with the spectacle of ritual sadism and public suicide.[4] In today’s America, Yukio Mishima could be President.[5] Politics has become spectacle, entertainment. Political thought is communicated in ten second sound bites. The merger of politics and entertainment, coupled with the corporate dominance of media (frighteningly depicted in The Insider and Network), has made a world where a candidate like Bob Roberts is entirely possible.[6]

Bob Roberts presents perhaps the ultimate nightmare hybrid of the dueling dualism and limiting of ideas created by the effectively bipolar two-party system of American politics. An amalgam of the last two legitimate political revolutions in America, Roberts is both ebullient 1960s folk singer and selfish 1980s yuppie. His campaign for the Senate in the 1990 Pennsylvania race pits him against classic liberal Brickley Paiste.[7] The singular political tactic employed by Paiste is to appeal to the better, more rational nature of the voters, while Roberts’ campaign is based primarily on emotion, flag waving and catchy tunes.

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Roberts is clearly the product of the Reagan years, his campaign employing the same patriotic imagery associated with the Reagan campaign. If Ronald Reagan could sing, surely he would have. Roberts also mouths many of the same attitudes espoused by the hopelessly out-of-touch politicians and callous country club golfers of Flint, Michigan in Roger and Me. Roberts also shares Reagan’s legendary charisma and broad appeal. As demonstrated by Mrs. Davis, the mother who brings her sons to meet Roberts, the candidate has cross-generational allure. Ronald Reagan enjoyed similar popularity. His vague but inspiring message of nationalist pride spoke to older voters, the middle class and young people as well.

Political films, especially satires like Bob Roberts, are rare in American narrative cinema. Experimental and documentary filmmakers comprise the majority of political discourse in American cinema. The film industry (a.k.a. “Hollywood”) may not be made up of individuals who are politically conservative, but the industry itself is as conservative as any other. Studio heads are as single-minded and devoted to profits as any steel baron or oil monopolist. They do not resist political films because of ideology as much as the commonly held belief that political films do not do good box office.[8]

When a political narrative film is produced, the focus is generally on the spectacle of politics. This can be easily understood by the fact that a film about the arcane details of policy-making would be about as dramatically compelling as watching CSPAN on Xanax.[9] The first rule in Hollywood is that a narrative film must be entertaining. It must provide characters with which the audience can identify, plot points that will keep them in their seats, and dilemmas that are solved easily within a 2-hour time-frame.[10]

For this reason, political elections are a common focus of Hollywood political cinema. A political race is pure spectacle: while a candidate is expected to address issues while campaigning, there is an even greater demand that the candidate appeal to a multitude of voters. The candidate must broaden his support base and attempt to be “all things to all people.”[11] The only way to do this is either to avoid answering questions or modify the issues until palatable to the vast majority of voters. There’s not a politician alive who can avoid the questions of the press for very long. So the only realistically practical tactic is to modify the issues.

“Change the story, change the lead,” Conrad Bean advises in Wag the Dog. This is the mantra of a political campaign. When Bill Clinton pursued the Presidency in 1992, the Bush team sought to make the race about “character” issues. Their rhetorical focus was not on what President Bush had accomplished in four years, but rather on the perceived flaws of Clinton the Man: his adultery, his draft-dodging, his general moral turpitude. The simple response crafted by strategist James Carville has become a classic political haiku: “It’s the economy, stupid.”[12]

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Carville changed the story and the lead. Every time the press would publish a story about Clinton’s perceive lack of character, the Clinton campaign would come back with their economic plan, their health care plan, their jobs plan, or their education plan. Eventually this made George Bush, who was sitting atop a moribund economy that was quickly approaching recession levels, seem as if he had no plan at all. This led to his resounding loss and considerable setbacks for Republicans in Congress. A newly elected Democratic President coupled with a Democratic Congress resulted in a brief spasm of old school liberalism in the form of a futile attempt to pass national health care reform. This major gaffe by the Clinton administration paved the way for the “Republican Revolution,” led by Newt Gingrich. This rapid right-left-right swing in national politics left the country with Republican dominance of Congress that continues to this day.

The United States Constitution does not mention political parties, and was designed with various mechanisms to stifle dominance of one particular political group. When property ownership was removed as a requirement for voting in the early 1800s, the right to vote was extended to a much larger body of citizens. Political parties were instituted to mobilize voters and were firmly established as part of the American political landscape by the 1830s. Two parties now dominate government and politics, numbering among them every President since 1852, as well as 99 out of 100 Senators and 432 out of 435 Representatives in Congress.[13]

The necessity of a candidate to provide broad appeal, combined with the limitation of choices offered of a two-party system, has led the political parties to positions that are often remarkably similar. It has also led to a successful strategy for some Democrats: appropriating Republican issues – changing the story and the lead. Bill Clinton was legendary for stealing traditionally conservative Republican issues such as welfare reform, zero-deficit spending, and a balanced federal budget. Clinton was a member of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization of moderate Democrats who are credited with moving the party from the left to the center in 1992.[14] Clinton and other DLC members campaigned successfully by taking centrist positions of a number of key political issues.

In Bulworth, Democratic Senator Jay Billington Bulworth is described as “liberal wine in a conservative bottle.” In the past Bulworth was identified with liberal causes, as illustrated by the wall of photographs shown in the opening sequence. Bulworth has switched positions in the Senate race of 1996, a year when Richard Gephardt was fond of saying, “We’re all New Democrats now.”[15] The not-so-subtle message from the DLC to Democratic candidates that year was to adhere to the centrist agenda.

It is presumably this cynical shift in message that has pushed Bulworth to his mental breakdown. His corruption seems to give him less guilt than his abandonment of African-Americans. Bulworth takes the bribe from insurance lobbyist Graham Crockett with ease, knowing he will not even be alive for the crucial vote. He feels no guilt that his advisers “always put the big Jews” on his schedule: that’s where the money is. What has finally pushed Bulworth over the edge is that political expediency has forced him to repudiate many of his previous positions, which appear to have been honest and heart-felt.

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Preaching from the pulpit to a mostly black audience, Bulworth tells that the reason he has not supported any issues beneficial to their community is that they do not give him money. But he is not the only Democrat to abandon them: “You got half your kids are out of work and the other half are in jail. Do you see ANY Democrat doing anything about it?” Campaigning Democrats like Bulworth mouth empty platitudes to black voters while doing the bidding of corporate masters in order to receive campaign contributions and personal wealth.

The Candidate presents what could be Bulworth at the very beginning of his political career. Bill McKay is certain of his beliefs and content with his role as an environmental activist. When enticed into running for the Senate against a popular incumbent Republican, he insists on speaking his mind and running on his own beliefs. But as his campaign progresses he is forced into more and more compromises, from seeking the assistance of his father to taking vague and indistinct positions on controversial issues.

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The theme of political corruption through corporate or other financial influence is not explored in The Candidate. Instead the film is an exploration of the blandness of message a politician must assume in order to gain a broad appeal. McKay initially wins attention due to both his name (his father is a former Senator) and the remarkable freshness of his message. In the early days of his campaign McKay is shown talking with hippies on the beach, talking with people in Watts, and attempting to talk with poor mothers in a hospital. In each of these instances McKay attempts to talk to people about the issues and listen to their needs. Later as his campaign progresses, he begins to reach out to the moneyed Democrats. At a ladies luncheon he begins his speech with a banal political joke: “I apologize for eating all the shrimp.”

Finally his attempts to be all things to all people results in McKay mouthing little more that platitudes. In the back of his limo between campaign stops, McKay rattles off a playfully exhausted cut-up of his stump speech: “Can’t any longer play off black against old — young against poor. This country cannot house its houseless — feed its foodless.” In the end he is victorious but confused, no longer certain of what he believes or what he is supposed to do now that he is elected.

Blandness in politics leads to voter apathy. No more than 50% of Americans bother to vote these days. An oft-heard complaint is the perceived lack of choices. “All politicians are the same” seems to be an all-too-common sentiment. The lack of an educated citizenry may be the fault of the citizens themselves, but a citizenry too bored to vote is the result of uninspiring politicians who seek to disturb no one and appeal to everyone.

The merger of politics and entertainment creates a world where politicians must seek to inspire and win approval through the manipulation of images rather than ideas. Were a politician like Bulworth to arrive on the American scene, he would without a doubt receive the attention heaped on the new ghetto-styled rapping version of the Senator. A spectacle like Bulworth would excite people, but with images not ideas. When Bulworth stops his absurd rap singing and really tears down to the meat of the issues (mouthing the words of both Nina and drug dealer L.D., his new constituents), the now disinterested media begins to cut him off and the first attempt is made on his life. Power will allow you to entertain the masses, but power will not allow you to speak truth to the masses.

The spectacle of a Bob Roberts candidacy, even in a relatively insignificant state like Pennsylvania, would also attract hordes of media attention. Both these candidates reach the zenith of their appeal by mixing their radical message with music, making their political ideas more palatable to a general audience. Though he does not employ his personal musical talents to persuade, Bill McKay abandons his early commitment to an issues-focused campaign, one that speaks the truth to both power and the people, in order to secure broad voter appeal and win the election. These films illustrate a strong and dangerous trend in American politics: the sacrifice of message and substance for the immediacy and power of image.

NOTES

1. For the record, Al Gore received 1,247,652 votes in Washington State, while Bush received 1,108,864. Gore took the state with an ample margin of 138,788 votes. Nader’s 103,002 votes represents the majority of that difference. Confrontation on this issue usually gives me a chance to remind Democrats that over 20,000 votes in Florida were never counted, Bush “won” with 271 electoral votes to Gore’s 266, while Gore “lost” with 50,996,116 actual votes to Bush’s 50, 456, 169 – and that in the end Bush was made President by a vote of 5-4.

2. The central recurrent theme of his campaign, Nader repeated these key phrases in nearly every interview or other media appearance. Some critics pointed to this as evidence that Nader was nothing more than an opposition candidate with few solutions and numerous complaints. “Nader the invader stalks Gore,” The Guardian, Sunday July 2, 2000.

3. Aristotle. Politics. Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1944.

4. Noh drama is an archaic dramatic form, performed from brief texts that contain very little plot. Performances are highly stylized and progress extremely slowly. Two hundred lines might equal two hours, to put it in Hollywood screenwriter parlance. Noh integrates singing, dancing, speech and instrumental music (one flute and three drums). Characters may speak lines meant for others, and a character may refer to himself in the third person. Dictionary of Global Culture. Edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1997.

5. Yukio Mishima was one of the greatest authors in Japanese literature. He was also a fascist and militarist who believed Japan should return to the samurai tradition. In 1970 Mishima and four of his followers attempted to incite a military coup. The soldiers of the Japanese army ridiculed Mishima. In response the author committed supuku, ritual suicide, by plunging a ceremonial dagger into his stomach. Dictionary of Global Culture, ibid.

6. Bill Clinton played his sax on national television. John Kerry plays guitar. Put a guitar in George W. Bush’s hands and you’ve got Bob Roberts with a Texas twang.

7. A role which rightly could be credited “Gore Vidal as Himself,” except that Gore Vidal is not a Senator. He is however a distant relative of Al Gore.

8. Bulworth had a $30 million budget and eventually grossed $26 million. Primary Colors was a pricey $65 million (John Travolta is rumored to have been paid $20 million and incurred $4 million in expenses,) and grossed a pitiful $38 million. Wag the Dog grossed over $43 million theatrically and cost only $15 million to make. Bob Roberts reportedly cost under $4 million and grossed a little more than that. Oliver Stone’s JFK cost $40 million and took in $70 million.

9. According to the web site PDRHealth.org (the consumer-oriented information depot from Thomson Healthcare, the fine folks who publish the Physicians Desk Reference), “Xanax is a tranquilizer used in the short-term relief of symptoms of anxiety or the treatment of anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorder is marked by unrealistic worry or excessive fears and concerns. Xanax is also used in the treatment of panic disorder, which appears as unexpected panic attacks and may be accompanied by a fear of open spaces called agoraphobia.” This description makes Xanax the election year drug of choice in 2004.

10. Many Hollywood films even follow a particular formula. George Lucas’ revelation that Star Wars was structured in accordance to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces resulted in the book being purchased by thousands of would-be screen scribes and producers looking for the formula to a Sure Thing. David Mamet’s screenplay for The Verdict seems to follow the basic formula of “the journey of the hero” set forth by Campbell. Frank Galvin receives “the call” – to assist the helpless victim. Mickey Morissey is his “helper.” Laura Fischer certainly represents “the goddess,” even perhaps “the temptress.” (They are often the same.) Certainly Galvin is in “the belly of the whale,” or “passage into the realm of night.” There are “trials and initiations” for Galvin. A brief summary of the steps of the journey, where the quoted terms are found, appears in Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 1973.

11. “I am made all things to all people, that I might save some.” 1 Corinthians 9:22.

12. In The War Room, George Stephanopoulos refers to the phrase and its counterparts, written on a chalkboard in the campaign headquarters: “Don’t forget health care. It’s the economy, stupid. The debate, stupid.” It is wone of the most widely recognized and useful mantras devised in recent politics. Googling (www.google.com) the phrase results in over 18,000 hits, many of them “It’s still the economy, stupid,” demonstrating the continuing power and relevance of this simple slogan.

13. John F. Bibby, “Political Parties in the United States.” Publication of the United States Department of State. http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/election04/parties.htm

14. The DLC still exerts considerable influence on the Democratic Party, as evidenced by their universal disdain for early front-runner Howard Dean. Adam Nagourney, “Centrist Democrats Warn Party Not to Present Itself as ‘Far Left’” New York Times, July 28, 1993.

15. “Gephardt Says Democrats Will Behave Differently If Given Power,” CNN All Politics, Sept 16, 1996. http://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1996/news/9609/16/gephardt/index.shtml