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Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in Netflix's House of Cards
I've always been fascinated by the 1950s and 60s depiction of Space Age optimism. Since I wasn't alive at the time, I have no idea as to whether it's an accurate portrayal of the cultural zeitgeist, or just a layer of marketing plus a rose-colored nostalgic remembrance of things past. But in design and technological aspiration, there seemed to be positive feelings about the future. As a culture, we've always had problems and inequalities, but we built things in hope of a "Great Society," and dreamed of things that may never be. We built roads, we built bridges, we built towers that stretched into the clouds, and rockets that went to the Moon. And people imagined days in which we would live in domed cities here on Earth and in outer space, wear silver jumpsuits, drive flying cars, and everything would be nuclear powered.

However, things didn't turn out exactly as planned. Next year will be 2015, and still no hoverboards and Nike isn't making shoes with power laces. Whatever optimism that may have existed in the culture so many years ago, has given way to a significant amount of cynicism and distrust. All of those dreams of tomorrow are too expensive or too hard to even imagine anymore. And it's a cynicism that's pervasive throughout society about both public and private institutions. In 1958, 73 percent of the public said they trusted the federal government to do what's right. Last year, that number was 19 percent. Part of it is the continued rhetoric of right-wing conservatives who've been running against, and trying to defund government programs, for the past 40+ years. But it's also a feeling held by some on the left, just in a different way. While they trust government with health care and regulation, they are also deeply suspicious about the NSA, drones, corporate influence, and even the ability of the United States to use "soft power" to influence on the international stage.

When I was thinking about a topic for this week's column, I wondered about how the depiction of government in pop culture plays into this calculus? Usually in most movies and television shows, government is depicted as inept, inefficient or corrupt. So does that feed into those feelings of cynicism and erode a belief in government among the public? Or is it just a reflection of what already exists?

Continue below the fold for more.

"The way people in democracies think of the government as something different from themselves is a real handicap. And, of course, sometimes the government confirms their opinion." Lewis Mumford
Over at The Nation, Greg Marx once wrote an article about research that suggests the way the press covers politics and government erodes belief in public institutions. The way politics is reported in most mainstream outlets is like a sporting event. The coverage is about process (i.e. what is the strategy or the motivation) instead of covering the ins and outs of different topics. Think about it this way, when was the last time, after a policy speech by the president or any major candidate, the reporter covering it actually discussed the policy (e.g. minimum wage, health care, etc.) instead of speculating about what the policy "means" in a political context? Therefore, the theory goes, news coverage is inherently cynical about every institution, diminishes expectations about government, and implies everyone is a self-serving bastard, which plays right into the Republican message about government.

Now sidestep a little to the fictional, entertainment side of things. Almost every modern depiction of politics is overwhelmingly negative, and the view of government not much better. Government agents in movies and TV are either corrupt, inept, or part of a global conspiracy to take over the world. The main character might be the one "good" government worker fighting the system. If the lead character is a child fighting the system, government workers will inevitably show up to make his/her life a living hell. Child social workers can never see true love, and will invariably rip kids away from loving parents. If aliens are planning an invasion of Earth, the government will be inept in its response or cover up the truth. If an alien lands to say hello to humanity, the government will try to kill it, experiment on it, or fuck up the alien's plan to help humanity. And if a kid is trying to help an alien, the government will try to fuck that up too. Recently, Jason Lynch at the A.V. Club had a piece asking, "Where did all the inspiring TV politicians go?" Almost all of the current fictional TV politicians are either murderers, adulterers or buffoons. Some might say that's a reflection of the public's exasperation with the current state of real-life politics.

However, it's been argued the general cynicism that people have, and that's reflected in pop culture, is an outgrowth of a loss of faith in government from Watergate, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam era, etc., that's only grown with time. And you definitely see it in the immediate aftermath of those events with the skepticism and paranoia of 70s films. For example:

  • The Candidate - An idealistic candidate is slowly corrupted by a desire to win, as his campaign transitions more and more from stark policy choices to appearances and mealy-mouthed phrases like "five-point programs" that mean nothing.
  • The Parallax View - The movie was released a month before the House Judiciary Committee voted for articles of impeachment against President Nixon. The most memorable scene in the film is an assassin training montage that uses random historical images to convey a sinister message.
  • Three Days of the Condor - The original novel had drug trafficking as the purpose of the internal conspiracy. After the 1973 energy crisis, the filmmakers decided to use oil instead. James Grady, the author of the novel, agreed that this was a better and more plausible purpose ... fast forward some years to the Iran-Contra scandal.
  • Capricorn One - When NASA's first manned mission to Mars encounters technical issues, instead of canceling the flight, the powers that be instead decide to fake the landing (ala the Moon Hoax conspiracy theories). The New York Times review of the movie claimed "Watergate may not have inspired Capricorn One, but it made its thesis more acceptable [and] its plot more credible."

To be fair, there has always been a certain amount of skepticism about politics in artistic representations of it. When we think of films of the past depicting politics, idealistic stories like Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, back before the Republicans ruined the filibuster. The political world in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a rather dark one, since the United States Senate is more or less in the pocket of special interests, but the story is one where good triumphs through virtue.
"No, sir, I will not yield! And this same man, Mr. James Taylor, came down here and offered me a seat in this Senate for the next 20 years if I voted for a dam that he knew, and I knew, was a fraud. But if I dared to open my mouth against that dam, he promised to break me in two."
But one important factor about films of that era was the Hays Code, which conditioned how grim the depictions could be. Even so, movies like All the King's Men and Otto Preminger's Advise & Consent offer thinly veiled dark, dramatic depictions of real-life politics. And even though the United States Senate website as well as the author Allen Drury denied it, the story for Advise & Consent is based on actual events and the characters are stand-ins for real historical figures, with the main story being based on the Alger Hiss hearings, McCarthyism, and the events surrounding the suicide of Wyoming Sen. Lester C. Hunt, who killed himself in the Capitol after being blackmailed over his son's homosexuality.

Like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, there are positive depictions of politics and government. Both The West Wing and its spiritual predecessor The American President proceed from an idealistic, Capraesque vision of American politics that believes in the positive aspects of government and more importantly the positive aspects of people in government. Juli Weiner once penned an article at Vanity Fair in which she argued Aaron Sorkin had been influential in shaping the current generation of public servants. In Sorkin's political universe, most of those in government are good public servants who are trying to do their best to make a difference. Those with principles are victorious over those who spread half-truths and distortions. And all that is necessary for the best political policy to carry the day, no matter how controversial it might be, is the guts to say what you mean and mean what you say.

"Let Bartlet be Bartlet."
"Our leaders, government people are [usually] portrayed either as dolts or as Machiavellian somehow. The characters in this show are neither. They are flawed, to be sure, because you need characters in drama to have flaws. But they, all of them, have set aside probably more lucrative lives for public service. They are dedicated not just to this president, but to doing good, rather than doing well. The show is kind of a valentine to public service. It celebrates our institutions. It celebrates education often. These characters are very well educated, and while sometimes playfully snobby about it, there is, in all of them, a love of learning and appreciation of education." —Aaron Sorkin
However, Capra and Sorkin's version of politics does not always track with real-world politics. "Good" and right do not always win in the end, lies and distortions can work all too well, and "how" something is said or done can be judged to be just as important, if not more important, than what is actually said.

David Simon's critically acclaimed The Wire took a much darker view of institutions and the people involved in politics. The main issue at the heart of the show is the futility and destructiveness of the War on Drugs. But the show is also deeply cynical about government and its ability to affect change and be changed. Over the course of the show, every institution, whether it be local or state government, labor unions, the public school district, the police department, or even the Baltimore Sun, are in some way corrupt or incompetent, and fail in their stated goals. And the "good" people who come into those institutions, with ideas and hope of changing things for the better, are either corrupted or ultimately crushed by the weight of the system.

"I am wholly pessimistic about American society. I believe that The Wire is a show about the end of the American empire. I believe that we all—or our kids—are going to live that event. And how we end up at the end of it and where we end up and whether or not we can survive it on what terms is going to be the only question from now on. The great conceit of The Wire [is that] every single moment on this planet from here on out human beings are worth less, human beings have lost some of their value." —David Simon
  • Netflix's House of Cards, an adaption of the BBC miniseries of the same name that starred Ian Richardson, depicts politics as a chess game with disposable and usable pieces. Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood sets out on a quest of vengeance after being slighted, and destroys lives and fortunes as he accumulates power.
  • Both George Clooney's The Ides of March (an adaption of Beau Willimon's play Farragut North) and Mike Nichols' Primary Colors (based on Joe Klein's novel of the same name) depict the corruption of young political aides as they sacrifice their ideals for career advancement and the lesser of evils.
“This is a man’s world we live in. Because of the axis of dick.”
  • Armando Iannucci's Veep, like its British sister-show The Thick of It, argue public policy is not born out of good ideas, but is a product which results from spinning the bad ideas that didn't play well. The words under the image of Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Vice President Selina Meyer above are said by the character after she is felt up by the husband of the prime minister of Finland. Selina comes off as "What if Sarah Palin was a Democrat from Maryland?" But in the second season, they've also given her some good aspects where you can see how she got to this position in politics in the first place. Also, similar to the situation The Thick of It, there's a balance between Selina fucking things up, and Selina trying her best and having the media twist events to something beyond her control. Veep is at its best when the absurdity of the situations hit a little too close to home of the reality. But still, almost every character in both shows is either inept or corrupt.
  • I've written about Shonda Rhimes' Scandal in a previous review. The depiction of American politics in the show is both soap opera-ish and probably the darkest of any TV series. Scandal exists in a universe where it seems like every conspiracy theory may be true, and every rumor you've ever heard about a politician is probably true or much worse than is believed. The president of the United States is a murderer who was installed through a rigged election, his Sarah Palin-esque vice president seems to have murdered her husband, the first lady was raped by her father-in-law, the president's Democratic opponent in the last election killed his wife's lover in cold blood, and a super-secret spy agency that no one knows about and answers to no authority (not even the president) kills and imprisons with impunity. Critics have noted that within the show "no American institution—not governmental or corporate—has your best interests at heart, and human relationships are a kind of beautiful addiction, irresistible in the moment but spiraling outward to infect all they touch."
"Make no mistake. If we unleash our military power on nations that later prove innocent, it will rank as one of the most despicable sneak attacks in history. Any chance for peace in the Middle East will vanish forever. Even if it costs American lives in the future, we must delay the attack until we are certain of our ground."
  • FOX's 24 is thought of by some as a conservative-leaning show and a product of the Bush era because of its depiction of torture. However, it's interesting to note that the only positive depiction of a politician in the show's history was Democratic President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), and one of the show's major villains was Republican President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin). The depiction of the American government though is one that is bureaucratic, corrupt, filled with moles for different interests, and willing to sell out Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) at every chance. But, also of note, is that the ultimate causes and sources of each season's terrorist attacks were usually based on left-wing concerns, such as corporate influence.
  • Like 24, Showtime's Homeland is set in a universe where the United States government is a bureaucratic nightmare more concerned about political position than efficient results. The Vice President (Jamie Sheridan) is a Dick Cheney-ish career oportunist whose orders killed 82 children, leading an administration that doesn't really give a shit about anyone, not even the people that work for it.
  • Arguably, the most positive depiction on television is NBC's Parks and Recreation. Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is a neurotic pollyanna, but she's a dreamer that cares about people and wants to make a difference. And even though the show portrays the public as largely ignorant, the people of Pawnee, Indiana actually give a shit about their community. They show up to public hearings and city council, even if it's to show up and say crazy shit.

Originally posted to 医生的宫殿 on Mon Feb 03, 2014 at 01:18 PM PST.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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