There is a running theme in pop culture that running the country is really simple — it’s the politicians who make it complicated. And yes, this obviously reflects real life memes (We should run government like a business! This politician is awesome because he’s a “Washington outsider.”), but in fiction we can actually make it happen.
Part of the appeal is the perennial fantasy of the ordinary Joe or Jane suddenly elevated into a fantastic life — superhero, monarch, movie star, leader. But I think it’s also drawn on an underlying belief about politics: government is simple but politicians make it complicated. They’re corrupt, act out of self-interest, too partisan to do what’s right. If we could get that out the way and convince them to knock off the bullshit, finding solutions to our problems would be a cakewalk.
So by putting someone in office who’s not a politician — a real American, a plainspoken guy (almost always a guy) who has no dog in the hunt, we can fantasize about how easy it would be for him/us to make this country work the way it’s supposed to.
Dave is a perfect example. Kevin Kline [edited to correct name] as the eponymous protagonist becomes the president’s double; when the president has a stroke, Dave steps in (part of a scheme by political insiders to keep the upright Veep from stepping in and thwarting their plan). Miraculously, he’s able to set the country on the right track because he actually cares about people more than politics. In Gabriel Over the White House (admittedly not a regular guy — the protagonist is possessed by an angel), Walter Huston creates a New Deal-like jobs program to end the depression, ends Prohibition and declares martial law so he can take down organized crime. Then he builds the world’s mightiest navy, so just the hint the US might use it will keep the nations of the world at peace.
Over on TV, Mr. Sterling was a TV series starring Josh Brolin as the son of a Democratic senator appointed to fill his late father’s position. Only instead of being a Democrat as everyone assumes, he’s an independent — OMG, he can vote principle over party! Or Kiefer Sutherland as the Designated Survivor forced into the presidency.
It’s no surprise there are many more examples. Distaste for politics has been around since the Founding Fathers, literally. That generation gave us our first political parties, but it also looked on parties as “faction,” a decision to act based on political agenda rather than principle. But the solution we get in movies like this is a fantasy.
Sure, lots of people think they know what America needs (I certainly do) but we don’t all “know” the same thing. I could see a Christian movie in this vein where knocking off the bullshit means a big speech about how we all know abortion is murder, now let’s get to work and ban it nationwide. That might make perfect sense to right-to-lifers but to me it would be a step towards The Handmaid’s Tale.
Even if we agree on the goal, the fantasy skips the ugly steps that Dave or Mr. Sterling might have to take to achieve it: FDR got Social Security passed by exempting field hands and servants. As most Southern blacks worked in domestic service or agriculture, Southern Democrats supported Social Security knowing blacks in their states wouldn’t benefit.
I know political bloggers who really loathe the movies for presenting a fantasy about how politics works; I’m not one of them. I liked Dave (a starring team of Costner and Sigourney Weaver doesn’t hurt). But I thought it was worth mentioning that politics doesn’t work like that.