There must be elections coming up because Hollywood is reaching an upswing on its conversating about the politicking. Alec Baldwin hasn’t quite threatened again to leave the country if the election goes the wrong way, but he has been busy with American Airlines, so I’m sure that as soon as he finds time that he’ll get to telling us why the Republican Party is the current incarnation of fascism. Staying on target, Jon Voight and others have nobly kept up the campaign to remind us that the Democratic Party is both fascist and communist, with all the oblivious cognitive dissonance of a fifth grade bully chanting that his target’s mother is both fat and anorexic.
Movies themselves rarely get politics right. Of course, they rarely get anything right, which is why thousands of words are spilled every day ripping them apart from various angles. But the problem with films about politics is similar to the problem with films about romance. I wrote once that romantic comedies are pornography of the short cut. They focus everything on those fantastic moments of romance without any regard for the work that makes those moments more than flashes in a pan. They fetishize the moments at the expense of the years.
Political films fall invariably into the same trap. Whether cynical or optimistic, liberal or conservative, they hone in on critical junctures: the big speech, the temptation of corruption, the fiery debate, and of course the granddaddy of them all, the moment of election.
But political films don’t understand the import of that moment, of what makes an election matter. It’s in the interests of story to either play up the election as being between good and evil or, in the case of the cynical film, to argue that it doesn’t matter which of the bums gets the nod. The core though always rests in how the victory turns, when in fact what really matters is the moment after.
It doesn’t matter so much what we do when we win, as what we do when we lose. Democracy isn’t so much about elections or freedom or even apple pie and baseball. It’s not about the people being wise, or about the process somehow being a magical way of ensuring that the best leader rises to the top. Democracy is about losing.
There’s always talk on both sides about how at some point, enough will be enough, and the guns will come out. I’ve had people close to me say the world be better off if someone would just shoot Obama, and the same about Gingrich (though never Romney, the poor guy can’t even muster that kind of passion). It’s always said as if it would be a necessary evil, that crossing such a line would be the sacrifice necessary for a greater good. It isn’t though, it’s power, but it’s the fake sort, it’s the kind that kills what you’re trying to save.
It’s not that democracy is weak, but that it’s fragile, it’s an accepted peace pact between everyone who might hold power in society. It’s an agreement to walk out of the office when the rules say that your time is done. And every person who thinks that it would take bravery to break that rule, that it would be some sort of moral stand to refuse to yield the mantle to the other side is missing the point. No matter what the motivation is, no matter how convinced you are that it would be the end of the world if a contrary election result is allowed to stand, know that no leader can destroy democracy by picking up power, only by refusing to set it down. The moral courage of resistance is nothing compared to the moral courage of acquiescence. Every brute with a group of thugs at his back for the last three thousand years has had the moral courage to take power. The fact that entire societies have the moral courage to give it up is nothing short of a miracle.
The political film I want to see is the one that illustrates that, that revels in the moment of loss. Because being willing to lose is what makes us different.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.