Idealism Turns Us On, But Reality Bites

There’s a particularly idiotic moment in the 2003 movie Love Actually when British Prime Minister Hugh Grant loses it. Grumpy at President Billy Bob Thornton for hitting on No. 10 staff, he breaks off script at a press conference, describes his American ally as a ”bully”, and abandons the ”special relationship”.

Unbelievable? Absolutely. But what really throws this scene into the realm of high surrealism is the grinning faces of the PM’s political and policy team. Their leader has threatened the leader of the richest and most powerful economy on the planet. And Grant’s staff – who would have to deal with the consequences – are over the moon about it. Hooray!

Pop culture doesn’t do politics very well. The depictions of government (and the people we elect) in movies and television are either wilfully naive, or naively conspiratorial. Take The American President, where a Michael Douglas administration is inspired by the love of a good woman to decarbonise the US economy. Right now, in 2011, radical climate change action by America is pretty unlikely. But it was ludicrous to imagine when the film was made in 1995. In more pessimistic and dramatic films, politicians and governments head up elaborate conspiracies – they manufacture fictional wars (Wag the Dog), run military actions in secret (Clear and Present Danger) and cover up murders (State of Play, Absolute Power, and Enemy of the State).

But here’s the funny thing. All of these conspiracies pretty much work. They’re successful – at least until the movie’s hero intervenes. Doing the wrong thing might be wrong, but the movies assume it will be simple.

In the movies, covering up a conspiracy is no big deal. When needed, the wheels of government move effortlessly. It’s the same in the films with a more optimistic view of political leadership. Prime Minister Grant or President Douglas only have to put their foot down to get stuff done. Governments in the movies are competent. They’re nothing like the real world. In the real world, government projects are characterised by disappointment and compromise. Political operatives, not experts, make the final decisions over policy. Petty leaks and cheap betrayals are commonplace. Political favours are used like currency.

Even the worst fictional depictions of politics typically exclude the sad reality of policy botches, bureaucratic waste, and politicians with an exaggerated sense of self-importance.

More than anything else, the television show The West Wing has demonstrated pop culture’s bizarre faith in the competence of government and the goodness of politics. The show has a cult following among political boffins. No wonder: The West Wing flatters the political class by its suggestion that every person involved in politics is well informed.

And extremely well-intentioned. The West Wing‘s President Bartlett (pictured) is incorruptible. Power has done nothing to him. If anything, holding the most powerful office on earth has made him more honourable. And his staff are all dedicated to public service, extolling self-sacrifice and duty.

Something’s wrong here. In The West Wing‘s depiction of politics, there appears to be no politics. As Gene Healy, the author of the book Cult of the Presidency, has written: ”Fans of the show never saw the sort of infighting, backstabbing and jockeying for position that appear in real-world accounts of White House life.”

No wonder virtually every character in The West Wing has an unwavering faith in government action as the solution to every problem. They never come up against incompetence or dysfunction. And barely any opposition.

This matters because these portrayals of politics shape in a big way how we understand real-world politics. Rather than pointing at the inevitability of much government failure – caused by its plodding bureaucracy, its base politics, and the inevitability that power will be used to pursue private interests – movies and TV trivialise it.

If only the good people were in charge. If only Mr Smith really had gone to Washington. If only political leaders didn’t use their powers for evil. If only politicians weren’t weak.

Politicians have tried to exploit these sorts of sentiments, but the dull, sad reality of government always sinks in. Reforms go off the rails. Supporters lose faith.

There are rare exceptions, like Yes, Minister, and the more recent, even more cynical The Thick of It. But these are great because they are depressingly authentic compared with what we usually see on our screens.

Even in the darkest political thriller, pop culture’s overwhelming vision of government is optimistic, almost utopian. Shame the real thing can’t live up to the fiction.