There’s a sinister premise that underlies our system of government: we cherish the value of democracy, but willingly admit that certain elected elites are smarter and can govern more capably. A candidate for elected office, already likely to be someone with the ego to believe they’re the best at fixing problems, may claim to speak for the people, but as soon as they lose favor with the population they represent, their grasp on power tightens. Who, after all, readily abdicates power?
“All the King’s Men,” a 1949 film adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, tracks the rise and fall of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford, “Highway Patrol”), a backwoods lawyer who becomes corrupted during a stint in power. The connections between Stark and Huey Long, a Louisiana politician of the time, are clear: both are populist Depression-era, rural governors whose corrupt terms in office are cut short.
Stark campaigns as a truth-teller, a man of the people who speaks to their concerns with unflinching honesty. His initial campaigns fail, a lack of institutional support from the establishment dooming any chance of success. He then becomes a successful lawyer who attacks graft in the statehouse. A tragedy elevates Stark’s profile after he leads lawsuits against the state. Eventually, Stark gets his shot when the same establishment decides to run Stark to detract votes from their main candidate’s opponent. Stark begins the campaign forlorn, beaten into submission by a party machine that uses him as a puppet. But then, in a drunken rage, he eschews a pre-written speech for an electrifying oratory that propels him forward. Stark still loses, but returns to the campaign trail four years later as a shoo-in for Governor.
But then, he begins taking checks from various corporations to help him spend money in key precincts. No longer the squeaky clean, honest politician, Stark, once elected, becomes embroiled in controversy. His stunningly productive government is marred by corruption and graft. Abandoning his populism, Stark sides with the same special interests he once railed against. Instead of speaking directly to the people, he now begins to maintain considerable distance from the public.
Somewhat ironically, Stark loses the favor of the elites around him once he spurns his populism for cronyism. The Depression seems to be an era of honest governance, or perhaps Stark surrounded himself with decent people. Still, Stark retains a fan base that has grown loyal to him as he enriched their communities. Like Al Capone, he may have dirt on his hands, but he’s doing right by the people. Just don’t cross his path.
In the 1999 film “Election,” Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon, “Wild”) is a precocious teenager running for student body president. She’s the kind of student everyone despises: she knows every answer to every question in class, shooting her hand up quickly and with enough force to punch a hole in the ceiling.
“I’d seen a lot of ambitious students come and go over the years, but Tracy was a special case,” laments her teacher and Student Council supervisor, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) over a freeze frame of Tracy, mid-word in a hideous pose. Jim, terrified of the prospect of spending much of the next school year in close quarters with Tracy, decides to set up a rival candidacy, Paul Metzler (Chris Pine, “American Pie”), an injured football star whose only qualification for office is that he’s available.
Paul is dumber than a rock, but his genuine warmth and kindness to Tracy throws her off. In fact, she becomes enraged. Previously uncontested, her power is now in jeopardy. She storms over to his booth in the cafeteria, berates him for running, then angrily signs his requisite petition to appear on the ballot. Tracy’s candidacy might be based on listening to the concerns of generally disinterested students, but she’s more interested in an “enlightened” republic than a true democratic competition. But at least Paul cares. When Paul’s younger sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell, “Freaks and Geeks”), decides to run, entirely to exact revenge on her brother, Tracy throws a fit, trying to disqualify Tammy from the election.
Anxiety turns to anger for both Tracy and Principal Walt Hendricks (Phil Reeves, “Veep”), concerned about Tammy’s delinquency, when Tammy gives a rousing speech on the profound idiocy of student council elections that brings the crowd to cheering applause. Principal Hendricks tries to disqualify Tammy from the race. Tracy, in a fit of rage, tears down her opponent’s posters. Our elected officials are supposedly the best of us, but, more often than not, they become degenerates.
This may be the eternal paradox of American democracy: deep down, nobody cares. But, unfortunately, democracy is pesky. And those who run for office know this fact better than anyone else: they may contemplate the merits of their policy proposals, but when Election Day arrives, most Americans choose their elected officials based on personality or some other superficiality. And, ultimately, we’re left with this strange system: a bunch of brown-nosers seeking power, feigning interest for the people they represent, and once they gain power, they willfully ignore their constituents, only to pretend two or four or six years later they had no choice.
I’m for Paul Metzler.