End of the West Wing/Obama era? Can you bear it…

Stone the crows! From the top down, Americans despair of politics and it’s all HBO’s fault!

Last week, President Obama lamented that after four years in the White House Washington was unchanged.

And if you asked me what is the one thing that has frustrated me most over the last four years, it’s not the hard work. It’s not the enormity of the decisions. It’s not the pace. It is that I haven’t been able to change the atmosphere here in Washington to reflect the decency and common sense of ordinary people – Democrats, Republicans and independents – who I think just want to see their leadership solve problems.[i]

You have to give him credit for hide – for the President of the United States to run for reelection as an outsider is either outrageous or amusing, depending on voters’ cynicism.

And they are cynical indeed, with 16 per cent approving of the way Congress is performing.[ii]

There are all sorts of reasons for this, apart from the obvious one, that the executive and legislative branches cannot agree on a plan to reduce the budget deficit. On present trends, it will grow from 10 per cent of GDP to 16 per cent over the next 25 years, thanks to increasing health care and social security outlays.[iii]

But the big issue is an enduring a crisis of confidence not seen since the 1970s.

In real terms, workers are receiving a smaller slice of the economic pie. Since the middle 1980s productivity has increased at 3 per cent per annum, twice the rate of wage growth.[iv] And, thanks to the property slump, household wealth in 2010 had dropped back to the 2001 level[v].

The result is a sense of pervasive powerlessness and fear that only spivs and crooks prosper and that politicians have abandoned the middle class, that the game is rigged against the honest.

In the 1970s it was spelt out in the movie Fun with Dick and Jane, in which a retrenched aerospace engineer and his wife rob banks to pay the bills.[vi] Thirty years on, in Breaking Bad a high school teacher who cannot meet his medical costs starts manufacturing crystal meth.[vii]

Americans also have inflated expectations of what politicians can accomplish and how they should behave, all of which are as old as the republic. Perhaps this is due to the tension inherent in the Constitution to balance the demands of democracy with the rights of property.

In 1789, legislators were expected to govern with personal restraint for the greater good of all. “In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature,” James Madison warned in the 51st Federalist. [viii]

And, since then, the voters have always got upset when they decide lawmakers let them down.

So upset in 1798 that the Federalist congress passed the Sedition Act which forbade:

… writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous, and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States … with intent to defame … or to bring them into contempt or disrepute or to excite against them the hatred of the good people of the United States.[ix]

It did not work then and it would not work now – try explaining to Fox and Friends that the Federalists were the ancestors of patriotic Republicans.

The contemporary sense that politicians are either crooks or incompetents and that government itself is fatally flawed is manifested in three series from HBO – The Wire, Deadwood, and Boardwalk Empire – which mark an end to the political optimism, at least among Democrats in the entertainment industry of the Clinton years. Back then films like Dave, The Contender and The American President and that paean to public service of a liberal lean, The West Wing, celebrated what government could accomplish for ordinary Americans[x]

No longer.

These HBO series reinforce contempt for the political process. The Wire, set in drug-infested inner-city Baltimore and perhaps the great political novel of our age, is about the way the governing class leaves workers and public servants to rot.[xi]

With the exception of state senator Clay Davis, incidents of actual corruption are minimal, even in series four, which is set in a mayoral race and the winner’s first term. But the encompassing assumption is that elected officials see public service as an oxymoron.

Deadwood is more optimistic, in an extraordinarily brutal way. Set on the northwest frontier after the Civil War it chronicles power struggles in a lawless mining camp, well beyond the reach of government – which turns out to be a good thing.[xii]

As the psychotic mining engineer Francis Wolcott says, “I am a sinner who does not expect forgiveness – but I am not a government official.”

In the end, an economy replacing murder with markets begins to emerge thanks to business people – not any servant of the state. [xiii]

But for spectacular cynicism, nothing beats Boardwalk Empire, which begins as the story of a Republican machine boss who controls Atlantic City during prohibition.[xiv]

Less brutal than Deadwood and more theatrical than The Wire, the series offers an insight into the way Americans think politics work – as a game played between insiders where power places participants above the law they are suppose to enforce.

For Americans, who saw Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich go to prison for seeking to sell President Obama’s senate seat, the corruption of Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson is entirely credible.[xv]

As readers of Robert Caro’s life of LBJ have known for years, Lyndon Johnson’s entire career was made possible by oil company Brown and Root’s money, “the ace in his hand for all his political life,” including the 1960 primaries.[xvi]

That this great reforming president, whose civil rights legislation finally achieved the promise of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, practised the same insider politics as the machine bosses in Boardwalk Empire explains why such dark perceptions of politics prevail.

US politics is not utterly corrupt – certainly not. No free society could survive if the entire political class consisted of standover merchants.

But Americans think they are. And, every time Congress stalls on a reform to cut the deficit, voters assume members are doing so because they are in somebody’s pocket.

It is very bad for democracy – whoever wins in November.



[i] Richard A Serano, “Obama: ‘Washington feels as broken as it did four years ago,’ ” Los Angles Times, July 15

[ii] Gallup, “Congress approval remains historically low,” July 13 @ http://www.gallup.com/poll/155720/Congress-Approval-Remains-Historically-Low.aspx recovered on July 21

[iii] Congressional Budget Office, “Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal years 2010 -2021,” @ http://www.cbo.gov/publication/21999 recovered on July 21

[iv] Susan Fleck, John Glaser and Shawn Sprague, “The compensation-productivity gap: a visual essay,” Monthly Labour Review, January 2011

[v] US Federal Reserve, Bulletin (June 2012) 17 @ http://www.federalreserve.gov/pubs/bulletin/ recovered on July 21

[vi] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fun_with_Dick_and_Jane_(1977_film). It was remade in 2005

[vii] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0903747/ recovered on July 21

[viii] The Federalist 51, February 6 1788) @ http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa51.htm recovered on July 21

[ix] Congress of the United States, “An Act in addition to the act entitled ‘An act for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States,” July 14 1798,” United States, Statutes at Large, Fifth Congress, II,. 74 1798 596 @ http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=719 recovered on July 21

[x] Stephen Matchett, “Selling a liberal Bill of goods,” The Australian, April 19 2001

[xi] recovered on July 21

[xii] http://www.hbo.com/deadwood/index.html recovered on July 21

[xiii] Stephen Matchett, “Humanity shines through the depravity,” The Australian, September 26 2009

[xiv] www.hbo.com/boardwalk-empire/index.html#/boardwalk-empire/episodes/index.html recovered on July 21

[xv] Bob Secter and Jeff Coen, “Blagojevich convicted,” Chicago Tribune, June 27

[xvi] Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, iv The passage of power (New York, 2012) 85