…So Goes the Nation

...So Goes the Nation

I’ve pretty much had my fill of electoral politics documentaries, especially dated ones. So this recap of the Bush-Kerry election, focused mostly on Ohio, didn’t hold a lot of promise for me.

But to be fair, …So Goes the Nation is actually probably more interesting than just about any of the other documentaries of roughly this type that I’ve seen. Like I say, it has kind of the “old news” feel to it, plus I already knew going in that the bad guys won, so it’s not like I was really engaged and into this movie the whole time. But I’d say it held my interest better than I anticipated.

The footage and interviews are a combination of retrospective and stuff that’s from the time of the campaigns. So you get a sense of what people were thinking and how they were feeling as the battle played out, but you also have commentary informed by knowing the result.

The retrospective material is mostly good, and I think insightful. I thought Paul Begala especially came across as pretty savvy and intelligent about these matters (not that I’m normally a big fan of his).

On the other hand, there’s also a tendency for the interviewees, including Begala, to act like they pretty much knew all along what would happen. You know, after the fact things are always a lot easier to predict, and it’s easy to pick out supposedly obvious (unprovable) causes that explain it all.

For example, the interviewees laugh at the strategic blunder of trying to pass off wealthy wind surfing New Englander John Kerry as a populist in tune with the common man, while praising the brilliance of packaging wealthy Yalie son-of-a-President George W. Bush as a regular guy one would want to have a beer with. Somehow I suspect that if the results of the election had been a fraction of a percentage point different and given Kerry instead of Bush the razor thin edge in the Electoral College, they’d just as assuredly be giving the opposite strategic assessments.

A fair amount of the movie is spent following members of both campaigns engaged in the “ground game” in Ohio. We get to know some of these folks fairly well, and to experience the election vicariously through them.

I guess what stands out to me most about that is that I find it somewhat inscrutable and certainly depressing that conservatives can not only vote a certain way or support a certain candidate, but do it with such enthusiasm and get really emotionally invested in it.

What I mean is, I understand, say, wealthy businessmen who amorally use the political process in their pursuit of self-interest—gaming the system so they can better cash in. But that’s not a reason for enthusiasm. If I distract people enough that they end up voting for a party that’s going to ease certain regulations on me, change some arcane bit of trade policy, make it a little easier to screw over my workers, etc., then, yeah, I’m pleased at the outcome (if I’m that kind of person to begin with), but I doubt I’m going to feel this wonderful connection with the winning candidates, to feel uplifted emotionally by the process. I might, if I still have any conscience at all, feel a certain amount of guilt, but more likely I’ll just rationalize it to myself as “the way the game’s played,” and feel justified in doing what needs to be done to come out on top, and I’ll maybe feel some neutral sense of accomplishment at having the brains and resourcefulness to pull it off.

That kind of thing I get, as contemptible as it is. But what’s sad is watching, for instance, the Bush campaign worker in Ohio who is profiled the most in this film. There’s no indication she’s a bad person, or even an unusually stupid person. She’s not cynically trying to grab a bigger piece of the pie than she’s entitled to. She’s a sincere person willing to work her ass off and sacrifice for the cause of electing Bush to another term, because she genuinely believes in him or something about what he represents to her.

Though I’m sure she lines up with Republicans on more issues than not, it seems primarily to be an emotional identification. He is, she says, a father figure to her. She lives or dies with his political fortunes the way few people do with, say, the ups and downs of the life of their spouse or child or close family member.

If we’re talking about something idealistic, I get it. Even if I don’t fully get into the hero worship thing, I understand feeling that way about Bobby Kennedy or Cesar Chavez (or to a far less extent Barack Obama) or someone committed to social justice and really trying to better the lives of people in his country or in the world. But I don’t get how a “regular person” can be so fully committed, and so emotionally charged up about “Oh, if only the system could be skewed even more in favor of health insurance company profits. If only rich white male privilege could be further safeguarded. If only foreigners could be hated more fully. If only more government money could be shoveled to the biggest banks and military contractors.”

I understand a cynical vote for the party of the “Haves” when there’s something in it for you. But this is different, and creepier.

I mean a certain amount of it is stupidity I suppose. One of the things you see in a movie like this is how simplistic and misleading if not blatantly false claims are swallowed and repeated by folks if you “stay on message” and drum them into them enough.

What’s wrong with Kerry? Well, according to virtually every “person on the street” interview, he’s a “flip-flopper,” he keeps changing his mind, he switches to whatever position he thinks is popular.

Gee, I wonder why everyone treats that as a well-established fact? Somehow I doubt they looked at all the evidence about these candidates intelligently and independently and happened to come to that conclusion.

Might it be because the Republicans made a conscious strategic decision just to say that over and over and over and over again, without regard to truth, until it became perceived as “common knowledge”? In fact, Kerry’s no better or worse than the typical politician in that regard. You could just as easily pick some other generic accusation out of a hat—he’s stupid, he’s a liar, he’s corrupt, he obeys whatever unions tell him to do, he hates the military, he’s anti-Christian, whatever—and if you hammer it home in the identical fashion, that’s the one everyone would be offering up when challenged on why they’re a Bush supporter.

Not that only Republicans or only conservatives are lying, subhuman, sleazeballs when it comes to politics, but it’s to be expected that the side with the weaker arguments that’s trying to get people to vote to further benefit plutocrats would have to—and be morally more willing to—sink especially low to prevail.

So, basically people are idiot sheep.

There’s also the cheating, which may or may not have been illegal. (Some of it may have been non-partisan stupidity and lack of planning and such. Some of it may have been unethical and dishonest but not quite technically illegal means of obtaining an edge for one side.) A wonderfully striking visual there is the two and three hour and longer lines in densely populated urban (i.e., black) areas with almost no voting machines, compared to the matronly white middle aged woman who strolls in to her polling place midday and pleasantly remarks on the fact that there’s no line whatsoever and she can vote with zero wait.

As is to be expected when the subject is politics, a lot of it’s sickening stuff. But, …So Goes the Nation—which by the way, I should mention is scrupulously non-partisan and gives everyone on both sides an equal chance to speak their mind—is well done and a useful snapshot of one election. I think one could learn quite a lot about American politics from it. It’s a good film for the time capsule.

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