To say the least, these are testing times for democracy in our great neighbour to the south. The prospect of a Trump presidential candidacy has provoked civil war within the Republican party and consternation among many others. At the same time, on the anti-establishment left, an avowed “democratic socialist” calling for a “political revolution” has been challenging the presumptive Democratic party nominee Hillary Clinton.
While the spectacle on the Republican side has sometimes degenerated into a vulgar circus, the distemper of this polarized political season means that a lot of people are riled up. There can be an ugly side to this populist anger when it appeals to prejudice. But there are reasons so many are fed up with the status quo. Moreover, citizens have every democratic right not to be satisfied and to demand change in how they are governed.
The American documentaries reviewed here present two visions of the current malaise and what can be done about it. One is inward-looking and mostly negative, though not bereft of hope. The other is outward-looking and more optimistic than despairing. Both maintain a fundamental belief in popular democracy.
Requiem for the American Dream (http://requiemfortheamericandream.com/) premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Co-written and directed by Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks and Jared Scott, it carries the subtitle “Noam Chomsky and the Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power.” For decades Chomsky has been a fiercely persistent critic of American foreign policy from the left. This film, however, focuses his sharp gaze on the state of America itself. Drawn from a series of extended interviews, Chomsky’s lament for a nation details his concerns about how growing inequality — manifested in extremes of super-wealth and declining socio-economic mobility — has greatly skewed the distribution of power and had a massively corrosive effect on “the professed values of democracy.”
Chomsky elaborates the anti-democratic consequences of concentration through 10 principles:
“Influence elections and reduce democracy” — by the powerful and their paid lobbyists using their resources to ensure those elected favour their interests; by designing institutions designed to limit popular democracy and maintain elite control (citing Madison’s view of the Senate as protecting “the minority of the opulent against the majority”).
“Shape ideology” — by countering anti-establishment movements (such as those that emerged in the 1960s) and reasserting business control over the political agenda (citing the Trilateral Commission’s warning that stable government would be undermined by a “crisis” of too much democracy).
“Redesign the economy” — through deregulation and privatization, loss of manufacturing and union jobs, ascendancy of financial capitalism, trade and investment liberalization serving multinational corporate interests.
“Shift the burden” — away from taxation of wealth, corporations, and capital, toward consumers and wage earners.
“Attack solidarity” — through anti-union policies, reductions in the welfare state, in social security and investments in public goods.
“Run the regulators” — by lobbying legislators on behalf of business interests and pursuing “regulatory capture” of government bodies charged with making and enforcing the rules of the marketplace.
“Engineer elections” — through increasingly costly campaigns in which unlimited spending is allowed by powerful interests (citing the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling giving corporations the status of “persons” entitled to use money as “free speech”).
“Keep the rabble in line” — by continuing to attack unions (even though less than 7 per cent of private-sector jobs are unionized) and social movements while enhancing police and surveillance powers.
“Manufacture consent” — through manipulation of the mass media, advertising propaganda, the application of mass marketing techniques to politics in the “selling” of candidates and policies.
“Marginalize the population” — by encouraging voter apathy and engaging in vote suppression, misdirecting popular anger toward scapegoats (welfare recipients, immigrants, etc.), promoting individualism over social solidarity.
This may come across as a depressing litany, a lecture that will be familiar to Chomsky followers.
At least the aging activist concludes by appealing for a rebuilding of democracy from the base, for a renewed popular struggle for rights to counteract the concentration of wealth and power. Indeed he hasn’t given up on America as the “freest society” and cites the late historian Howard Zinn that in bringing about progressive change “what counts are the countless small deeds of unknown people.” The film’s weakness is that these too-brief reflections appear almost as afterthought to all that is wrong with America.
Filmmaker Michael Moore’s left-wing polemics on what ails America will also be familiar to his many followers and critics. He admits to having grown somewhat weary of the good fight too after 2009’s Capitalism: A Love Story. Despite its seemingly ironic title, his new film and first in six years, Where to Invade Next (http://wheretoinvadenext.com/) will be a refreshing departure for some. Those expecting another attack on America’s military interventions won’t find it. Moore dispenses with that in a fictitious tongue-in-cheek prologue in which the military establishment throws up its hands about what to do and calls on him for advice. They’ve got it all wrong. Instead of America looking for trouble and imposing itself on others, it should be a friendly visitor that looks to other countries for ideas about workable solutions to social and economic problems.
So the shambolic Moore embarks on a research “invasion” to mainly European democracies seeking good policies that he can appropriate to bring back and share with his fellow Americans. Planting an American flag is part of his rather hokey shtick during such foreign encounters.
Moore quite deliberately cherry-picks his destinations and policies of choice. He goes first to Italy where he interviews a happily employed couple who enjoy long paid vacations (who wouldn’t?). No hint of the country’s huge debt burden or youth unemployment numbers. He moves to France and a school cafeteria where kids even in low-income areas enjoy wonderful free school lunches. In Finland teens in public schools are excelling in educational test scores with class time of only four hours per day and no mandatory homework. In Slovenia university is free for all including international students, some coming from America where it was unaffordable. In Germany enlightened labour-management policies mandate that workers have equal representation on the boards of many companies. Germany has also come to terms with the historical evil of the Holocaust more than America has with the legacy of slavery and entrenched racism. Portugal has abolished criminal penalties for drugs and drug use has declined significantly. Norway’s lenient prison system focused on rehabilitation results in much lower recidivism than the enormous U.S. prison complex. Prison sentences are also much shorter in a country with a far lower murder rate. Iceland is a world leader in gender parity and in advancing the role of women in politics and government. During the country’s financial crisis a women’s bank was the one that survived. In his one foray outside Europe, Moore visits newly democratic Tunisia to admire its network of free women’s health centres.
Moore defends this highly selective grand tour on the grounds that his purpose is “to pick the flowers not the weeds.” Moreover, he maintains that much of what he finds to be working well abroad has drawn inspiration from ideas that have been proposed by American thinkers. So it shouldn’t be such a stretch to apply positive lessons from international practices to the home front.
“Mike’s happy movie” amounts to a rambling manifesto of sorts for liberal/social-democratic values. Skeptics may find its “sunny ways” to be touchingly naive and it’s unlikely to convince small-government or social conservatives. Still he has a point that every country — even the richest and most powerful — can benefit from the comparative experience of other societies and cultures.
That’s worth bearing in mind in an American political season in which the heat of fearful anger has often overshadowed the light of hopeful change.