The recent release of Ryan Murphy's series The Politician on Netflix has inspired endless comparisons to Alexander Payne's 1999 film Election. Both works recount the stories of hotly contested elections for the class presidency at a high school. Both take highly ambitious and accomplished students as their antiheroes. Both find the bulk of their dark comedy in the notion that a high school election would or could ever entail the types of campaigning, corruption, and chaos that occur in elections for national office. And both suggest, as a result, that elections on any level and the people who try to win them are fundamentally broken.
Election, however, believes that some people are good, or at least trying to be. The Politician, released a tidy 20 years later, gives us a world where everyone runs amok. The difference in attitude between the movie and the show neatly captures a change in the way that Americans have approached politics over the last two decades. In the late-'90s movie, politics is a cynical enterprise threatening a core remnant of earnestness and institutional decency. In the 2019 show, politics is something darker and more empty—a hollow act of power seeking for its own sake, set in an equally hollow society that cheers it on. In Election, politicians are dead inside. In The Politician, everything is.
While 20 years of American politics have left us feeling that Election doesn't go far enough, no viewer would ever confuse Election with something like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and its heartfelt story of an innocent and honest politician whose integrity might just change the system.
None of the main characters in Election provides any kind of moral center to the film. We learn that Tracy Flick, an ambitious high school presidential candidate, had an affair with her English teacher the previous year. Just as we are inclined to sympathize with her violated innocence, she comments that it would all have been fine "if certain older, wiser people hadn't acted like such little babies and gotten so mushy."
Tracy also pulls down the campaign posters of other candidates and allows someone else to take the blame. Meanwhile, her main competition, the football jock Paul Metzler, has sex with his sister's ex-girlfriend, who—in a bit of a quid pro quo—volunteers to manage his campaign. And Paul's sister Tammy begins her own presidential campaign as a way to avenge herself upon her brother and her ex.
The adults aren't much better. The English teacher, who is "totally in love" with Tracy and sends her handwritten love notes, is obviously corrupt. Less obvious are the failings of Jim McAllister, the social studies teacher played by Matthew Broderick. Broderick's considerable charm as an actor and his history of playing puckish heroes like Ferris Bueller cleverly combine to mask, for much of the film, exactly how reprehensible his character is.
Jim begins the movie by discussing his commitment to helping his students through the tough years of adolescence and by leading a classroom discussion on the difference between morals and ethics. But he blames Tracy for her affair with the English teacher and the teacher's eventual firing, cheats on his wife with her best friend, and manipulates the outcome of the election at the center of the film to punish what he sees as Tracy's outsized ambition.
The movie does also give us Carver High School principal Walt Hendricks. He's as much of a stuffed shirt as every other high school principal in every other high school movie, but in the end, he does his job. When he finds out that the English teacher is sleeping with a student, he fires him. When he discovers that Jim has intentionally hidden election ballots in order to keep Tracy from the presidency, he confronts Jim with the evidence and requests his resignation.
Under Hendricks, the integrity of the political process, and thus of the institution he oversees, is upheld. Despite the efforts of the players involved, the system works. Yes, the main characters in Election are all moral nightmares. But there is a sense in the film that despite the many corruptions of those who seek power, there are still a few people in the world who will make sure that the system functions properly and who will help it stay strong enough to resist being bent to the will of the corrupt.
The Politician, by contrast, presents a world without one upright character, one morally correct choice, or one spark of hope that the world, the political process, and humanity are anything other than monsters.
Payton Hobart, the politician of The Politician, has been training to be president for his whole life. During the interview with the Harvard admissions committee that begins the first episode, he explains that he wants to go there because more U.S. presidents have graduated from Harvard than from any other school.
While his older brothers have gotten into Harvard on the strength of their parents' donations, Payton insists on getting in on the strength of his curriculum vitae. Lest you think this is a sign of some sort of moral excellence, he is quick to note that buying one's way into the Ivy League is exactly the sort of scandalous detail that comes out during a campaign, so his future run for the U.S. presidency depends on getting in on merit. After the school waitlists him, Payton decides he must succeed in his campaign for the student body presidency in order to be accepted and step into the golden political future he is certain awaits him.
Payton assumes his run for class president will be easy, but he is confronted by a challenging opponent: the male student he is dating in secret, River Barkley. The two engage in an escalating contest over who can find the most oppressed running mate, which ends when River chooses a gender-fluid person of color and Payton selects a young woman suffering from devastating childhood cancer. River, the only character in the first season who has any kind of authenticity or moral core, becomes overwhelmed by the pressure of the campaign before the first half of episode one is over and kills himself in front of Payton.
Assisting Payton in his run is his girlfriend Alice, whose color-coordinated outfits, pearls, and relentless drive to attain power through her partner are a chilling mashup of Jackie Kennedy and Lady Macbeth. After River's death, she calmly asks Payton if he killed River. She wouldn't judge him or report him, but she needs to know, as she cannot protect Payton's secrets if she isn't aware of them.
The campaign continues through the season in an accelerating spiral of scandal. Murders are plotted and foiled. Payton's running mate, Infinity, is revealed to be a victim of Munchausen by Proxy. Her cancer is entirely faked by her grandmother. There are sex tapes, scandalous slips of the tongue leaked to the press, transparent appeals to public sympathy (Payton chooses gun control as his main campaign issue as a tribute to River's death; River's grieving girlfriend takes up the campaign in his memory), assassination attempts, faux kidnappings, false information, and—in the best move of the season—an entire episode dedicated to both candidates' attempts to capture the vote of one undecided student at their school.
Unlike the principal in Election, the adults in the world of The Politician are no better than the shameless young opportunists who inhabit the high school. Payton's Mandarin teacher tells him to just show up for the final and he'll give him an A, since Payton has had such a rough year. The Harvard admissions committee comes back to offer Payton a spot in the entering class if he'll provide the money for a Slavic languages department. Parents are alternately absent and abusive. There is not a decent principal, or a decent principle, to be found.
There were barely any adults in the room in 1999's Election. In 2019's The Politician, the adults have all left the room, moved out of town, and either gone to jail or joined ashrams. There's no one to protect the political system from well-dressed sociopaths like Payton and his crew.
That's a message that many critics seem to have missed. A review in Vox by Emily Todd VanDerWerff argues that the show "has almost no interest in actual politics." Instead, Payton "seems to have arrived at his political positions because they are advantageous, not because the issues he's chosen to focus on are deeply important to him. And yet other characters earnestly intone several times that he wants to make the world a better place." Writing in Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz observes that "on the rare occasions when it calms down and tries to be earnest and affecting, the sincerity comes across as calculated, like a politician tearing up while delivering the same campaign speech for the fourth time in a week." And a review in Rolling Stone by Alan Sepinwall complains that "moments when anyone onscreen emotionally resembles a person are rare."
These critics are right to notice all the hollowness, but they are wrong to think that it's a flaw. The hollowness is the point.
The late economist James Buchanan's retrospective piece about the history and status of public choice economics, "Public Choice: Politics without Romance," was published in the journal Policy in 2003. It thus fell neatly between the release dates of Election and The Politician. Buchanan pointed out one result of the work done by public choice theorists: "By simple comparison with the climate of opinion in 1950, both the punditry and the public are more critical of politics and politicians, more cynical about the motivations of political action, and less naive in thinking that political nostrums offer easy solutions to social problems. And this shift in attitudes extends well beyond the loss of belief in the efficacy of socialism."
The emptiness that reviewers sense in The Politician is the natural and predictable result of decades of such work combined with a political climate that seems dedicated to proving the truth of economist F.A. Hayek's observation that "to act on behalf of a group seems to free people of many of the moral restraints which control their behavior as individuals within the group." In other words, The Politician is hollow, emotionless, and imbued with only a surface commitment to the issues it pretends to take on because 21st century politics is increasingly hollow, emotionless, and insincerely committed.
A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that about three-quarters of Americans believe we have less and less trust both in the American government and in our fellow citizens. That backs up the trend noted in the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, which found that "only a third of Americans now trust their government 'to do what is right'—a decline of 14 percentage points" from the previous year. Shows like The Politician are precisely the cultural artifacts that you'd expect to see created by a society that tells pollsters things like that.
Buchanan would have recognized the world of Election and The Politician. Anyone who reads him could have predicted the increase in the cynicism expressed by these works as we moved further into the 21st century. Unlike the critics, we understand the hollowness of Election and The Politician as a condemnation of our political climate. We get the joke they're telling.
We just aren't all that sure it's funny.