Published at ABC The Drum on 29 February 2011
I recently saw the film The Ides of March. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the basic story (without any spoilers) follows Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), who is the junior campaign manager for a Democrat candidate for the United States president, Mike Morris (George Clooney). Morris is an idealistic progressive (think Barack Obama) who is locked in battle for the Democratic nomination with Arkansas politician Ted Pullman.
To cut a long story short, the movie follows Morris and Meyer’s inevitable corruption as they lose their ideals to make the necessary dirty deals to ensure that Morris gets the nomination.
Sitting through the movie I found it a rather enjoyable portrayal of American politics. This is a position that has been held by many critics of the film, with many describing it as eerily realistic. Yet, as I have thought about the film more since I’ve seen it, I have slowly become somewhat frustrated with the message it is selling.
You see, for me, The Ides of March, is not just a portrayal of the way the American political system operates, it also acts as a portrayal of the inherent way politics works. Coming from the movie, it is very easy to get the message that no matter how good or how idealistic someone is, they will always be corrupted by politics and power.
Looking at our politics today it is pretty easy to see that our community is taking a similar world view. It’s pretty easy to understand why as well. Just looking at the mess that is the current Labor leadership, and the negativity of the Coalition, politics is looking like a very dirty business at the moment.
Yet, what is surprising is that despite our dislike for many of our politicians we seem to have become so cynical that we simply accept this as the natural way. We see fighting between Rudd and Gillard and we say that that is what all politicians are like and that’s what they’re always going to be like. We’ve become so cynical that we ignore the good things and don’t fight against the bad.
You may want to call me naive or idealistic, but I simply don’t want to accept this. Whilst I see the bad things about our current politics, I also see a lot of good, and a lot of potential; but only if we grasp it.
Amongst all the infighting and backstabbing there are politicians, from all parties, who are actually working to create real change. There are many politicians who actually do care and we shouldn’t let these people suffer from the actions of others.
Beyond this however, the great thing about a democracy is that we get to decide who sits in our Parliament and who doesn’t. If we see politicians that we don’t like, who are not focused on the community, we get to kick them out. At an even higher level, if we really think our system is corrupt we also have the power to change it. Sometimes this may be difficult, with big powers often standing in our way. Yet, when we think about it, politics is about the way our whole society works and how our resources are distributed, so isn’t this a fight worth having?
John Acton was famously reported to state, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. It’s a statement that has dominated much of our thought about power and politics. Yet, it is rarely known that when Acton made that statement, he actually said “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Instead of saying that power is inherently corrupting, what he was saying was that we must be wary of power and ensure we keep it in check. This is what democracy is all about in many ways.
It is time for us to stop seeing politics as all bad. Whilst we are right to be unhappy about the fighting between Rudd and Gillard and the negativity of the Coalition, that doesn’t mean we have to accept it. As a community, if we want better, we can demand it. Instead of just standing there and saying ‘what another dirty politician’, it’s time to stand up and say ‘that’s not good enough’.
There is plenty you can do. You can get involved in political parties to challenge the dirty politics of old. You can decide to support candidates who are willing and ready to make a difference, or you can run to change things yourself. You can send letters to newspapers or call in to radio stations demanding better. Or, you can get involved in social movements demanding change. There are so many people out there, whether on the left or the right, wanting something different and working towards it. You can join them.
It is time for us to stop being cynical and start demanding better.