The Choice 2008

Change We Really Believe In?

by Paul Stekler co-producer and co-writer of The Choice 2008

There is an instinct in human beings that is always looking for the next leader. And I don't think any of us think about that, but it's just innate: Who's next? I don't want to overdramatize it, but is there a political Messiah, on the horizon or just over the horizon?
- Gary Hart

If pundits agreed on anything in 2008, it's the idea that this election is all about change. Even the most partisan among us recognize the dissatisfaction with the status quo. Support for President Bush, the percentage of Americans who feel the country is moving in the right direction -- both dip into the low 20s.

In the process of making FRONTLINE's The Choice 2008, we examined how the desire for new leadership led to two of the most unlikely candidates ever nominated by our national parties.

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Matthew Dowd, the former chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney campaigns, who later broke with the administration over the war in Iraq, put this into a larger context:

There was a growing sense in the country -- and it happened during the Bush years, but started even before -- that we want somebody who can call the country to a common purpose and get past the labels. Bring everybody together. Give people a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.

Both McCain and Obama have promised change, pledging a less ideological governing style. After 16 years of Bush and Clinton, a post-partisan era of politics in the 21st century seemed to be dawning.

But that's not how the campaign turned out. Instead of a race fought out across the country, the battle has steadily devolved into the same narrow set of swing states as in 2000 and 2004.

So what happened?

It may be that nothing changed beyond our understanding of what change actually means in our divided country. Two books in the last year -- one focused on Washington, the other on American society -- outline the barriers to altering the way we practice politics.

Ron Brownstein's The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America is about how ideologues have come to control the two parties. Deal-making and creative compromising -- skills once prized in Congress -- have given way to partisan lockstep. Brownstein cites then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay's 2006 farewell address to the House, dismissing across-the-aisle camaraderie and applauding partisanship "not as a symptom of democracy's weakness but of its health and its strength."

On the same day in Las Vegas, a speaker addressing the Internet warriors who made up the vanguard of the activist Netroots at the first convention of Daily Kos exclaimed, "We don't want Neville Chamberlain Democrats. We want Muhammad Ali Democrats."

In the 1950s, political scientists lamented the me-too similarity of Republicans and Democrats in Washington. They longed for what they termed a "responsible party system," where the parties split into distinct liberal and conservative parties, where election mattered and the transition of governing majority from one party to another really meant sbstantive change in legislating and governance.

Almost 60 years later, they got their wish -- bipartisanship is mostly a slogan. A permanent campaign mentality has taken hold, where everything is motivated towards winning the next election or fulfilling an extreme ideological wish list, all in lieu of actually solving problems.

Bill Bishop's The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart tells an even more frightening story. It's not the bad politicians who divide us; we have seen the perpetrators, and they are us.

For Bishop, our elected leaders are merely reflections of the growing divisions in American society itself. In the last 50 years, the engine of social mobility has caused a great migration where people tend to flow towards cities and neighborhoods where they feel comfortable, full of people who believe just like they do. This has been reinforced by the rise of niche marketing, where you really can have it your way, no compromising necessary. In this brave new world, we rarely encounter people who disagree with us. Democrats become more Democratic. Republicans likewise. And the ideologues rule.

In a world of confirmation bias, where partisans increasingly believe what they believe and the facts be damned, my idea of "change" means I want the other guy to change to my way of seeing things. And vice versa.

So is it really any surprise that however much John McCain and Barack Obama might want to reach beyond the familiar negative, divisive politics, the voters, as Al Pacino in "Godfather III" might say, keep pulling them back.

The political idealist in us wants to believe that we're capable of something greater. Back in the summer, Matt Bai of the New York Times described "the choice" to us as one directly tied to change we really could believe in:

Both [candidates,] in what they convey to voters -- one in a long career spanning decades, the other in a lightning flash of a career, spanning what seems like minutes -- a sense of breaking with the status quo. A sense of change. A sense that things need to be done differently than they've been done before. And the question I think a lot of voters will have to ask themselves is, who's actually going to deliver?

With the prospects growing of Republican moderates in Congress going on the endangered species list after the November elections, and a larger Democratic majority in both houses looking to right the wrongs they perceive after eight years of Bush/Cheney, what chance does post-partisan change have in the next term?

In the end, the change we get, if it happens, will start in the bully pulpit of the presidency. And only if the 44th president of the United States is willing to risk the wrath of both Republicans and Democrats spoiling to continue the fight. Will this be the change you can believe in? That'll depend on you.

Paul Stekler's previous films about American politics include George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire (co-directed with Daniel McCabe and winner of a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival), Vote for Me: Politics in America (co-directed with Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker, winner of Peabody, duPont-Columbia, and Emmy Awards), and two episodes of Eyes on the Prize. Another recent article by Stekler is Documentaries on the Campaign Trail. He teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.

posted october 14, 2008

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