In 2006 the late, great Robin Williams starred in a Barry Levinson film called Man of the Year. The premise was that a political comedy/talk show host (think Jon Stewart) runs for President, as an outsider, and wins.
Levinson thought the possibility of this actually happening so slim that he wrote in a sub-plot of irregularities in a new electronic voting system that preferences candidates with double letters in their surname (Williams’ character was Tom Dobbs) to explain how the TV star turned a wave of populist appeal into an electoral college win.
Ten years later Levinson must be thinking ‘why did I bother’? The far fetched is becoming reality as Donald Trump rides a tsunami of populist appeal to primary win after primary win in the race for the Republican Party Presidential Nomination.
The real test of Super Tuesday primaries is almost upon us but, win lose or draw on that important day, Trump and to a considerable extent the Democrat “outsider” Senator Bernie Sanders, have redrawn the American political map and perhaps the way all western politicians will frame their future campaigns.
The mythical Tom Dobbs initially struggles to compete with establishment candidates but when he bursts out of the political mould, turning the switch to vaudeville (as they say in showbiz) to make his points his popularity rockets. His messages are simple, simplistic in fact, but they are delivered with naïve sincerity and are undeniably entertaining. As a result, he taps into a deep dissatisfaction with the rigid and harshly partisan two party system.
Trump has shown that he can mine that degree of voter frustration with broad statements of objectives and with often offensive comments that would see career politicians crash and burn. But he just gets stronger. He took on the Pope for heaven’s sake, and the Pope issued a clarification!
Sanders is a 25 year veteran of the Senate who is running as an “outsider” by to positioning himself as a Democratic Socialist. A term that until recently would have seen any American politician laughed off the stage. Yet he is tapping the same frustration, just with a younger audience.
Politics as usual is becoming anything but. Hillary Clinton may still prevail through tight organisation, demographics and getting out the vote, but the political scene has changed, forever.
We have had our brush with shallow populists in Australia. Think Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer. However, our electoral system does not offer the opportunity to catapult to the top job without first earning at least some political stripes. That’s probably a good thing. It allows time for the imposters to unclothe themselves.
In a multi-media, instant gratification, increasingly superficial message driven world it will be a brave politician who ignores the lessons already provided by the USA’s electoral process.
In 1976 the Sidney Lumet film, Network, written by Paddy Chayefske, had Australian actor Peter Finch, as top rating news anchor Howard Beale, deliver rants against the comfortable coalescence of media, business and politics, always ending with a trade mark cry of :
” We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore.”
Hollywood may have proven to be more prophetic than even it could imagine.