Forty years ago this year, Richard Nixon resigned from office. He was pushed by his political enemies but there was the substantial issue of crime and cover up. The whole event was seen as America’s great loss of innocence, which can only mean that people must have been ridiculously naive about government to be shocked about any of these disclosures.
The whole of “Watergate” strikes us all as rather quaint, doesn’t it?
Was this the beginning of the long fall of the moral status of government in general? Perhaps. Take a look at the theme of the gigantically popular show “House of Cards” on Netflix. The first season painted the grimmest possible picture of daily life in Congress. There are no principles. There is no morality. There are no ideals. There are only interests and power. Everything is subterfuge.
What’s strange about the show — season two opens this Sunday — is how believable it all is. The environmental lobbying group is secretly shilling for a corrupt corporate welfare client. The education bill is nothing but a collection of special interest favors — and no one is quite sure what’s in it. Appointments are made not on merit but on connections. Even the public scandals are entirely manufactured to serve some purpose.
And if you don’t go along or get in the way, you had better watch your back. The people in charge are killers. And what are the stakes? It’s all about something increasingly irrelevant to real life, namely, have control over the levers of power in Washington itself, which is presented as an isolated sector with no authentic connection to the rest of the country it purports to rule.
And when one plot line ends in a murder, the viewer is not entirely surprised. It just seems that this is the way stuff goes in government.
Such a series would never have been made in the 1960s. Back then, there was still a remnant of that previous view, dating from the Progressive Era, that government policy was rooted in some kind of a idealism or even science in which power served the public interest. The calamity of the Vietnam War might have been the beginning of the end, but that it has ended is indisputable.
Consider how many other shows and films echo the same theme that government is up to no good. I just watched “The Lego Movie” and it too treats power as malicious at its core. An ordinary minifigure is recruited to save the whole of the Lego world from a nefarious president who plots to glue all pieces together so that there will no longer be any spontaneity, freedom, or creativity.
Here we have an interesting picture of government. It is all about freezing plans in place, whereas we’ve learned in the digital age that this is just about the worst thing that can happen to any sector of life. We need trial and error, play, an ongoing process of development that drives toward improvement. Most of all people need freedom to manage their own lives and enterprises.
A similar picture of the business of government comes through in “Hunger Games,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Breaking Bad,” and a host of other shows. This is the popular trope of our times.
It’s hard to imagine the world out of which the picture of “good government” actually emerged. It was about one hundred years ago. The minds that gave us public schooling, central banking, public welfare, wealth redistribution, intergenerational wealth planning, price control, labor control, not to mention murderous war to save the world from the very despotism we were creating at home.
None of it worked. What did building Leviathan actually do? It erected an elite of grafters and power mongers who live at our expense.
The horrible truth emerges in “House of Cards,” and the entire nation will watch, listen, learn, and nod yes, yes, yes, that’s how it is.