Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Rise of the Anti-Hero and Decline of Politics

It should come as very little surprise that shows such as House of Cards (BBC and Netflix) and Game of Thrones, and its antecedent novels are very popular among political junkies. If one looks at the most celebrated television shows in the last few years, especially those that offer interpretations of politics one gets a pretty disturbing trend. A question arises at some point if art is imitating life, or if life is mirroring art.

Frank Underwood (House of Cards), Enoch Thompson (Boardwalk Empire), Tom Kane (Boss), Rick and the Governor (The Walking Dead), Tyrion Lannister (along with most of the other cast) (Game of Thrones) are among some of the few immensely popular anti-heroes who populate popular culture in the realm of politics. The darker, or grayer, media of the present demands flawed protagonists. Some argue that is more realistic, that politicians are people and perhaps their desire for power makes them more flawed than most.

There are many more examples which demonstrate the sort of insidious nature of politics. The Wire, also a HBO program, revels in the deeply corrupt world of Baltimore politics, and the extent to which politics is broken and is unfixable. Borgen a Danish property creates a vipers’ nest out of their politics. Best Laid Plans, an adaptation of the novel of the same name, satires Canadian politics as an unprincipled farce unworthy of decent people. In fact, the premise of the story is that a decent person can only win accidentally.

The modern culture seems enamoured with the anti-hero: Don Draper, Tywin Lannister, Tony Soprano, Walter White, among others, are our cultural icons. All of these horrendous figures, in their own way, illustrate a key message about power and politics. The implicit message of many of these shows is that honest, moral people are weak and ultimately fail, those who will lie, cheat and steal will ultimately win over the honourable. To a certain extent I believe we have internalized this belief. Any politician is immediately suspect and assumed to be corrupt, which is validated in virtually all media.

Television programs, such as The West Wing, whose antagonists let alone protagonists were rarely immoral would probably be laughed at as ridiculously optimistic portrayals, or perhaps more scathingly, unrealistic today. That being the case there are very few “good” figures in contemporary fiction that can be lauded. Parks and Recreation and its main character Leslie Knope are clear idealists, but the show is based around the ineffectiveness, petty corruption, and farce of local politics. As much as Parks and Rec may inspire, it equally damns.

If as a culture we romanticize our anti-heroes, accept and love their flaws and presume that is the normal order of things it should come as no surprise when allegations of corruption or personal weakness come to the surface and that these revelations would have little tangible impact on his/her support. It is commonly said that politicians are held to a higher standard, but I am not certain that is true anymore. If the most prominent figures in popular culture are adulterers, drug dealers, and criminals is it surprising that people are willing to overlook the trespasses of their real-life leaders?

Politicians should not be viewed as perfect, but there is something worrying if the standard slips so low that we are merely choosing between various corrupt snake-oil salesmen. More worrying is the relationship this creates between the public and those who aspire to politics. Anyone who declared an interest to their family and friends to run would be met with concern. What if your values align itself with a party in disgrace, like the federal Conservatives, or Ontario’s Liberals, or any party in Quebec, really? When I have expressed an interest in running one day my mother has said she will support me but, “please don’t become corrupt. Try to do some good.”

Politics has never been less corrupt than the present. The level of financial disclosure, reporting, and regulation has never been higher yet we are more convinced than ever that every politician is out to line his/her own pockets. We possess a remarkably cynical view of politics today and it should be no wonder that few people want to volunteer their time or stand for election in the formal political arena.

As good as our anti-heroes are, maybe they are bad for us overall.


S.A.Andrews said...

Forgive me for deflowering your usually virginal comments section.

I wonder if our cultural fascination with anti-heroes stems, not just from their immorality but from their decisiveness.

Don Draper, Frank Underwood, Walter White; these are men that try to assert a powerful control over their lives. They make hard decisions, they sacrifice, they cause themselves, and others, pain, and they don't look back.

I think many people, even those that are in most respects adults with adult jobs and responsibilities, still don't think they really know what they're doing, or that they're really in control of their lives. Thus, in spite of his selfish motives and deplorable methods, the anti-hero is admirable, because he knows where he wants to go and how he's going to get there. The immorality that these character display just serves as punctuation, and an admission to our post-9/11 fascination with darkness and "realism."

Just a thought.

SJL said...

It's an interesting interpretation, Mr. Andrews. I think there is something attractive about a hero like Al Swearengen who is so clearly a leader and powerful figure despite his flaws.

I suppose my question is, has our admiration of these figures distorted the type of political leadership we want to see, or expect to see in the real world? Most of these people are clearly sociopaths. Anyone who watches House of Cards and feels inspired to take part in politics is entering with the wrong sort of ideas, I fear.