The idealism that the US and Denmark invest in politics can be seen in their televised depictions. And has passed Britain by
The way politicians are depicted on the big and small screens says many things. In particular it says a lot about the nation that is depicting them. When The West Wing launched back in 1999, America was mired in the aftermath of the Bill Clinton impeachment process. The liberal President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, was the idealised Democratic president that Aaron Sorkin and his scriptwriters wished they could have had in the White House, instead of the embattled and tarnished one they had actually got, thanks to Monica Lewinsky and Kenneth Starr.
In the Danish TV series Borgen, which returned to BBC4 last weekend, the idealism is more muted but no less powerful. Borgen celebrates not the grandeur of the imperial presidency but the daily craftiness of coalition politics. It revels in the dilemmas, rivalries and calculations generated by Denmark’s proportional representation system and the personal price paid by the statsminister Birgitte Nyborg, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen. Nyborg makes compromises, sanctions the dark arts and makes morally dubious choices in order to survive. But the show respects them. There is no question that she is Borgen’s hero.
Don’t take my word for that. Read what Borgen’s scriptwriter, Jeppe Gjervig Gram, told the BBC’s Norman Smith, one of the Westminster village’s keenest Borgen fans, on the radio at the weekend: “We are idealists when it comes to democracy,” said Gram. “We wanted to make a show where politicians were the heroes. We didn’t want to do the ordinary political thriller where some reporters try to frame some corrupt politicians. We really wanted to make our politicians our heroes.”
These are words no British scriptwriter would ever utter. The idealism that America and Denmark each invest in their depictions of politics has passed Britain by. Every phrase uttered by Gram is the antithesis of what British writers believe. They are not idealists about democracy, but cynics. They want to make our politicians not heroes but scoundrels. Even after Leveson, they still cast journalists as truth-tellers to a land of liars. They are wrong about all these things. That’s why, instead of a British West Wing or Borgen, neither of which could ever survive here, we portray politics as The Thick Of It.
Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, which scooped the Bafta nominations yesterday and is poised to repeat the trick in the Oscars on Thursday, needs to be seen in this frame too. Lincoln is certainly a movie about history, the story of America’s greatest president. At a deeper level, however, it is about politics in general, and by implication about contemporary American politics too.
If you go to Lincoln, scheduled for release here in two weeks, do not expect to see many battle scenes. Lincoln is, instead, a film about how a hugely talented, yet worldly and flawed, leader manages to get his own way over something that really mattered – abolition of slavery – amid a political process and culture riddled with formal and informal barriers to his success.
It is a fascinating tale and a vindication of politics. But Spielberg is not telling us this for merely historical interest. His movie draws deeply on Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, which tells how Lincoln skilfully built a big-tent alliance with old enemies in order to steer America through the civil war and abolition at the start of his second term in 1865. And since Barack Obama famously read Goodwin’s book in 2008, inviting the historian for a one-on-one meeting to learn more, it seems clear that the film has a conscious contemporary resonance too.
This month Obama takes the presidential oath for his second term, delivers his state of the union address to the US Congress and nominates his new cabinet. He will then begin trying to get a legislative programme through Congress that may include immigration reform and gun controls, will face a big confrontation on the federal debt ceiling in March and beyond, must get his controversial Pentagon pick Chuck Hagel confirmed, and then, perhaps, may start to reanimate a Middle East strategy that has been in the freezer for nearly two years.
For many of Obama’s more optimistic supporters, this all marks the start of his moment. It is the moment when the man they hoped they were electing in 2008 will finally banish the shadow of the underachieving first term and feel free and strong enough to take on his Tea Party tormentors. The hard pounding over healthcare will be in the past. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have drained to a near-close. The righting and rebuilding of an America whose demographics encourage Democrats to believe they will dominate for decades can begin.
It is a beguiling scenario, and it would be a great achievement if it happens. But there’s more than a touch of West Wing wishful thinking about it all, and the Obama-as-Lincoln fantasy is at least as likely to remain just that – a fantasy. Part of that is because Obama’s statecraft record so far, even in the fiscal cliff negotiations, contains few signs that he possesses the political skill set – or the votes on Capitol Hill – to manoeuvre and cajole his way to decisive wins. It is hard enough to ask Obama to be an Abraham Lincoln, but he shows little sign of being a Lyndon Johnson either.
The institutional reason, though, is that the American political system is constructed to deny him the victories his supporters want. Obama has a mandate, as does his party – it is an insufficiently appreciated fact that the Democrats polled over a million more votes than the Republicans to whom they nevertheless lost in the House elections in November. But a combination of Senate rules, Republican-controlled redistricting after the 2010 census (which can’t be unpicked until after 2020) and the conservative lock on the supreme court means his hand is much weaker than it may appear. It would be nice if their system was better. But it isn’t. Though nor is ours.
Politics is a noble and sometimes a knavish trade. But it depends on crafty compromise as well as idealism, on making deals with opponents as well as making speeches denouncing them. That’s why, for all the differences between Denmark and America, even Obama operates as much in a Borgen world as in a West Wing or a Lincoln one. British politicians would live in a Borgen world too, if they – and we – could only face up to it better. Until they do, a better form of democratic politics is just a TV show.