There has been a run of American films recently that are cynical about politicians almost to the point of revulsion. Wag the Dog brought us a world where inventing a war was the most reasonable way to conceal an "incident" with an intern in the Oval Office. Primary Colours showed us "Jack Stanton" as a flawed man with a manipulative wife who would do almost anything to achieve political power.
On its way across the Atlantic soon is Bulworth, which makes both of these seem like paeans of praise to the political system. Warren Beatty plays a senator who finally flips under pressure and starts telling the truth: politics is corrupt; no-one cares about anything but money; special interests control everything.
The conventional wisdom is that this is a sign of the times, and deeply disturbing. Americans have become cynical about politics and their leaders. Stung by a series of White House scandals, they don't believe in government, they don't believe in party, and most of all they don't believe in the President. Authority is ridiculed; the pillars of the temple are shaking.
I've been to plenty of countries where the ridicule of politicians is a crime. In Croatia, the satirical weekly Feral Tribune has been attacked in the courts and repeatedly closed down because it dares to take the mickey out of Franjo Tudjman, the sinister and authoritarian president. In Britain, Alan Clark was so affronted by a column in the Evening Standard which lampooned him that he took the paper and the author to court. In France, Canard Enchaine notwithstanding, a level of reverence in political coverage is de rigeur, ensuring that while the French continue to mutter darkly about their politicians in private, the public presentation is always dignified and often wrong.
I believe that a high degree of disrespect for politicians is not only healthy, it's downright necessary. The political process in America is in many respects deeply flawed - as it is in many countries - but Americans have no problem talking about it. Periodically, that results in a sudden and unexpected shock at the polls. More often, it translates into a continuing and scathing disrespect for the men and women who govern them.
American politicians are venal, and they are in the thrall of big money. I don't think they are that different from politicians anywhere else, and I'd rather that good people were elected. In the absence of that, a well-placed blow to the ego strikes me as being as good a way as any of getting even.
At times when official respect runs too high, where politicians and their media cronies connive at the cult of authority, bad things happen: think of the high points of Reaganism and Thatcherism. The deification of the elected - whether in life, or in death as with the cult of the Kennedys - is an unhealthy and dangerous phenomenon. Politicians should be ripe for attack, always and everywhere.
Total cynicism about politics itself is damaging and dangerous. In Croatia, the combination of a state totally aligned with a party, electoral shenanigans, and pressure on the media has helped to numb a nation to politics. In America, the fact that there are so many bitterly cynical films indicates a waxing of interest in what dirty little games get played behind closed doors, not a waning of it. That's healthy.
Ridicule is a democratic sanction. Warren Beatty uses it to devastating effect in Bulworth, daring to say that the party courts the rich, ignores black people, and is devoid of principle. As Newsweek puts it: "Beatty's thumbs up to the Democratic Party? Oops -that's his middle finger." Well, thank you, Mr Beatty; and to the politicians - sit on this.