This review was originally published 4 October 2007. Several references to relative dates have been updated to reflect this current posting.
The 2000 Presidential election has special significance to me. As a seventeen year old taking high school current events, I followed the candidates closely and had strong, substantiated opinions about all of them. Leading up to November, I lamented that I would not be of legal voting age until three weeks after election day. The debacle that followed, however, jaded me so deeply that it wasn’t until six years later that I began to read the news again, and only in 2008 did I finally register to vote. If the 2000 elections taught me anything, it was that our system of government is deeply flawed, and that our individual voices do not matter. How else to justify Bush taking the presidency when Al Gore won the election by more than 500,000 votes?
Using the 2000 election as a starting point, the 2001 documentary The Party’s Over draws attention to some of the many problems in our current governmental system. A sequel of sorts to The Last Party (in which Robert Downey Jr. followed the 1992 election), The Party’s Over is “hosted” by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who openly admits he agreed to shoot the documentary because he “felt ill-informed.” Hoffman is an excellent choice; where other people hear, Hoffman actually listens, and his straight forward common sense is refreshingly at odds with the overly analytical rhetoric often employed by politicians, pundits, and documentarians. His shabbily affable demeanor encourages his interviewees to be less formal than they normally would be and to speak candidly and conversationally about topics which too frequently are reduced to broad generalizations and inflammatory partisan debate. It also affords the small crew a little more respect and opportunity than they would have had otherwise.
With a wide sample set of interviewees ranging from musicians like Ben Harper, to political comedians like Bill Maher, to forward thinking younger representatives like Democrat Harold Ford Jr., to a homeless woman, to rally organizers, the film represents an admirable range of opinion. This is not to say it is a perfectly objective documentary, nor that it does not have a bias or an agenda. Co-directors Rebecca Chailklin and Donovan Leitch do make some mistakes which are common to liberal documentarians: they take one too many cheap shots at the NRA, are somewhat selective in how thoroughly they report certain events, erroneously believe that interviewing children carries any kind of validity (and that their responses hold any kind of sway) and they occasionally have an air of condescension towards their subjects without a solution to back it up. There is also a slight hypocrisy evident in the proceedings. (Courtney Love speaking out against gun violence? Didn’t you shoot your husband?) Regardless, these are forgivable in light of the problems they are trying to address, namely that American politics is run by what Bill Maher identifies as “a system of open bribery,” that the American public goes largely unheard by its governing body, and that the cynicism which stems from such circumstances has led to a largely apathetic voting public.
Tim Robbins, interviewed early in the film, expands upon that idea, stating that it is not mere apathy which stops many people from voting, but rather that “the majority of American people don’t vote out of protest.” So long as the electoral college is in place — an outmoded system which, with state and local governments in addition to the federal government, is both superfluous and detrimental — it is fatuous and downright inaccurate to say that every vote counts; that the majority of the American voting public can vote for Al Gore, yet George W. Bush can be announced president by the Supreme Court proves it. What the 2000 election teaches us, in no uncertain terms, is that we are not individuals with unique voices and valid concerns, but rather we are reduced into categories, and among those categories, some are given more credence than others. With the availability of information via both traditional and progressive media, there is simply no way to justify the electoral college anymore.
Granted, there is a lot of misinformation circulating, but the beauty of the modern age is that we have the ability to go beyond what is perniciously presented to us as fact more easily than ever before. We no longer are at the mercy of the town paper or the local newscaster. We have network news from around the world and blogs from every possible demographic. Among all of these resources, we each have the ability to become an engaged and enlightened member of the democratic process. How sad it is that our government is afraid of this possibility.
“The theory is that people are a damn nuisance,” explains Noam Chomsky, “their role in a democracy is to be spectators, not participants.” Chomsky goes on to explore — both in this film and in his own works — how our society is structured to teach us from an early age that we are consumers of product, that we must identify ourselves by external rather than internal characteristics, and that our capitalist corporatocracy has made us passive and egregiously credulous. As such, facts are determined by committee, and their truthfulness manufactured, not verified.
This is not an entirely new practice. Nietzsche tells us that all facts are interpretations; they are tools we use to navigate through the day, and as such, it is more important that they be useful than true. This is fine when you generalize that sticking your hand into a fire today will probably hurt just as much as if you stuck your hand into a different fire five years ago. When, however, you fabricate information to justify personal vendettas, and especially when your actions cost innumerable thousands of lives, there is a moral and ethical dilemma that is not being adequately addressed.
The irony, as Tennessee representative Harold Ford Jr. explains, is that our government is a service — a frequently poor service — which not only has the largest consumer base, but which must be purchased regardless of its quality. “No matter how bad our government is,” he continues, “you still have to pay taxes.” In the early days of the PC, we would joke that if our car crashed as often as our computer, we’d have bought a new car in a week; if our lawyers and advisers misrepresented us and misinformed us on the scale that our government does, we would cancel their services. We cannot cancel the government’s service. If we stop paying taxes, we are arrested, tried, and jailed.
So if we can’t replace, we must reform. Thankfully, we live in a democratic republic, in which we can vote out elected officials once we feel they have been acting to our detriment. Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually were able to utilize these tools built into the system? Instead, we must speak in the only public venue we are allowed. As John Sellers, head of the Ruckus Society reminds us, “This is our right to be out on the streets, this is an American tradition to be out in the streets, this is how shit gets done.” Before we call foul upon organizations like the Ruckus Society and brand them mere troublemakers, we should recall two things.
Firstly, it was Thomas Jefferson himself who recommended a revolution every twenty years to keep a democracy limber. If you’re going to listen to him about that whole equality thing (and bastardize it by promoting flawed systems like Affirmative Action and No Child Left Behind), you should probably hear him out on his whole case.
Secondly, Noam Chomsky has written and spoken about the “perceived debate,” wherein we are given two candidates — a democrat and a republican — who are essentially one in the same. Both parties are, at their heart, interested in many of the same outcomes, but because they disagree so violently and so publicly about choice issues, we are led to believe that we actually have well-rounded debate. In the end, it doesn’t make very much difference to us if we elect a democrat or a republican (the middle class is getting screwed either way) because they have essentially the same goals in mind. We ignore the wealth of dissenting and divergent opinion from third party candidates and independents because we are largely content to generalize ourselves as red or blue and focus on our differences instead of our similarities.
Why such hostility? How did we allow our country to get to this point? Where it is a sign of weakness to listen to any option which is not our own? Where we allow our leaders to bullishly follow their ill-advised whims and whore themselves out to the highest bidder, regardless of their motives? Hoffman’s frequent look of laconic disbelief is the only acceptable response to the audacious spectacle of turn of the century politics. And lest we forget that this documentary was released before the WTC attacks; we have fallen so far in the years since, it’s sobering to look back and realize we were in such a sorry state to begin with. Viewing the film in 2007 actually deepens its irony. Bush’s eternally pained expression, as if just standing still and breathing uses the entire capacity of his brain, and the blatant artifice of the campaign are downright painful to watch in light of what has transpired since. Watching Al Gore’s wooden recitations reminds us just how much more personable and avuncular he has become over the past several years. And when an interviewee explains that Hillary Clinton accepts her husband’s sexual dalliances because she resigns that “I’m [Hillary] not going to do it [be the president] so someone has to,” well… I honestly don’t know what to say, beyond shrug, shake my head, and hope that we have not passed the point of no return.
In discussing his support of the death penalty, then-governor Bush insisted “You can’t let public persuasion sway you, because your job is to uphold the law.” Actually, last I checked, we had an entirely different branch of government to do just that and to, ahem, check and balance what the other two branches are doing. Now maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I thought that it was PRECISELY the job of elected officials to represent the public which has elected them. Oh, wait, that’s right, we didn’t actually elect Bush. I’m sorry, that was my oversight.
Watching these events almost twelve years later, what is most striking is how uncomfortable everyone seems to be. 2000 was a year, not unlike 1960, which changed the way campaigns are conducted in America. The new media, especially the internet, was supposed to signal a return of grassroots campaigning and of intelligent discourse on relevant issues. Why is it, then, that with each presidential election, we feel increasingly like there are simply no good candidates? Why, with all of these new means for self promotion, is money more of a deciding factor than ever before? Philip Seymour Hoffman puts it best when he says that this is the first time an average American can look at the available candidates and honestly say that he or she can do a better job than any of these fools. Many of us have begun to vote not because there is a candidate about whom we feel passionate, but because they are all so ridiculous, and the whole pageant has become so absurd, that we can no longer accept our own passivity. We dropped the ball, and this is what we have wrought, and so we will start to bail the water out of our sinking ship, even though our only available tool is a Dixie cup, as Michael Moore has analogized.
With Pat Robertson giving speeches that sound like they came out of George Orwell’s wastebasket and the government taking unheard of liberties in suppressing our basic human freedoms, these are indeed dire times for our country. We do in fact live in a police state. We have allowed ourselves to be raped and repressed by the hands of government. And the system is deleteriously designed to not only allow these injustices, but to encourage, enforce, and protect them. Watch this film, and get angry, and hope that others will do the same