What “Longshot” Can Teach Us About Politics In 2021
(This article contains spoilers.)
“Longshot”, starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen, came out in May 2019, but it seems like a product of the pre-Trump era, a rose-colored time when many liberals believed Democrats were going to ride a demographic wave into eternal victory and QAnon was just a glimmer in your crazy neighbor’s eye.
Of course things weren’t really so great pre-2016. For decades Americans have been ramping up into opposing teams which increasingly view each other as the enemy. (1) This polarization plays out in our government where we see gridlock, gamesmanship, and gerrymandering rather than cooperation. 2016 was also rife with intra-party conflict, with Republicans trotting out several stages’ worth of candidates in an attempt to counter Trump, while Democrats waged their own battle between “Bernie bros” and “Hillary bots.”
Watching “Longshot” is therefore an exercise in suspension of disbelief on several levels. But believing that Charlize Theron’s elegant Secretary of State, Charlotte Field, would go for Seth Rogen’s schlubby journalist, Fred Flarsky, pales in comparison to believing that Charlotte could pass a major environmental initiative, that Fred could accept his Republican friend, or that Charlotte and Fred could weather a revenge porn scandal in a political environment obsessed with image. Romantic comedies, however, often depict a better world that might be possible if only we would reach for it. With that in mind, here are three lessons from the movie “Longshot” that I think we could all apply to 2021.
1. Choose Policy Over Personality
In “Longshot” Charlotte Field is subjected to focus groups that score her on her elegance, humor and even her wave. The consultant played by Lisa Kudrow assures her that people don’t really care about her policies. As a result Charlotte’s top aide, Maggie, is nonchalant when Charlotte’s major environmental initiative is stripped of its substance, assuring her that her plans still sound good and optics are what really matter.
Charlotte spends the bulk of the film accepting the bounds of our political environment and trying to keep her flawless image intact. It’s an onerous task, especially for a woman. But when Charlotte is finally forced to let her image crumble to pursue her policy goals (and her relationship with Fred), the voting public of “Longshot” accepts her. Her competence and policy chops win the day. Clearly this is the happy ending that we all hope for, but would we as the voting public create this ending for a real world politician?
Perhaps. I find hope in the enormous popularity of the recent #BernieMittens meme which might indicate that the American public are growing weary of pomp, fashion, and politicians as celebrities in the time of Covid and worsening economic inequality. Of course, you could argue that Bernie’s popularity is just a different type of image, but Bernie gained fame in large part for always guiding the conversation back to policy, and most people (even those who don’t support him) could rattle off at least a few of his big ideas. How many people can do the same for Joe Biden or Kamala Harris? The rise and continued appeal of Bernie Sanders indicates to me a growing hunger for policy substance in the American body politic.
It is, of course, fair to point out that Bernie, unlike his female counterparts, enjoys male privilege in dressing and presenting himself with less polish. However, incoming Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was also dressed sensibly for the 2021 Inauguration, and even brought a blanket, so maybe the tide is turning.
And maybe instead of expecting men to also disguise aging or add polish, we could instead concentrate on relaxing our expectations of women’s appearances. Because every time we critique a politician on their appearance or mannerisms rather than their policy or integrity, we’re potentially diminishing the quality of our democracy and contributing to a world where women are forced to spend hours on hair and makeup rather than on doing their jobs.
Let’s start by embracing politicians who come to us with clear policy goals, no matter what their presentation. Let’s consume media that digs down on policy specifics rather than concentrating on tabloid gossip or lifestyle stories. And though we can’t all be informed on every policy matter, each of us can choose to learn a lot about one area of policy, whether that’s healthcare, racial justice, climate change, or even just local zoning policies. In doing this, we’ll be able to recognize which politicians are presenting solid policy and which plans just “sound good” for optics’ sake.
2. Stop Contributing to Polarization
Towards the end of “Longshot” Fred finds out that his best friend Lance is a Republican. Fred had always just assumed that Lance was a Democrat because he was black. He also assumed that the cross around Lance’s neck was “a black thing” rather than evidence of Lance’s Christianity. In the film, Fred uses this revelation as a chance to recognize his own unconscious biases. He apologizes to his friend and continues the friendship. It’s worth asking in 2021, would a real-life Fred Flarksy do the same?
In my own liberal-dominated social media feeds I’ve seen many versions of the same two posts over the last few years, often posted by the same people. One type of post bemoans American polarization, wonders how it’s gotten so bad, can’t believe that Republicans think the things that they do. The other type of post (often in meme or cartoon form) proudly announces that the poster does not associate with and/or has actively disowned a cavalcade of villains: Nazis, white supremacists, cops, terfs, Trump-voters, Republicans, rich people, etc. The exact villain of the piece varies, but these groups have been so joined together in a certain type of public imagination, that to be one is now to be all the others. And the bar for being labeled a “Nazi” has been lowered in some circles so that to have any policy view which doesn’t completely conform to current left-wing ideology is to be assigned one, and then all, of these labels. And once you are labeled, by the logic of the meme, you will be unfriended, and if you are de-platformed even better. But how have we become so polarized?
To not connect the demonization of the other side with the phenomena of polarization, to believe that it is only the other side contributing to the problem, is to have a blindspot. And that blindspot causes people to use what social media political platforms they have as a blunt instrument to advocate for ignoring, unfriending and vilifying Republicans or even just moderate Democrats or Independents, rather than as a place to educate, advance great ideas, find points of agreement or advocate for positive change for marginalized groups.
Of course, not every person who posts negative memes or demonizes every Republican actually cares about polarization. Some accept polarization as inevitable, the other side as hopeless or inhuman, and have given up on the idea that we might find any common cause. That, however, is even more worrying. Because if you’ve given up on the idea of knitting our society back together, what is the plan, and where might that path lead?
While Fred and Lance’s friendship in “Longshot” is obviously fictional and scrubbed of many of the difficult issues that Democrats and Republicans disagree on, I still believe their friendship offers some insight on how we can create a less polarized, healthier democracy.
First, remember that our political reality is not as black and white as you might think. First of all, not everyone in the country is on a “side.” 38% of Americans are political independents (2), and 33% of the country didn’t vote even in the record turnout year of 2020. (3) Even on a purely selfish level, partisan people might want to think about winning over these unaffiliated voters and non-voters, by keeping things positive and solutions-oriented, rather than presenting politics as a pitched battle of neverending acrimony.
It’s also important to remember that demographics aren’t always predictive of voting or belief systems. A surprising number of Latino voters chose Trump in 2020 (4), and more black men voted for Trump in 2020 than in 2016. (5) Rather than assuming that a particular demographic group is a monolith, why not go back to viewing each person as an individual? Be curious about other people’s viewpoints rather than assuming them in advance.
Reducing polarization doesn’t mean shutting up about issues you care about. It just means taking a moment to consider how you would want to be approached about an issue you were unfamiliar with or disagreed on. When you have changed your mind has it come about through insults or shame, or has it come about through patience, kindness and good information?
My own policy is to use the Buddhist practice of right speech and to engage in speech that is kind, truthful, and designed to create harmony rather than discord. Even when I am insulted I don’t return fire; I back away or respond politely. Buddhist right speech is very in-line with a promising canvassing technique called “deep canvassing” that has been studied as a more effective political outreach technique than traditional canvassing. It involves listening and making a personal connection across differences. And it’s another route that very passionate political people may consider to effect real change. (6) One group that is currently using this technique is https://peoplesaction.org/
Finally, it’s also worth considering that you may not have all the answers on every political issue, that there may be aspects of many issues that you haven’t thought about. This is where having friends and associates who disagree with you in a good faith manner can come in handy. Too many people live in echo chambers these days. The answer to ending polarization isn’t to expect everyone else to magically start agreeing with you; the answer is to make what efforts you can to turn down the heat, to listen and understand, and to advocate with compassion and patience when you want to advance a cause.
3. Get the Money Out of Politics
The big bad in “Longshot” is Parker Wembley, a media mogul a la Rupert Murdoch whose server farm is threatened by Charlotte’s plan to protect trees. When Charlotte won’t willingly back down, Wembley hacks Fred’s computer and uses a video he finds there as blackmail. Our own political leaders are likely not bowing down to the power of money under such dramatic circumstances. Instead, many politicians have grown dependent on large corporate or super-PAC donations, and those donations may be affecting their politics in ways they no longer even notice themselves.
Overturning Citizens United, one of the main goals of those who want big money out of politics, is no simple matter, though groups like Wolf-PAC https://wolf-pac.com/ are making an effort to call a constitutional convention on the matter. Joining their efforts is one way to make a difference, but there are other shorter-term choices you can make to create a democracy that is once again working for ordinary people.
First, you can choose to support candidates who take meaningful pledges not to accept corporate donations. Justice Democrats, the organization that helped launch “The Squad” of AOC, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, among others, is one organization that serves as a hub for candidates who are committed to ending money in politics. You can also check www.opensecrets.org from the Center for Responsive Politics to check on individual politicians’ funding or to learn how to uncover this information for yourself.
You can also view your personal spending as a political act, investing your money more in local businesses, worker-owned co-ops, family farms at farmer’s markets, etc. Though this may only make an incremental difference, it does make a difference, and helps prevent a situation where large monopolistic corporations gain more power to buy our democracy.
As we discussed in the podcast, “Longshot” may be a romantic comedy, but it’s also a movie that points to many of the pressing political issues of our day, and gives us a ray of hope that not only love might work out, but that our politics might not be so hopeless either.