Our Melodramatic Democracy

They say the difference between a screenplay and real life is that a screenplay has to make sense. So what lessons can a screenplay or the screenwriter behind it possibly have for those in some of the most consequential arenas of “real life,” politics and law? How is it that sense is “made” by screenplays—by what we’ll more broadly call, drama?

This already raises the more fundamental question: what is the relation between culture—drama, fiction, art, poetry—and the realms of politics and law? And why should those working in the labyrinths of politics and law spare much thought for the flickering shadows of fictitious men and women?

In my film, The American Nightmare, I tried to think my way through the relations between certain films—the horror film specifically—and a certain slice of real life, the political and social chaos of the years 1968-1978. I was searching for my own “rosebud,” wondering how it was that in the years I went from being 6 to 16, on the south side of Chicago, I found the horror film in all its gory discomfiture to be some kind of homeopathic medicine for the all too real terrors I felt around me.

The film makers I spoke to in the film—giants and innovators of the genre in that era, from George Romero and David Cronenberg to Wes Craven and John Carpenter—all seemed to understand it as Wes put it: a “bootcamp for the psyche.” But while that may answer what function films or certain films play for some people, it didn’t really answer the question inside the question. One posed most directly by the opening of my film: An extended montage in which some of the most startling and infamous images of the horror films of that decade are intercut with some of the most startling and infamous images from the TV news of that decade to the point that one has real trouble separating the two. Which primarily influenced which?

You might as well place a mirror before a mirror and ask which is the reflection?

Performative Art and Politics

Those of us over a certain age may remember an icon of TV ads in our youth. Madge, a manicurist, would commiserate with her clients about the damage that their dishwashing detergent was causing their hands and would recommend a particular brand that not only didn’t damage hands but softened them. The punch line: “You’re soaking in it.” 

That’s the real answer to the question of why those in the practice, study, and teaching of politics and the law should attend to “culture.” Culture isn’t merely “upstream” of politics and law, it is the stream. And everyone is soaking in it.

Lately, that reality manifests in direct ways: A television producer becomes one of the most successful political consultants of all time before creating the most successful infotainment channel in the world, which in turn becomes the necessary staging/vetting ground for most candidates of one party.

A businessman known primarily for his ”performance” as a businessman, particularly on a reality show, is elected president of the United States.

A comedian, this time Ukrainian, portrays an “ordinary guy” who becomes president of his country in a sitcom and then himself becomes president of his country in real life.

Congressional hearings utilize a top TV producer to make the hearings themselves into compelling, persuasive TV drama.

Some elected representatives see their primary job not as legislators or even anti-legislators but as performers on the public stage. Real legal cases on major political issues are launched knowing full well they have no legal merit but are merely performative acts.

It sometimes seems as if the courthouse steps or capital steps had replaced the courthouse and capital themselves.

The loss of a sense of the tragic agon and its replacement by a melodramatic agon is at the root of so much of the overheated, apocalyptic rhetoric driving the most divisive and seemingly insolvable issues that polarize the nation.

But before we simply ascribe all this to the decadent state of our global political culture, or a sign of the end times, perhaps it’s more a matter of understanding the way in which the political and legal culture—especially in a democratic regime—is inevitably founded on the same dramaturgical and rhetorical structures and techniques deployed in the drama. 

We’ve had wise analyses and critiques of politics in the past that showed us how politics is dependent on character, or on semantics, or on the force of the image, or the compelling pull of narrative. Each is true in its way. But combine character, semantics, image, and narrative and what you get is drama.

Since Aristotle, it has been understood, though perhaps under-appreciated, that the very structure of civic life is in a way founded on the same rhetorical structures and devices as the drama—especially in that most rhetoric-dependent of regimes, a democracy where all rests on some form of popular agreement. Yet there is no more devalued term in our own critical lexicon than ‘”rhetoric.” If anything we use it to diminish certain speech acts as “mere rhetoric,” instead of understanding it as the very means by which an “audience” (whether an audience of a tragedy or other work of representational art, or the jury in a trial, or the voters in a democracy) is persuaded and moved.

Aristotle nods to this in the Poetics, including what he called dianoia (thought) as the third (after plot and character) of the six main constituent parts of a tragedy. He then more or less instructs the reader to turn to his Rhetoric if they want further elucidation. It’s clear to Aristotle that rhetoric is key both to “the statesman’s art” and to the poet’s. This centrality of dianoia and the rhetoric of persuasion is dramatically embodied in the way the crucial middle act of many tragedies requires the staging of a kind of battle, or trial, between the driving ideas of the play—the “Agon”—the conflict of main ideas. It’s the internal logic of conflict that is at the literal center of drama.

I’m no classicist or political theorist but what I take away from this is that it is always the case, especially in a democracy, that the form of our political and social life is at core “dramatic”— that it hinges upon the staging of the agon and that in effect there never has been a wall between politics and the law, on the one hand, and culture (understood as the artistic and commercial representations and entertainments of life), on the other. They both dramatize or ritualize the agons at the heart of our lives, and in one way or another attempt to resolve them. Seen in this light, we might say America is not just a nation of laws but of courtroom drama.

The Dramas of Democratic Life

So it’s all drama. But what sort of drama? Not all “agons” are the same, or rather the same agons can be framed very differently to become very different kinds of drama. Let’s call one way of framing a conflict “Melodramatic” and the other “Tragic.”

I’m using the terms Melodrama and Tragedy here in a rather idiosyncratic way. By Melodrama I actually don’t mean the genre of melodrama—often in old Hollywood called “women’s pictures” or ”weepies” and now “‘domestic noir” (which ironically is amongst the most literally tragic of all Hollywood genres.) And similarly, by tragedy I don’t mean only stories or dramas with unhappy, “tragic” endings. After all, comedies too often rely on a tragic agon. Comedy is not the opposite of tragedy but rather tragedy’s other face, often made up of the same kinds of disasters, fumbles, falls, and incommensurable desires as tragedy. No, the opposite of tragedy is not comedy but what I’m calling melodrama.

The distinction I want to draw here between Melodrama and Tragedy resides precisely in that agon and how the two sides of that conflict are defined: How we see the sides, how they see themselves and each other, and how they and we see the nature of the conflict they’re locked in. Are the two sides defined as Good vs Evil? That’s the Melodramatic. A Manichean, dualist conflict in which the protagonists and antagonists are in a struggle that can only be ended by the total defeat or elimination of the opposition. But that’s not by and large the logic of Tragedy and the tragic agon. The conflict at the heart of the tragic is generally not between good and evil, but more often the conflict between two or more incommensurable goods, which cannot be resolved through combat but only through sacrifice or compromise.

Whether in drama or the drama of “real life,” we today mostly see the agon through a melodramatic lens: In particular through the literal demonization of the opposition, ascribing to it purely malevolent, destructive goals, and by ramping the stakes of the conflict up to be about the existence and nature of the universe, the world, the nation, ourselves, our families, and our so-called “way of life.” As if, in an explicitly pluralistic society, there could possibly be one way of life. Indeed, many of these melodramatic fights to save “our way of life” are in fact themselves existential threats to our ways of life and the rather finely calibrated system founded to try and help them co-exist.

This loss of a sense of the tragic agon and its replacement by a melodramatic agon is at the root of so much of the overheated, apocalyptic rhetoric driving the most divisive and seemingly insolvable issues that polarize the nation—like abortion, guns, race, and identity.

Poll after poll shows both a weariness with the endless conflicts and a surprisingly large consensus around some form of compromise in all these arenas. But no such compromise is possible when viewed through the melodramatic lens. Any attempt to limit abortion access is framed as a total assault on women, any attempt to protect such access is framed as a nearly demonic desire to kill innocents. Any attempt to limit access to military-style weapons is framed as a prelude to the arrival of black helicopters and world government, and any argument which suggests that the founders may have had a good reason for not allowing the state a total monopoly on arms is framed as total capitulation to a conspiracy of the NRA and gun manufacturers. Overall, the left is constantly framed as Radical Socialist and the right as Fascist. Increasingly all opposing ideas are framed as outside the realm of acceptable discourse and too often words themselves are framed as literal sticks and stones which may indeed hurt one. When every election is a Flight 93 election or a battle to preserve democracy itself, the end result is to turn Clausewitz on his head: Instead of war being an extension of politics by other means, politics becomes an extension of war.

Such conditions are inherently inimical not only to basic civic—and civil—conversation but to the very possibility of legislation and governance in a system where the very ground of our law-making is supposedly reasoned debate. The Melodramatic in effect makes every trial a trial by combat rather than a trial by jury.

The point here is both to urge myself and fellow creators in the cultural sphere to be more aware of our own addiction to melodrama—and the absolutes of good and evil— and to press those in the political and legal spheres to think more about the dramatic structures and the role of rhetoric in their work, and the ways that framing a conflict can make that conflict literally unresolvable. The Politics of Melodrama can only lead to the fantasy of the total destruction of the existential enemy and the utter rejection of the very forces of compromise and sacrifice which could resolve the conflict.

There’s an unmistakable whiff of sheer political common sense returning in the air, along with a growing fatigue with the endlessly apocalyptic melodrama of super heroics in our culture.

This is neither simple “both-sides-ism” nor a ”can’t-we-all-just-get-along” wish for compromise. It’s to say that how we view our political and legal dramas matters —whether we view them (and our participation in them) as Melodramatic conflicts between good and evil or if we see them as the tragically inevitable conflict of competing goods. This will determine how we go about even talking about the conflict, how we treat those who think differently, and perhaps most importantly, whether deliberative and representational democratic processes can even deal with such issues.

And that’s key because ours is a nation founded not on agreement but precisely as a framework for perpetual disagreement. Not as a place to end all arguments, but as a place literally built on argument, on debate—on conversation. If I were a philosopher I might turn here to Kant, to his wonderful notion of the inherent “Unsocial Sociability” of humanity which makes us strive always to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, while also always chafing against that in the pursuit of our own ends and of our own fundamental conception of life. And I’d again point to the wondrous ways the founders sought, found, and built a framework to contain this seething, roiling, growing mass of unsocial sociability.

It’s A Wonderful Life

So the first lesson I take from my side of the culture that might speak to the political and legal side of it is a focus on the centrality of conflict but with an essentially tragic rather than melodramatic understanding of it.

But increasingly I think the push towards the melodramatic logic (in culture and in politics) is but one dimension of a multidimensional problem: A move from what we might call a third-person culture to a first-person culture.

By “third-person culture”—I mean the co-incidence of the rise of representational democracy and the rise of a representational culture—the novel above all but also certain forms of theater and painting—all of which rely on our ability to imaginatively walk in the shoes of the other and to look on the actions and fate of another with that once richly resonant and now sadly depleted term—”sympathy.” Hollywood certainly didn’t invent this, but in a way it became a main driver of such a culture in the 20th century. But the convergence of personal technology, social media, and the first-person shooter game has in effect shifted us increasingly from that third-person into a first-person culture—along with putting Silicon Valley and the Tech world into the driver’s seat of a culture once driven by Hollywood.

Crudely put, when all culture becomes a kind of “first-person shooter,” when our narrative and ludic fantasies are all first person and no longer require us to imagine ourselves as not only other, but even as multiple others, or when we assume that only individuals of specific identities can even tell certain stories, we end up depriving ourselves of the very learnt skill that makes decent civil life possible. 

But I come here not to bury the tragic third person but to praise it. There are still vital examples of precisely the kind of tragically minded, third-person narrative culture that enthralls and informs and inspires. As just one recent example, think of Game of Thrones—where we have to occupy so many different lives and fates, and where in that vast cast of characters the purely Good and the purely Evil are the rare exceptions. What emerges at the end of eight seasons and 73 episodes is a kind of allegory for the end of the reign of absolute hereditary monarchy and the birth of at least the beginnings of democracy, as if one requirement for escaping the reign of tyrants is precisely to forego melodramatic certainty and the restricted point of view of the first person.

What’s missing above all from both the model of Melodrama and from the first-person form is dialogue, conversation, and argument. I naively hold these to be the real building blocks of culture and of the nation itself. In the past, Hollywood has offered some pretty good models for this.

A perfect example is what we think of as the “Capraesque”—a certain view of life in films like You Can’t Take it With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, It’s A Wonderful Life, and others. These films are almost always discussed as solely the work of their director and producer, Frank Capra. But they were actually the product of a close collaboration between the politically conservative, intensely individualistic, Italian immigrant Capra and the politically liberal, socially minded, first-generation American Jewish writer Robert Riskin who wrote all but two of the core Capra films and really laid the template for all of them. Together they created an enduring image of American individualism and American community— one that emphasized pluralism, eccentricity, localism, and the delicate balance of liberty and responsibility.

Not only do these films themselves serve as great examples of our culture, of an American mythology and our imagined, remembered, and hoped-for community, but they also helped create an enduring inspiration for our civil society. It’s not just the content of the films, their stories, characterization, and great dialogue but rather the conversations between Capra and Riskin that were required to make them that should inspire.

In a time when we are riven as a nation by such deep conflicts of identity and interest, it is precisely the disavowing of Melodramatic certainty, the rejection of the heroic narcissism of the first person and, above all, constant conversation across identity and ideological differences that light the way.

For all is not lost. There’s an unmistakable whiff of sheer political common sense returning in the air, along with a growing fatigue with the endlessly apocalyptic melodrama of super-heroics in our culture. And there is a vast world of emotionally and morally complex, serialized narrative on our screens not equaled since the heyday of the serialized 19th-century novels of Dickens, Tolstoy, and others. So even amidst the chill winds of less-than-free speech, the performative politics of too many of our leaders and the excesses of identitarianism in the culture, I remain optimistic.

But then again, I’m an American—and as Henry James said, Americans only like one kind of story: Tragedies with a happy ending.