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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Politics in the Style of C.B. DeMille

            Politics is often compared to show business, which is an unwarranted slur on the good people of Hollywood and Broadway. That comparison came to mind, though, as I was thinking the other day about a legend of the motion picture industry who is rarely mentioned these days.
            That would be the late Cecil B. DeMille. If you’re under 50, that may not ring a bell, but DeMille was one of the best known Hollywood directors of the period from World War I to the late 1950s. He’s particularly remembered for his Biblical and historical epics, including Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments (silent and sound versions), King of Kings and Samson and Delilah.
            C.B., as he was known in the industry, loved those types of movies because they enabled him (and the mass audience that lapped them up) to have the cake and eat it too. By soberly claiming to be telling a historic (or better yet, religious) story, he could give the audience an hour and three quarters of sex, sin, violence and decadence, then make everything square with the censors by killing off the sinners in the last few minutes. It was humbug, but it worked, at the box office if not esthetically.
            These days it seems as if the Republican Party (and in particular, its members most devoted to the Tea Party) are engaging in a political style derived from DeMille. They’re titillating their core audience with large dollops of small-government, low-tax pornography and getting away with it because our system of government is postponing the appearance of the final reel, where the reckoning would inevitably occur.
            Because we don’t have a parliamentary system of government, like most of the rest of the world, there’s a lack of accountability that can be exploited by a canny politician, or even an entire chamber of government.
            Earlier this year, the House of Representatives voted, pretty much along party lines, to approve Congressman Paul Ryan’s plan to kill Medicare and replace it with private insurance vouchers. Some of the people who voted for it probably thought they were doing the right thing, but others were surely being more cynical.
            There had to be at least one Republican (and I’m guessing more than one), who looked at that bill and thought, “This is nuts. If it gets passed, the voters will throw us all out, and we’ll be the minority party for the next fifty years.”
            And then, looking at the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Democrat in the White House, that Congressman (or those Congresspersons) said, “What the hell. It isn’t going to pass, so I’ll vote yes and give the base a little red meat.”
            In a parliamentary system, where the legislature and the executive are in the same party, that sort of game-playing doesn’t work. When a law comes up for a vote, legislators have to decide whether it’s something they want to be held liable for if it passes. One way or another, there are consequences to the vote, and the vote must be cast with those consequences in mind. There are no freebies for grandstanding.
            When DeMille played his shell game with the audience, he was dealing with make-believe and knew how it was going to end. Giving the sinners their just desserts made for good cinema, anyway. The Tea Party Republicans are acting out a scenario that works only as long as there’s no resolution. Sooner or later, the voters are going to demand an ending, and at that point, no script doctor in Hollywood will be able to come up with a happy one.