6 Scenes We Love About the Sham of Democracy

By  · Published on November 4th, 2014

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Did you vote today? If not, is it because you don’t think your vote matters? I can understand why you might believe that, because of how cynical we’ve gotten about democracy in America. Some of that is due to the real world, what we’ve seen or what we’ve been told about political and electoral corruption, not that either is anything remotely new. Some it, though, is due to the way the movies reinforce that idea that elections are shams.

We’re long past the days of Frank Capra, although his movies weren’t exactly free of the evils of the system; they just treated them as the stuff of villains and seemed hopeful about idealism and democracy in the end. Since then we’ve had Watergate and Bush v. Gore and numerous Election Day controversies a decade, and through it all we’ve had exaggerated depictions of the worst of the democratic process.

The following scenes are not ones we love because we think democracy is truly a sham. It’s more that they’re great scenes and also are about democracy being a sham. Watch them this evening while you’re waiting on election results. They might just ease the blow or excitement on whatever the outcomes mean to you.

Throwing Away the Votes from Election (1999)

Beginning with a story that’s seemingly small and innocent compared to the national electoral process, Alexander Payne’s high school movie can actually be seen as a representation of the bigger picture. Especially given all the confirmed and alleged voting conspiracies of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, the action of a teacher (Matthew Broderick) to keep a disliked student (Reese Witherspoon) from winning the race for class president was almost a kind of unintended foreshadowing.

“What Do We Do Now?” from The Candidate (1972)

Being a politician is so much more about the election than the job itself, or so it often seems in real life. This movie acts on the idea, too, following the campaign of a idealistic young senatorial prospect (Robert Redford) who isn’t even meant to win his election. It’s all just a game that ends the night the ballots are tallied. After that, who knows? That the final scene has the winner trying to find out “what do we do now?” and goes unanswered as the credits roll shows us that it doesn’t really matter what they do next.

Honesty at the South Central Church from Bulworth (1998)

Warren Beatty’s political comedy owes a lot to The Candidate, but he aims for more political incorrectness. He stars as the titular senator, who thinks his career is over anyway so he decides to go out with a truthful bang. In this scene, just before he meets a few ladies who will help him rap his way to greater media attention and popularity with voters, he kicks off his new campaign of sarcastic honesty. He tells a South Central Los Angeles crowd the truth about how they’re just pawns in politics and addresses the problem of political figures being in the pockets of the wealthy who can afford to assist in their winning the election game.

“There is No Democracy” from Network (1976)

While not involving a political election, Network does heavily deal with the idea of the people’s influence, on ratings and celebrity and, yes, the White House. But despite news icon Howard Beale (Peter Finch) being able to get millions of TV viewers to send telegrams to the President in order to stop a big business deal, typically the people aren’t so powerful. The reminder comes in the reprimanding Beale gets from a network boss (Ned Beatty), and it’s one of the most upsettingly prescient speeches in all of cinema. Elections don’t matter because nations don’t matter; only currency and corporations matter. They run not just America but the whole world.

“I’m Reading” from The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979)

Rip Torn is the real star of this little-remembered political drama written and led by Alan Alda. He plays a cartoonishly corrupt US senator who hardly hides the fact that he’s obviously only a politician for the power and what that will get him in terms of kickbacks and especially sex. In the center of the clip reel below is a scene where he’s receiving oral from a woman under his desk and his expressions and delivery are priceless. I actually believe he might not be acting in that moment. It was the ’70s, after all.

“Voting Kicks Ass” from Black Sheep (1996)

As the idiot brother of a gubernatorial candidate, Chris Farley is a beacon of our political future. In a scene where his character mistakenly speaks to a crowd for an MTV Rock the Vote special, the dummy ultimately loses the people in his call to “kill whitey!” Before that, though, he’s got the young voters riled up and on his side while acting like a jackass and speaking in pop culture nonsense. That crowd probably would have voted for this tubby everyman, just as their descendants will elect someone like Idiocracy’s Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. There’s no denying that a lot of young people voted for Obama because he was cool, right?

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.