Get ready for reason #573 why The Wire was the best television show of the aughts. In the wake of Scott Brown’s upset in the Massachusetts special election for the U.S. Senate, I’ve been thinking a lot about the cycle of politics. I’ve been a pretty steady proponent of the politics of idealism and, borrowing from Tony Kushner, the ethical responsibility to hope, but the aftermath of Martha Coakley’s defeat may test my resolve. Where can I find the blueprint for my incipient cynicism? The Wire, of course!
The Wire‘s central thesis was simple: short-term politics and the quest for power kills long-term progress and social justice. From gangs to government, the media to schools, the same rule applies. Everyone, sadly, violates the rule. They think about themselves and the system never gets fixed. This is the fundamental cynicism of The Wire: it perfectly diagnoses how groups and institutions kill hope.
But it appears Washington has few Wire fans.
Democrats are already backing away from healthcare reform, declaring it over, and plotting to effectively kill reform by promising to wait to seat Brown. Majority leaders Pelosi and Reid are pledging to press on, but it’s uncertain whether they hold the party together for the 15-20 day window before Brown has to be seated.
Why back away from reform? In fact, the way to political viability and social justice is to pass legislation, and there’s a clear path to (pseudo)-victory. In order to avoid a replay of 1994 — which has been the mantra since negotiations began last year — Democrats have to act. In fact, had they acted faster and more decisively last year, they probably could have avoided this whole mess (Maybe. Unemployment, after all, is high. This is complicated argument and besides the point anyway).
But each legislator is acting in self-interest and self-preservation. Conservative Dems think they can avoid the Republican tidal wave in the fall by doing nothing on healthcare (do no harm by doing nothing). Liberal Dems want to “kill the bill” out of principle and spite.
What The Wire Tells Us About How Promising Politicians Fail Society
This is the kind of short-term thinking and power plays The Wire dramatized so astutely.
In the first part of the series, we get to know Democratic Mayor Royce (top, above), an embattled politician beset by crime and struggling schools. What’s his solution? Instead of striving for real reform, he asks bureaucrats to cook the books. Raise the crime stats artificially — as opposed to investing in lengthy, slow, deep police work and building community relationships — to improve his chances at reelection. Mayor Royce is weak and calculating, just like Democrats now.
The Wire gives us a great (white) hope in Democrat Thomas Carcetti (left). The outsider Carcetti promises to fully fund the police and encourage smart police work. No more cooking the books solely to produce the right crime numbers for reelection. No more focusing on political self-preservation: do instead what’s good for the people of Baltimore.
In many ways, Carcetti is the Obama to Royce’s Bush. Where Royce is an ideological vacuum, Carcetti is impassioned and principled. He promises a new politics and real results.
Yet by the end of the series, Carcetti has become Royce, obsessed with reelection and cooking the books. Naturally so: he wants to get elected to do more, but, paradoxically, in order to do more you have to do something first.
How Real Democrats Are Imitating HBO’s Flawed Democrats
I won’t argue that Obama has lost his conviction, but he certainly has lost his way. His inability to argue for real reform (half the stimulus in tax cuts; inadequately advocating for real Democratic principles in healthcare reform, like the public option) worsened what would’ve been a bad year already for his party. Sure, he has no control over Congress, but he set the tone. Meanwhile, legislators, already programmed for self-preservation, dragged their feet on reform, enervating the public, making Washington seem inefficient, out-of-touch and bloated.
They’re still doing it. The only reason to kill health reform is a silly plea to save themselves in the fall. Except, like in The Wire, the actual solution is to do the job right. It’s hard at first but pays off later.
If the Democrats squander a golden opportunity — again — over their chronic short-sightedness, not only will they doom themselves, they will also squander all the hope and idealism that brought them there in the first place.
The Wire Predicts a Post-Idealist Politics, or How Milennials Will Become Boomers
It’s a historical cliche (and probably only half-factual) that the Boomers became politically hardened and cynical after the hope and idealism of the sixties gave way to the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and MLK, the election of Nixon in 1968 and reelection in 1972. Among friends, I’ve quietly criticized such bitterness (the kind of bitterness at the root of Clinton’s triangulation in the 1990s) as short-sighted.
But I’m starting to feel the pangs of mounting cynicism. I’d chock it up to political maturation, but I don’t want to. Is it inevitable that the heights of optimism (2008) give way to startling disappointment (2009) and the eventual return of the status quo (2010)? That certainly isn’t my preferred view of history. Still, I can already see the throngs of young idealists who voted for Obama in 2008 turning into hardened realists. For some, this is a good thing; it’s about experience. Life is cruel, after all. But as Boomer politics shows us, it doesn’t necessarily lead to better policy (has there been any Democratic legislation as meaningful as that of 1960s? Welfare reform? DoMA? Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Clinton’s “realistic” politics were hardly progressive).
Once again, The Wire offers no solutions, only a clear narrative of the problem. In some ways, it is extremely hopeful: if we know what’s wrong we can fix it. That’s how I interpreted it.
As real life begins to mimic art (again), though, I’m starting to think maybe The Wire was right. By the last episode, the police have solved the big case and broken the drug ring, but little else has changed. Politicians are still the same. Deals are made in exclusive rooms on the waterfront. Drugs still pollute the streets (no more Hamsterdam!).
The Wire ends with plus ça change. It’s too premature to see if history (1992) will repeat itself this year, but it may just. The people, many of them Democrats, who say “America is fundamentally conservative” may just win.
Are they just being real or have they simply lost hope?