by Karl Kurtz
While on vacation last week, I went with my family to see Evan Almighty. The movie stars Steve Carell as Evan Baxter, a television anchor in Buffalo who is elected to Congress on a slogan to "change the world." On arriving in Washington, a naive Evan is flattered to be courted by a powerful committee chair (John Goodman) to cosponsor a major bill dealing with the management of public lands and national parks. From the outset the committee chair--as is so often the case with the fictional portrayal of politicians--seems a bit sleazy, leading the audience to suspect that he is venal and self-serving, as he turns out to be.
Before Evan can discover this for himself, though, God (Morgan Freeman) comes to Evan and convinces him that he must pull a modern-day Noah and build an ark to save mankind and thousands of animals from a coming flood. He tells Evan that small acts of kindness are the best way to "change the world." After much initial resistance, Evan throws himself into the task, neglecting his job as a congressman and incurring the wrath of his patron, the committee chair. In the end, in ways that I won't detail here and spoil the plot, the building of the ark leads to torpedoing what is revealed to be a rapacious land use bill sponsored by a corrupt, profiteering member of Congress.
I didn't much care for the movie for several reasons: an excess of Steve Carell slap/schtick, the implausibility (to a practiced eye) of many of the congressional scenes, and above all, the simplistic comparison of Evan's God-inspired many small acts of kindness to the caricature of the American legislative process presented in the film.
But my wife and two teenage children loved the show. My wife especially liked the spectacle of the thousands of animals that came to the ark (they were terrific, I'll give her that). She reported enthusiastically that she had read an article about how the American Humane Association monitors Hollywood's film-making to ensure that no animals are mistreated and that Evan Almighty had been rated as "outstanding." (American Humane's extraordinarily detailed review of the animals' treatment includes such juicy morsels as, "When the alpaca spits in Ed’s (Ed Helms) face and foams at the mouth, a nontoxic food starch mixed with chopped spinach was used for the “spit” makeup.")
The combination of my distaste for the portrayal of the legislative process in the movie and my wife's approval of how the animals were treated got me to thinking: If the animals can have an association that protects them from mistreatment by Hollywood, why can't someone protect American democracy from being portrayed as corrupt and dominated by evil special interests?
The negative portrayal of American democracy in Evan Almighty is common in the entertainment industry. A 1990s Council for Excellence in Government study of the depiction of public officials and governmental institutions on prime time television concluded that the entertainment media give public service "little notice and less respect." They found that three of four comedy or drama episodes on TV pictured the political system as corrupt. After the success in the late 1990s of The West Wing, which portrayed White House officials as hard-working and concerned for the welfare of the country, a 2001 update of the same study reported significant improvement: three out of five TV episodes presented positive images of government. Nonetheless, the problem remains and almost certainly contributes to public cynicism and distrust toward democratic institutions.
In Republic on Trial: The Case for Representative Democracy, Alan Rosenthal, Burdett Loomis, John Hibbing and I argue that this negative media depiction of American democracy, which is reflected in the public's cynicism toward government, is neither accurate nor fair; that the overwhelming majority of elected officials are committed to public service and the public good as they see it; but that Americans don't agree on important public policy issues; that there are special interests on every side of an issue with legitimate competing points of view, and all of their concerns are heard; and that the way in which we resolve these disagreements is through deliberation, negotiation and compromise in Congress and state and local legislatures.
So all of this got me to thinking further, Why can't we pressure Hollywood to present American democracy in a more positive and accurate light? Shouldn't the entertainment industry feel some responsibility not to put down democracy and politics in the same way that they now recognize that they should not exploit animals?
Hmm, maybe that's a new task that NCSL's Trust for Representative Democracy could take on.... Could we get funding for this? After all, American Humane received a $34 million bequest last year to do its work on behalf of animals and had net assets of $48 million at the end of 2006! What's that you say, dear funder? You think that elected officials and our democratic institutions aren't as lovable as animals--even those nasty alpacas and the spiders and snakes--and their habitats? Oh!
Well, it was a good day dream for a while.
When I explained this thought process to my kids over dinner after the show, my 16 year-old said, "Dad, you're such a government geek!"
"I was thinking more 'dork,'" said my 12 year-old. "But I'll be a dork with you on this one," he quickly and loyally added.