Voters Probably Won’t Punish Democrats If They Act More Like Cary Grant And Harrison Ford
Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report tweeted last week that he'd spoken with Democratic strategists who believed strong census numbers in New York offered them the chance to purge as many as five of the eight GOP seats in the state. Democrats could gerrymander the current 19D/8R map to a 23D/3R ass whooping.
Yet the question still remained whether Democrats would act so aggressively. Even though Democrats can count their House majority with the fingers on one hand, and partisan gerrymanders in Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia alone could hand control to Republicans next year. Why would Democrats unilaterally disarm during what they openly describe as a battle for democracy itself? Well, it's important that Democrats always take the moral high road while Republicans leave skid marks on their backs. I heard the chump chorus on Twitter: "Can we agree gerrymandering is bad whoever is doing it?" and “While it would benefit my politics, we have to be against partisan gerrymandering even when it benefits us."
You wonder if these people have ever seen North by Northwest and The Fugitive.
In both those films, our hero is fucked, not just by the bad guys but by the system itself. In Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, even the very white Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) understands that the police won't believe his crazy (though true) story and that he has to skip town and solve the mystery himself if he wants to clear his name. Modern Democrats would probably turn themselves in if they were starring in this film. Gotta show how much we trust institutions!
Based on the classic 1960s TV series, The Fugitive movie from 1993 starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble, who's wrongly convicted of murder. Kimble runs like hell once he has the chance to escape. He doesn't walk smiling into the gas chamber and talk about how he still believes in the system: "If I'd broken the law, I'd be no better than the one-armed man!"
Note that audiences would think characters who behaved as I jokingly suggest were chumps. They would stop watching. This is the problem when Kyrsten Sinema passionately defends the filibuster and Mitch McConnell pats her on the head for it. Audiences (and voters) don't like or respect chumps.
The villains in both fiction and real life often exploit the system, which is dispassionate but not necessarily moral. US Marshall Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) relentlessly pursues Kimble with no regard for his innocence or guilt. He only serves the system, so when Kimble famously cries, “I didn't kill my wife," Gerard coldly responds, “I don't care." Gerard later helps Kimble prove his innocence. That's a more satisfying conclusion than Gerard pulling a Joe Manchin and making pointless appeals to the the one-armed man's sense of fair play.
In North by Northwest, Thornhill commits several straight-up crimes: Stowing away on a train, evading the police, lying on the regular to obtain information, and at one point, stealing a stranger's car. The audience loves him. And at no point do they have trouble distinguishing him from the villain, Phillip Vandamm (James Mason).
Republicans are the Vandamm/one-armed man party. Democrats can still be Cary Grant and Harrison Ford if they don't act like chumps and realize that desperate times call for desperate measures. If you think nuking the filibuster to save voting rights would play with voters exactly the same as all the ways the GOP has abused the filibuster, then you must also think that audiences will boo Cary Grant when he steals some guy's car. I've seen the film multiple times in theaters. It's never happened yet.
It's maddening that so many Democrats believe playing constitutional hardball will somehow turn them into Republicans. Grant's Thornhill maintains his moral heroism in a key scene when he's informed that the government plans to willingly sacrifice its agent, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), and he delivers this show-stopping line:
If you fellows can't lick the VanDamm's of this world without asking girls like her to bed down with them and fly away with them and probably never come back, perhaps you ought to start learning how to lose a few cold wars.
Thornhill draws a clear, relatable line where he'll no longer permit the ends to justify the means. However, the Senate filibuster and gerrymandering aren't quite Eva Marie Saint's virtue. They aren't the laws against interstate flight when you're suspected of murder. They aren't even the crappy old car that Thornhill stole after the bad guys almost killed him with a crop duster.
Life isn't the movies, but politics is all about storytelling. Audiences and voters want to see heroes not chumps.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."