Having already cycled through a wide array of ad hoc political pejoratives – unrealistic, anti-feminist, anti-Obama, socialist (but in the bad way) – the Clinton campaign unveiled a new Sanders burn recently: single-issue candidate. This tag, of course, is no more charitable or honest than the previous ones. Like any serious candidate, Sanders offers an array of policy prescriptions and articulates them with varying levels of specificity.
Nonetheless, there’s no denying that cutting a montage of Bernie’s Wall St. bashing is a lazy editor’s dream. In part, this is because income inequality is a problem that both matters deeply and resonates broadly. But this tendency also says something about the nature of progressive politics. One loud, soul-searching complaint is a call to make the world a better place; two such kvetches is the start of a jeremiad.
Sure, an honest progressive sees countless ways in which we might do better. Pointing them all out at once, however, can result in paralysis. Released coincidentally in the of midst Bernie’s surge, Michael Moore’s new film, Where to Invade Next, puts this effect on full display and, in doing so, underscores the wisdom in Sanders’ spotlight approach to political progressivism.
Moore, for most of his career, has made single-issue films. Roger & Me was about how one company devastated one community. Bowling for Columbine took on gun culture. Sicko, healthcare. Capitalism, well, capitalism. These films were deadly serious, politically incisive, and, somehow, also kind of fun. They have much in common with a Sanders rally. Sure, you just spent the last hour plus hearing about how terribly messed up something terribly important is. Just the same, there were a few laughs, the soundtrack was cool, and, after all, it’s just one problem and we’re smart people. We can do this.
Where to Invade Next offers no such breathing room. Traveling across Europe on a quest to plant our flag on some of the continent’s best, most progressive ideas, Moore chronicles a thoroughly depressing list of American shortcomings. Chatting with some rather fit Italians, he details the self-sabotaging nature of our labor policies. In France, he contrasts gourmet school lunches with proverbial American slop. In Finland, he eviscerates our insistence on treating students like statistics. In Germany, he contrasts our refusal to talk honestly about slavery with Deutschland’s refusal to let the Shoah become just another half-forgotten reminder that people can be awful. Moving from one valid, insightful gripe to the next, the film gives a sense of how Bernie’s progressive realism might feel if left unrestrained.
Moore’s critique reaches its apex in Iceland, an epicenter of the European financial crisis. The Icelandic, Moore argues, aren’t perfect. They are, however, mostly better than us. They elected a female president in 1980. They put their corporate criminals in prison. They hold corrupt and ineffective politicians accountable. Then, in the film’s climatic scene, an Icelandic business leader looks Moore directly in the eye and says what the film has been intimating for the past 90 minutes: she doesn’t think very well of Americans because we don’t seem to think very well of each other. Our budgets and our laws suggest a nation of solipsists unable to even recognize the existence of our fellow citizens.
In response, Moore is speechless. Viewers, having mentally rewritten a scathing letter to their congresswoman a dozen times already, feel both embarrassment and outrage. They also, however, are likely to feel overwhelmed. Where to Invade Next articulates so many American needs that it’s hard to know where to begin.
Moore, I’m certain, knows exactly what he is doing. He wants to let us know just how widespread and knotted up our problems really are. He is unconcerned that the truth might be discouraging. But he is an artist and, crucially, someone who can make another film next year and the year after that. This one may be depressing but the next one can pick us up and point us a little more directly towards the better world we want to build. He can afford to put affect ahead of impact.
Bernie Sanders, however, has no such luxury. This is his one moment and, as fascinating as his aesthetic is, he is a man of action, not contemplation. His plan only succeeds in so far as it leaves voters convinced that things might be bad but, with work, they can quickly get better. And so, while Bernie isn’t a single-issue candidate, he is an unusually focused one.
Moore and Sanders represent largely overlapping worldviews and, as such, their differences shed light on the ways in which thoughtful communicators allow their choice of medium to help shape their messages. A good, critical documentary succeeds if it makes you cry. A good, progressive political candidate needs to stop just short of that in order to inspire. Bernie is right to push back against the single-issue label. But he is also right in using income inequality as a prime, addressable stand-in for broader progressive goals and values.
Matt Sienkiewicz is Assistant Professor of Communication and International Studies at Boston College.
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