I want to laud a new American documentary film for a reason that might come as a surprise to my select little group of readers, who might reasonably consider me to be anti-American. That reason is that the film not only shows how corrupt and almost immovable has become the American political establishment, but that it also demonstrates in no uncertain terms that there is something brewing and growing among the grassroots that allows us to think that all is not yet lost in the United States, however much the behaviour of Donald Trump may seem to herald the rise of a new fascism.
The film is called Knock Down the House, and it chronicles the efforts made by four young women to challenge entrenched and complacent, and getting-on towards-corrupt Congressmen at the last mid-term elections.
As is now well-known, only one of the four succeeded in winning the primary election for Democratic nominee, but that one victory was so unexpected that it was described by at least one observer as “the biggest political upset in American politics for a century”. Perhaps that is going too far, but the fact is that the only announced poll during the primary had the incumbent, veteran Congressman Joe Crowley, said to be the fourth most important Democratic leader, ahead of his opponent, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, a Puerto Rican woman still in her twenties, by 36 points.
Even on the night of the vote, she had so little confidence that she would win --- although right from the start she had insisted, “we are not running to make a statement, we are not running because we are women, we are running to win” --- that she didn’t want to enter the room where she would learn how things were going. Her astonishment when she learned that she was running ahead was just one of many intensely emotional moments in a film crowded with passion and hope.
That the one winner out of four should have turned out to be a genuine star, a waitress turned fearless, eloquent and passionate politician, was a tremendous stroke of luck for the director Rachel Lears, who began to work on the film the day after Donald Trump was elected to the presidency. But that doesn't mean the other three, who all polled at least 30 per cent in their unsuccessful primary races, should be forgotten. Their determination, if not always their eloquence, was equal to that of AOC. As one of them said, “we have emerged from the belly of the beast, kicking and screaming”.
The other three were Amy Vilela, in Nevada --- “they are calling me a Marxist. I don’t even know what a Marxist is,” she said; Cori Bush, a black activist from Missouri, a woman who had once been homeless, now a registered nurse and a pastor, who said she felt she had an obligation to stand; and Paula Jean Swearingen, of West Virginia, a coalminer’s daughter, who could point out as she drove along, the houses whose occupants have or had cancer as a result of their lifetime of work in the mines. Her own daughter had died, and she said she didn’t want her death to have been for nothing.
Though Lears was quick off the mark with her project, she had no money, but eventually raised $28,111 through an organization called Kickstarter, which is a ten-year-old outfit --- of the class known in the US as a Benefit Corporation, meaning it has to take into account its impact on society, in addition to its profit-and-loss account ---- that has funded more than 162,000 creative enterprises.
As Wikipedia tells the story: “(Lears) reached out to organizations such as Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats --- the latter of which arose out of Bernie Sanders’ presidential run in 2015 --- to pay "charismatic female candidates who weren't career politicians, but had become newly galvanized to represent their communities."
It is no disservice to the other three to say that AOC was the star candidate of the four. As the film shows she is exceptional. But the man she was opposing apparently had grown old and complacent in the Tammany Hall-like atmosphere of his constituency. He was a real representative of machine politics, to such an extent that his predecessor had arranged things so that he was appointed successor to the seat before they even told him he was in the running. He had never been opposed by anyone significant that anyone could remember, and it was just assumed he would breeze through again as an easy winner. The film makes good use of an early candidates meeting when he didn’t even bother to show up. Not only that, but the woman he sent to represent him was not able to give a coherent account of what policies he was running on, nor to produce a satisfactory excuse for his absence.
That came out only later when it was established that his family did not even live in New York but in Virginia “in the Washington area”, and he had sent his children --- this is the classic sign not only in the US but in European countries as well, of an entrenched Establishment --- to private schools. His only policy that he put to the electorate appeared to be a claim that he was confronting Trump at every opportunity. Whereas AOC was running on Medicare for All, free post-secondary education, a $15 minimum wage, and so on. Here is how the New York Times described the race a day or two later:
“Despite his many reputed strengths — his financial might as one of the top fund-raisers in Congress, his supposed stranglehold on Queens politics as the party boss, his seeming deep roots in an area he had represented for decades — Mr. Crowley was unable to prevent his stunning and thorough defeat on Tuesday night…..If it takes a perfect storm to dislodge a congressional leader, then Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and her crusading campaign about class, race, gender, age, absenteeism and ideology proved to be just that. She and her supporters swept up Mr. Crowley in a redrawn and diversifying 14th Congressional District where the incumbent, despite two decades in Congress, had never run in a competitive primary.”
Of course, as viewers of the film, we all know the triumphant ending to the story. But even so, the ending Ms. Lears contrives is full of emotion and remarkably effective, as AOC sits on a wall with the Capitol building behind her, telling us that when she was a little girl of five, her Dad had taken her to this very spot, had pointed out its various features, and said, “you know, this all beings to us, this is our government, so all of this stuff is yours.” There is a long pause while she gathers her emotions. “The last thing my Dad ever told me was to make him proud.” Another pause. “And I finally think I did, I hope.”
Earlier in the film she had said that the ordinary people of New York deserved to be represented by an ordinary person. As if to emphasize that ordinary quality, the last sequence shows her skateboarding across the plaza before the Capitol building, on the way, it seemed, to undertaking the responsibility of representing the voters of her district. An ordinary representative at last.
The film is available on Netflix.