Netflix’s ‘The Politician’ (2020) and the Problems With Modern Democracy

The fifth episode of the second season of Ryan Murphy’s Netflix political comedy-drama, The Politician, breaks the mould.

The season in general sees Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), the eponymous ‘politician’, attempt to usurp the New York State Senate Leader Dede Standish (Judith Light) in a furiously fought campaign: featuring a sex throuple, a wire-tapping scandal, and THREE love triangles, the season is full to the brim with drama. However, episode 5 features none of this.

Breaking away from the main story, ‘The Voters’ is instead an intimate examination of a mother and daughter, as each decides which of the two candidates to vote for on the primary election day. The daughter, Jayne (Susannah Perkins), is a typical Gen Z-er, focused on the climate and sick of establishment politicians’ empty promises; her mother, Andi (Robin Weigert), is “a boomer” and is occupied with more tangible issues, such as local charter schools and where the garbage trucks congregate. Jayne wants the climate-focused outsider Payton and Abbi wants the stalwart establishment-choice Dede, and both want the other to vote their way as well.

Written and directed by series co-creator Ian Brennan, ‘The Voters’ is small in focus but wide in scope, touching on many defining features of modern democracy. Indeed, the episode is not only the story of mother and daughter, but of two starkly different generations in conversation, each trying to win the other over to their political point of view. In examining ‘The Voters’ along these lines, then, it’s possible to understand the problems plaguing modern politics… and also how to fix them.

A group of young adults sit in a conference room. All are well-dressed and appear to be staring at something.
Image courtesy of Netflix

The main focus of the episode lies in the conflict of Andi and Jayne’s differing views: although both are left-leaning, Jayne is demonstrably more liberal and radical than her mother. Indeed, ‘The Voters’ begins with Jayne chastising Andi for not recycling a piece of plastic, reminding her mother that rubbish like this would sit in a dump for “10,000 years” – Andi, who is busy focusing on the day’s election, apologises but indicates that the one piece of plastic is “not a big deal”, sparking an argument between them. 

This generational divide on attitudes towards climate change epitomises the split between Jayne and Andi, as it has for Payton and Dede all season: the younger characters accuse the older characters of being too laissez-faire when dealing with climate change (“every politician has known about climate change since the 1960s, and they’ve done nothing!”) and the older characters feel it is immature of the younger characters to boil down the election to a single issue (“climate change isn’t THE one issue we need to get up in arms about!”). 

As sophisticated as this divide may seem, a recent report from the Pew Centre for Research has corroborated its reality: there has never been a more noticeable rift in the opinions of the older and younger generations. As the report concludes, “even taking the greater diversity of younger generations into account, younger generations… express more liberal views on many issues… than do older cohorts”; put simply, “divisions among generations have grown”. Statistically, this is also evident: the 2008 US general election showed a fifteen-percentage point gap in voting intention between the youngest and oldest voter age groups; at the 2016 election, this gap has expanded to 97%. Thus, Andi and Jayne’s difference of opinion isn’t included to create tension or to cause drama between mother and daughter, it’s included because it’s representative of the real world and the ever-increasing generational divide.

Moreover, once the episode progresses and the characters begin to spend time with their chosen candidates, another contemporary problem rears its ugly head: voters becoming disillusioned with politics. Both Andi and Jayne attempt to support and help their chosen politicians, only to become disappointed with them as a result.

Peyton sits at a desk surrounded by campaign material. He is sorting through some paperwork.
Image courtesy of Netflix

For Jayne, her belief in Payton’s idealism is challenged by the ruthless pragmatism of his staff and his campaign. Initially signing up to call voters for him, Jayne is eventually roped into helping McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), one of Payton’s staff members, set up a campaign event: having Payton use an eco-shower. However, in helping construct the shower, she overhears McAfee and Payton decry the sincerity of the stunt, stating it’s “some of that zero-waste bullshit that people love”. Furthermore, when she confronts Payton with this insight, he admits that although he cares about the environment, his full-hearted embrace of the issue is primarily because he believes it’s what could “help [me] win”: his advocation is advantageous rather than altruistic.

Ironically, Andi’s belief in Dede’s pragmatism is challenged by her lack of idealism. After visiting Dede’s campaign headquarters, Andi finds herself in the back of a limo with Dede and her chief of staff, Hadassah (Bette Midler), where she suggests Dede proves to those young and yet-to-vote that she is equally passionate about the environment as Payton. However, Dede and Hadassah react captiously, responding with the vague and defensive “we’ve done stuff” and that they feel Payton’s passion only represents “chaos” and “anarchy”: although competent, it would appear Dede doesn’t truly appreciate the importance of the issue.

Both Andi and Jayne, then, find their belief in their championed candidate compromised; neither are the aspirants they initially thought them to be. Whether because they lack idealism, or because that idealism is front, both candidates seem flawed and Andi and Jayne are dissuaded as a result. Indeed, this response from the pair is again evocative of a wider trend – voters no longer trust politicians the way they used to. A recent Pew Centre report indicated that there has been a 26% decrease in voter engagement over the last few years, culminating in a -5% approval rating for the US political system – again, The Politician echoes real life in how it portrays citizens as disenchanted with politicians.

However, the episode ends idealistically, rejecting cynicism: Andi, worn down and convinced by her whirlpool of a day, concedes to her daughter, admitting “we had our shot, and we screwed it up – we left you with an impossible situation; it’s your turn now”. In a final act of generational contrition, she confesses that she voted for Payton, not Dede: she puts her daughter’s needs ahead of her own. 

Unfortunately, this acknowledgement by Andi isn’t representative of a wider trend: there’s no empirical evidence to suggest that Boomers are beginning to prioritise the needs of the younger generations (nor have they ever!). But that’s not what the show is attempting to convey. 

A defining theme of The Politician is that democracy, although flawed, is a sacred thing and nothing is more valuable than winning a vote. By having Andi cast hers for Payton, the show symbolically indicates that it’s time for young people to be included and championed in politics, with their primacies finally being respected: Andi’s democratic decision is a turning point, where the episode is no longer reflecting the real-world, but rather advocating for a better one.

Indeed, the winner of the election isn’t even revealed in this episode: the ultimate outcome isn’t as important as the older generations making way for the younger ones, even if the real-life politics is yet to mirror this. Instead, the episode ends with Andi didactically telling both Jayne and the viewer that “we have to be able to listen to each other and respect one another”. In Ian Brennan’s eyes, this is the solution to contemporary democracy’s problems: much like the mother and daughter, the generations need to be able to “listen” and “respect” each other, compromising where we can.

Header image courtesy of Netflix