You want to understand the news? Don’t turn on the TV and listen to megalomaniacal anchors and compromised guests; don’t read the front pages of newspapers, filled with motivated leaks and tangential details. Somewhere in your city, a cinema hall is showing Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Go and watch that, instead.
Why, you ask? What on earth could an epic movie about an American president and the abolition of slavery have to do with the times we live in India, where new scandals emerge every week, everyone seems to have a price, and there are no big ideas in our politics? The answer is: everything. It turns out democratic politics, like romance or revenge, is one of those things that is immediately comprehensible across space and time, that preserves its essentials regardless of the culture in which it’s embedded.
Bear with me for a moment while I explain. Lincoln tells the story of a few months, early in 1865, when the American Civil War between the anti-slavery North and the slave-dependent South still had a few months to go, and Abraham Lincoln himself still only had a few months to live. Concerned that any bargain with the South at the end of the war would leave some slaves unfreed, Lincoln was convinced that he needed to amend the US Constitution to abolish slavery — while the war was still on and he could argue it was a way to further weaken the South. The film follows the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage in the rowdy US Congress; it shows how Lincoln’s administration, to get what it wanted, must battle the Democrats, poisoned by sympathy for the South; the Republican right, tired of the war; and the Republican left, distrustful of Lincoln’s countless compromises.
In one of the film’s last scenes – Spielberg being Spielberg, the last 20 minutes are filled with scenes that seem to be the movie’s emotional climax – the most liberal member of the US Congress, the Republican Thaddeus Stevens, limps home glowering, amid scenes of jubilation in Washington as abolitionists sing the Northern war anthem, “Rally round the flag”. He enters his townhouse, and tells his African-American housekeeper and friend about the Bill he’s waving, the original copy of which he’s filched for the night: “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century,” he says, “passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America”. (Typically, we aren’t sure if Stevens means himself or Lincoln.)
That, in a nutshell, is the point of the movie. Democratic politics, we know, is a dirty business. It involves lying, bribery, patronage and incomprehensible alliances. We in India turn up our noses at such things. We rally against them. We fume about them on TV, on Twitter, at dinner parties. But, throughout history, they’ve been the vehicles through which reform has been delivered, through which the lives of the most oppressed have been made better. The Thirteenth Amendment was passed by bribing Democratic Congressmen with jobs. It was passed by the president breaking the law, and essentially lying to the Congress about whether a peace offer was on its way from the South. It was passed by liberal Republicans denying what they believed in, to mute opposition. It was passed by politics-as-usual.
If here, in India, we tend to forget what politics can do, we can remind ourselves that people forgot even in 1865, in the middle of one of the world’s bloodiest wars and one of the greatest debates in human history. After all, it wasn’t as simple as anti-slavery people fighting pro-slavery types in the US Congress. Nobody in Lincoln’s party liked slavery; but the Republican left didn’t think Lincoln meant what he said, and the right just wanted peace immediately. So, if you think that no real issues are at hand in our politics today, step back for a moment and think how foolish that idea is at a time when, for example, we’re debating whether we should try and feed everyone in this country — which, through recorded history, has had more hungry people than anywhere else in the world. The glare of political showboating tends to blind us to history being made.
A couple of other things come through in Lincoln. For example, with every contentious meeting of Lincoln’s ministers, we sense the degree to which, even in a presidential system, democratic politics as it was originally envisaged empowered members of the Cabinet. This was even more the case, of course, in the Westminster system; but yet majority opinion in India mocks Manmohan Singh for not whipping his ministers into line, when that is neither the spirit nor the letter of democratic tradition, but the perverse product of imperial presidencies in the US and the Thatcher-Indira Gandhi period in parliamentary systems.
But, above all, this is a movie about the dirty tricks of politics, and how the most hypocritical and corrupt of professions is simultaneously the most uplifting and important — often in the same individual. At one point, in a line that is in the historical record, Lincoln – played with stoop-shouldered accuracy by Daniel Day-Lewis, the World’s Greatest Actor – unwinds himself to his full, awesome height and barks at his people: “I am the president of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.” Right there, in that unbelievable, incomprehensible, yet true amalgam of forward-looking, freedom-making reform and blatantly corrupt abuse of power, is the best explanation for why we need hope amidst the headlines that we’ll ever get.