Jim Taylor, Tom Perrotta, and Alexander Payne, 1999
#6, 1999 Skandies

There are certain films that may be trifles but which nevertheless achieve a place in history by contributing something to the culture. In the case of Election, that would be the creation of Tracy Flick, to whom every female American politician would subsequently be compared. At its most base, calling someone a Tracy Flick is nothing more than a sexist aspersion, a shorthand way of saying that any woman who runs for office is automatically obnoxious. That isn't the only reason the character entered the pop culture pantheon, though. Labels are useful things; Asperger's Syndrome, for instance, became a big deal because once people heard the characteristics described they tended to say, "Oh, those guys! Yeah!" Similarly here. People recognized that combination of perkiness and ruthlessness, but prior to Election, it hadn't really had a name. Now it did.

But to think of Tracy Flick as nothing more than a name for perky ruthlessness is to miss the larger picture. It's like invoking the name of George W. Bush as a byword for "language-butchering dumbass." I mean, yes, he is, and that's not trivial, but there's an ideology, even a metaphysics, to the man that's even more damning. And the same is true for Tracy Flick. Election isn't making fun of schoolgirls whose hands shoot into the air when the the teacher asks a question. It's taking shots at the fundamental underpinnings of American society.

There's a saying that cautions against letting the perfect become the enemy of the good; in a legislature, for instance, this means don't vote against a good bill just because you can imagine a better one. But it seems to me that even more often the danger lies in accepting a bad system just because it's a marginal improvement over a worse one. Tracy Flick's chief rival in the election of the title is Paul Metzler, whom Tracy describes in voiceover as one of the "rich kids who everybody likes because their fathers own Metzler Cement and give them trucks on their sixteenth birthday and throw them big parties all the time." He represents the aristocratic system in which social position was conferred by accident of birth. Tracy, by contrast, represents the American Dream, the notion that anyone can improve his or her station though honest labor — an explicit repudiation of the aristocracy. "This country was built by people just like me who work very hard and don't have everything handed to them on a silver spoon," Tracy says, railing against people like Paul who "don't ever have to work for anything. They think they can just, all of a sudden, one day, out of the blue, waltz right in with no qualifications whatsoever and try to take away what other people have worked for very, very hard their entire lives!"

Tracy's rhetoric places her squarely within a time-honored tradition in American politics. You'd be hard pressed to find someone running for office whose stump speech doesn't include, if not a personal tale of bootstraps and the pulling up of oneself thereby, then at least a shout-out to an ancestor who worked very, very hard and increased the family's fortunes enough that the candidate could stand before you today. And yet, why should such a story win the admiration of the audience? Okay, so your dad put in long hours at the mill so he could buy a house. So? I mean, that's nice for you, but it's also one fewer house for the rest of us. Shouldn't we be pissed?

I've been studying a fair amount of economic history over the past few years, and audited one such class that started clear back in Paleolithic times. Back then, people lived in bands of maybe thirty or fifty members, and the rule of the day, I was surprised to learn, was "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." Not until the Neolithic Revolution with its increased population density and settled societies did it become feasible to force people to work against their will or limit their access to resources. So in the Paleolithic it was a matter of individual choice how much time one devoted to hunting or gathering food or making tools or what have you versus just hanging out — and yet everyone in a band had access to its resources, just as a thirtysomething slacker living with his parents has free access to the refrigerator which he has done nothing to keep stocked. But how was this system sustainable? Why didn't people try to consume as much as possible while working as little as possible? The answer is natural selection. Bands among whom this tragedy of the communes took hold tended to die off or fall prey to better-fed, better-equipped bands in which people stayed productive for some reason. And in the absence of slavery or money, that reason had to be ideological.

However, people didn't have to explicitly believe in altruism. They simply had to believe in something that had the effect of making them behave altruistically. In a world in which all work was done on behalf of the entire group, and brought the laborer no reward other than appreciation, cultures didn't have to develop the notion that "contributing to the community and taking nothing back in return is virtuous." A simple "work is good" was effectively equivalent and would do just fine. And effort actually was a reasonable shorthand for productivity: if you were out gathering blackberries, for instance, then putting in long hours and really combing the bushes meant you'd end up contributing more to the harvest than someone who only picked what was within easy reach and knocked off early. So "the harder the work, the better" was a pretty good meme for a culture to have in its arsenal as well.

But times change. If effort was ever a good metric for measuring productivity, it isn't anymore; if it were, then I'd be contributing more to the public discourse by banging out this article on a typewriter and handing out copies door to door than by composing it in a text editor and sticking it on the web. Of course, in saying that I'm flattering myself by suggesting I'm contributing to society at all. A lot of work doesn't, now that the primitive communism of the Paleolithic has given way to a system based on money. The development of a means of exchange is supposed to increase productivity thusly: since your ability to access goods and services is pegged to the amount you've produced, self-interest prompts you to produce a little bit more in order to secure the right to grab a little more stuff that might otherwise go to your neighbor; then, even if your neighbor does the same and you end up back at parity, the two of you now have equal shares of a greater pool of goods and services, because your efforts have expanded it. The problem is that expanding the pool isn't the only way to make money, and in fact under capitalism the bulk of goods and services go not to people who perform productive labor but rather to those who just dick around with the tally sheets. For instance, as Tracy Flick chirps at one point, "Coca-Cola's by far the world's number one soft drink, and they spend more money than anybody on advertising." Which is to say that there is a legion of marketing drones out there who aren't adding to the net capital of society — they're just diverting the existing capital toward these soda producers over here rather than those soda producers over there. (Meanwhile, Pepsi's marketing drones busily attempt to undo their work.)

The idea that hard work is intrinsically virtuous therefore seems like an idea whose time has passed. Hard work is not necessarily more productive than easy work; it may not benefit society at all; and it is generally performed in expectation of a material reward rather than to help others. Take Tracy Flick. An altruistic person might spend her weekends in the school basement working on the yearbook because she likes the idea of how happy her classmates will be when it comes out. But Tracy doesn't care about the "burnouts" she goes to school with or their "stinking memories." What motivates her is the ability to put an extra line on her Georgetown application and improve her chances of getting in. And that's fair enough, I suppose. But what's interesting is that Tracy spends the whole movie seething that she isn't appreciated by others for the hard work that she performs on her own behalf. And that, I think, is a pretty astute observation about American culture. People are very reluctant to let go of ideologies that make them feel good about themselves. Given the choice between psychic rewards and material rewards, they will choose the latter... and then whine because they want both. In one of my early drafts of this article, I was about to argue that this is sloppy thinking, that people have imbibed the notion that hard work is virtuous without realizing that it no longer applied in a modern economic system — that they had unconsciously slipped from "hard work (which benefits society) (for no material reward) is virtuous" to "hard work (which doesn't necessarily benefit society) (and is performed for one's own material gain) is (still) virtuous." But once I started to type that out, I realized that I was completely wrong. Tracy's notion that personal material success is somehow a sign of spiritual worthiness? That isn't an unconscious slip — it's the fucking Protestant work ethic! When Tracy says that "this country was built by people just like me," she's right!

That line appears near the beginning of the movie. Tracy also talks about people like her at the end. "When I got to Georgetown," she says in voiceover, "I thought I'd finally be among people who were like me. You know, smarter, more ambitious people." Ambitious, okay. But smart? Or "brilliant," as Dave Novotny says? Tracy says she graduates in "the top seventh percentile" of her class. There are 803 votes in the election, so unless her class is a cut above the others for some reason, that suggests that, at a conservative guess, there are something like sixty kids with better grades just at her crappy little Omaha school. But hey, you might argue, grades aren't everything. They shortchange truly thoughtful students in favor of those who just rattle off canned answers. I agree! But Tracy is in the latter category. Smart? Brilliant? I think this phrase sums her up better:

     "competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits"

Recognize that one? Here's a hint. What's the moment that sends Mr. McAllister over the edge so that he sabotages the election? The sight of Tracy Flick, who's been given a surreptitious thumbs-up by one of the vote counters, gleefully jumping up and down in a narcissistic frenzy. Think about Tracy's emotional range, from that moment out in the hallway, to her equally frenzied sobs after the assembly, to the wild voices screaming in her ears when her path to power is challenged, to the terror on her face when Tammy Metzler produces the posters Tracy destroyed. Might one not say her

     "prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph"

—which is, like the earlier quote, a phrase drawn from Emmanuel Goldstein's description of Party members in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four?

Once I had made that connection, another piece clicked into place. When I was making notes about Tracy's defining moments, the very first one on my list was the sequence involving Mr. McAllister's investigation of the destruction of Paul's posters, for which Tracy is responsible. Yet, when called in for her interview, she: expresses false righteous outrage about the incident; reacts with indigation at Mr. M.'s true accusation; employs a logical argument that she knows is spurious; praises herself; gets caught making a slip that gives away her culpability but creates a cover story on the spot without the slightest hesitation; attempts to shift the blame to various targets of opportunity; refuses to listen to a gentle plea to consider how her behavior hurts others; visibly makes the decision to destroy another human being; flails out with a barrage of low rhetorical blows; makes threats; and then, later, when granted a reprieve via Tammy's false confession, doubles down on indignation that her word was ever questioned. It is a breathtakingly loathsome display. But it's more than that. Tracy isn't just acting the part of the maligned innocent; on some level, she truly believes it. She is simultaneously conscious of the fact that she is lying (hence her fear when Tammy produces the posters) and unaware of it. It is, in short, a perfect exhibition of Orwellian doublethink: "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them [...] To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies [...]".

So instead of comparing every female politician to Tracy Flick, it would be nice if the media could see through demeanor and gender and apply the Flick label to those who share Tracy's true defining characteristics: ruthlessness, sure, but also off-the-charts narcissism (chiefly manifested as an insistence that achieving selfish goals bring her acclaim) and a psychopathic willingness to commit to lies. So, yes, Sarah Palin still counts (here's a handy list of thirty-two documented lies of hers). But so does most of the Republican Party, perky or dour, female or male. It was, after all, a male Bush aide who put forth the defining principle of his camp thusly: "when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities [...] and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Return to the Calendar page!