Once in a blue moon, Hollywood portrays our American government accurately. The ABC educational series, “Schoolhouse Rock!” a staple memory from the children of the 1970s, showed American kids just how the nation was founded — and with catchy cartoons like the “Three Ring Circus” of government and “I’m Just a Bill,” a generation of young people got a decent glimpse into how our government was supposed to operate.
Otherwise, there is a vast wasteland, generally focusing on the presidency (and the president).
But does the focus of Hollywood (and the media, more generally) contribute to the expansion of federal executive branch power? I think it’s a case that can be made.
The presidency is relatively easy to understand, and makes a convenient and simple target — something relished by both those telling fictional stories in Hollywood and those purporting to tell true stories in the news media.
Daniel Day-Lewis, Harrison Ford and Michael Douglas cut dashing and heroic presidents in “Lincoln,” “Air Force One” and “The American President,” respectively. But even the much-celebrated Frank Capra classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” was set against the backdrop of the passage of an obscure piece of legislation called a “deficiency bill.”
The news media is no help, either. Loath to delve deeply into boring pieces of legislation, there is a near-constant demand for executive branch solutions to public problems — and a championing of the concept of the president acting unilaterally when Congress refuses to do so.
In fact, it is this last point that might be the most dangerous, since it assumes a default position that Congress refusing to take action on a particular problem is evidence that Congress is somehow failing to do its job — and that the president must act — which pushes a narrative onto the American people that this is the way things ought to be.
Worse, it creates the situation in which Congress passes massive pieces of legislation — bills with so many pages that members of the House of Representatives don’t understand them, the senators don’t understand them, the Supreme Court justices don’t understand them, the media cannot explain them, and, therefore, we (the people) cannot possibly understand them.
Compounding this is the problem that the American people are woefully ignorant of the Constitution and how to defend their rights.
The American education system, strangled by progressives, has turned the Constitution’s precepts on their heads. Ask most people where their rights come from and they’ll tell you that rights come from government, when any true scholar of the Constitution will tell you that rights come from God (or nature) and that government exists solely to protect and preserve individual rights.
This is where the media ought to be stepping in and explaining. But instead, in 2016, the media would rather “dumb it down” for the American people, and give the presidency a pass. Media mirrors the limited understanding of the people, reinforcing ignorance in such a dangerous way as to be ultimately destructive of the Republic. Those who tune in to the media’s explanation of politics and policy are armed only with the worst kind of “vapid knowledge,” unable to guard themselves or their freedoms from the predations of the power-hungry.
Much in the same way that those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it, those who fail to understand the nature of our Constitution are doomed to lose the guarantees contained therein. In bolstering the idea that the president can and should act unilaterally, the media protects the migration of massive amounts of power to the federal executive branch, arguably one of the greatest threats to individual rights today!
Couple this ignorance with the media’s propensity for trying to distill issues into sound bites and bumper sticker slogans, and you’re left with a society unable to take charge of its own destiny.
One cannot reconcile liberty with anti-liberty, and if one does not recognize that every time government grows, individual rights are diminished, then as government grows by leaps and bounds, the people will be unable to stop it — and their freedom will be lost.
Which leaves us where we are today, with a massive federal executive branch, virtually impossible to control, and a media, having enormous responsibility in its creation, doing virtually nothing to exercise independent scrutiny of the goings-on in the federal executive branch.
The American people don’t know when the president is exceeding his power because the American people no longer understand the Constitution.
In 1992, in a Supreme Court case called New York v. United States, Justice O’Connor had this to say: The Constitution “protects us from our own best intentions: It divides power among sovereigns and among branches of government precisely so that we may resist the temptation to concentrate power in one location as an expedient solution to the crisis of the day federalism secures to citizens the liberties that derive from the diffusion of sovereign power.”
By not recognizing this precept, and calling those in power out on it, the media does the American people a paramount disservice. The media needs to be championing the dilution of federal power, instead of cheerleading for the concentration of it.
• Janine Turner is an actress, author, and founder and co-chair of Constituting America. Andrew Langer is the president of the Institute for Liberty and is a resident scholar at Constituting America.