‘Veep,’ Hillary Clinton, and Political Cynicism in 2015

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Portraying a fictional first female president at a moment when we might actually be preparing to elect her real-life counterpart (although, who knows, there’s a rocky road ahead for Hillary Clinton) put Veep at a tantalizing crossroads. Would placing Selina Meyer in the ultimate power seat eliminate some of the bumbling and irrelevance that characterized the character’s time in the largely decorative VP’s office — shifting the show’s critique to a more robust one about gender and power?

Of course not. One glance at President Meyer beginning her State of the Union address with a garbled copy of the speech on the teleprompter assured us we were in the realm of small-bore cynicism for good. The only gender equality the show stands for is the idea that a woman can be as delightfully boorish, obnoxious, and self-centered as a man. If anything, this season, which ends Sunday, got darker and more jaundiced about electoral politicking — including, last week, an episode of congressional hearings that was so brutal in its satire as to almost inflict physical pain upon the viewer, interspersed with bouts of laughter.

Maybe Veep has nothing to do with the upcoming election, but the HBO-watching crowd is supposed to be Hillary Clinton’s base. The fact that we’re lapping up this vision of idiocy may not signal a tough break for Hillary Clinton so much as a sign of what she has to overcome. She’s been in the public eye for so long that many voters have lost their enthusiasm for her, even the ones who are ostensibly supposed to be her base, as Katha Pollitt noted in a column urging people to rediscover their enthusiasm:

My women college classmates (Radcliffe ‘71) aren’t so excited about Hillary Clinton. An e-mail to our New York City potluck group elicited distinctly modified rapture. They’re bothered by her high-priced speeches and the aura of favor-trading and favor-banking around the Clinton Foundation. They don’t like her Wall Street connections, and they don’t like Bill (a k a the “ick” factor). Plus, she’s not progressive enough.

To be sure, this moment of eye-rolling apathy is a product of everything that has happened since progressives felt the promise of that triumphant 2008 election, which brought us the Obama era. Many hardened skeptics were moved by the possibilities of Obama’s campaign, put themselves on the line to knock on doors, and turned temporarily into full-fledged political idealists. Since then, watching the system break down over and over again and small moments of progress like healthcare reform get mired in endless repeal attempts, is enough to frustrate anyone. And the promise of racial transcendence the campaign offered was shattered by a reactionary backlash that political observers ought to have expected but perhaps ignored because we were high on the hope and the change.

Whether you blame the Obama administration or the obstructionists in the legislative branch, chances are that after eight years of tussling, you’re not feeling particularly optimistic about politics. And against this backdrop, Veep shows politics to be exactly what we imagine them to be at their very worst: a game played by maladjusted, arrogant fools jockeying merely for position and good optics — with not a single ideal or principle in question beyond the principle of power being continually acquired and held onto. The look at lobbying provided by Dan and Amy’s foray outside the White House is another nail in the coffin, illustrating another reality: that there’s a “revolving door” of political staffers, who claim to stand for ideas, turning into lobbyists who sell those ideas down the river, turning back into staffers, with compromised values.

Of course, the Obama campaign was an anomaly in some ways, the power of the candidate being one of them. Yet its very existence proves that idealism, or at the very least avid interest, is a force that probably could be awakened even in the most nihilistic times, if coaxed out by the most skilled operatives. Look at how Selina Meyer’s choice of Tom James as a running mate elevated her campaign. Anything can happen in politics — except rapid social progress, of course.