“Election” and modern democracy



“Election,” directed by Alexander Payne, stars Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick.

Avery James Lester, Staff Writer

You’re a student at Carver High School in Omaha, Nebraska. For the past few days, you’ve seen signs all across the halls of the school advocating for different student body presidential candidates. The slogans “Pick Flick,” “Paul Metzler-You Betzler,” and just the simple “Tammy for President” begin to fill your thoughts.

It’s now election day. You slide yourself into the voting booth and you see three names listed before you. Who do you go for? Do you pick the one that ran on student populism? Or what about the one whose only claim to fame is being the quarterback of the football team? Maybe you decide to go with someone who ran on breaking down the system. Whoever you choose, you know the results will be interesting.

And they’d make a good movie too.

Released in 1999 and based on Tom Percotta’s book, Alexander Payne’s “Election” is not only one of the great films to emerge from the 1990s – it’s also blossomed into one of my favorite films of all time. It seems to hit a perfect blend of comedy, drama and irreverence in a way that makes for a ruthlessly entertaining film with some of the most well-developed characters from here to Omaha.

But “Election” isn’t just a film about high schoolers and their petty politics. Even though it’s over 20 years old, it’s messages still ring true. It’s a thorough examination into our own lives: what we desire, what we do for success, and what we do to others in the process.

It’s a thorough examination into our own lives: what we desire, what we do for success, and what we do to others in the process. ”

The film tells the stories of a slough of characters. But the two principal characters are social studies teacher Jim McAllister, played by Matthew Broderick, and senior Tracy Flick, played by Reese Witherspoon.

We all know someone like Mr. McAllister. He’s a seemingly passionate teacher who seems to genuinely care about his students. He always goes to the Friday night football games and consoles students when they need him.

And we all also know someone like Tracy Flick. She’s the kind of person with a relentless self confidence that speaks for itself. She’s involved in more clubs and school activities than her fingers can count and she will do whatever it takes to reach the top. This year, her eyes are the presidency prize and she’s running unopposed.

One of Tracy’s harshest critics is McAllister. In his mind, she is an obnoxious, self righteous know-it-all who thinks she is deserving of everything. Because of his disdain for Tracy, McAllister talks senior quarterback Paul Metzler into running against her. Paul also has a sister named Tammy who’s just been through a breakup with a girl named Lisa – who’s now dating Paul. Out of retribution, Tammy decides to run for president.

During an assembly for the candidates, we learn what each one of them is running for. Tracy is running to improve the lives of each student – to make sure their concerns are heard. Although he doesn’t realize McAllister swindled him into it, Paul says he wants to “help people.” Then we have Tammy – who openly admits she doesn’t really care about the election and her first act of president will be to dismantle the student government. The crowd goes wild for her speech.

Tammy Metzler, played by Jessica Campbell, campaigns around the halls before the election.

“Election” is a dense film that ultimately leaves a lot on the viewer’s mind when it finishes. Throughout multiple watches, I have come to different conclusions about it’s messages every single time and that’s part of the reason why I love it so much.

I find it rather boring to simply talk about the acting, directing, writing, etc. But “Election” is a special case. The film put stars like Reese Witherspoon on the map and only continued Matthew Broderick’s solid reputation. Alexander Payne’s directing and writing elevate the source material to new heights. Each character is so finely tuned that we feel like we know them. And I don’t even feel I have to mention the beautiful, breakneck editing and cinematography.

But enough of the boring details.

If “Election” isn’t just another film, what is it really about?

After multiple watches, I’ve come to the conclusion that the film is actually an allegory for American democracy.

Let’s begin with some analysis.

On the weekend before the election, Tracy has to work at school, after hours, on the yearbook. On her way out, she notices her campaign poster is falling off the wall. In an attempt to fix it, she accidentally tears the whole thing down. This enrages her so much that she decides to tear all the other candidates’ posters down.

There is only one witness to this: Tammy.

On Monday, McAllister starts questioning Tracy because he immediately suspects she did it. However, Tammy takes the blame for Tracy in an attempt to get expelled from Carver so she can join a Catholic girls school. The stunt works and she is expelled and disqualified from the race.

So what does all this mean symbolically?

Tracy represents the candidate who will break any rule in the book to come out on top. Not all politicians have the guts to do this but if they do, the results can play heavily in their favor.

Because Tammy campaigns on anti-student government, she represents an anti-establishment politician. Even though she is really running for retribution and revenge, that doesn’t matter. In politics, who you actually are is nowhere near as important to what people think you are. Because she represents radical change, she is immediately blacklisted by the school officials.

McAllister represents the political establishment – preferring the status quo to radical change.

It’s now election day and the most important moment comes when Paul goes to cast his ballot. After staring at the piece of paper, he decides to vote for Tracy because, in his words, “it’s not right to vote for yourself.”

Later on, when the voting is done, two students count the votes and tell McAllister that Tracy won the election by a single vote. McAllister is distraught by this and decides to tally the votes himself. After taking some time to think about Tracy and the consequences of her victory, he crumbles up two Tracy votes and throws them away. Paul is now the victor by a single vote.

This entire sequence is genius for many reasons. For one, McAllister, the embodiment of the establishment is unhappy with the results – therefore, he cheats.

This moment is eerily reminiscent of the infamous Bush v. Gore decision – which occurred only a year after the film came out. In the 2000 presidential election, Florida had a vote dispute of only 537 votes between Al Gore and George Bush. Many of the ballots weren’t filled in properly and were disregarded – which led this “too close to call” decision to land it’s way into the hands of the Supreme Court.

Even though Paul is now the victor, he really isn’t.

In what A.O. Scott described as a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment, when McAllister and the dean recount the votes again to “make sure” Paul won (remember, no one knows about the two votes he threw away), we learn the actual vote tallies: 256 votes for Paul, 255 for Tracy, and 290 for Tammy.

Because Tammy was expelled and disqualified, all her votes were disregarded. This moment symbolizes that many popular candidates never get the chance to be elected because they are seen as rebels.

Which also brings me to highlight another critique of American democracy the film is making. Even though the most famous example of the electoral college’s shortcomings occured a year after the film came out, “Election” is critiquing a system in which the most popular candidate doesn’t always win. Of the 58 presidential elections, five times a candidate didn’t win the popular vote and won the presidency – two of which happened in the last 20 years.

Jim McAllister, played by Matthew Broderick, gives a lecture to his students.

Let’s continue with “Election.”

The next day, McAllister is called into the dean’s office for a meeting and when he opens the door, Tracy, her mother and the two student counters are all staring daggers at him. McAllister’s trash can is on the desk and the dean is holding up the two crumpled Tracy votes. He’s been caught cheating.

He resigns from Carver and Tracy files a lawsuit against him. Many Omaha news outlets pick up on the story and he becomes an outcast. So, he abandons his troubles at home and moves out of Omaha. At the same time, Tracy is crowned student body president.

The ending scene of the film is striking: McAllister ends up moving to New York City and becomes a tour guide at the American Museum of Natural History. When McAllister takes a trip down to Washington D.C., he spots Tracy Flick walking into a limousine with a Nebraska congressman with the implication being that she works for him.

As a final act of retribution, McAllister throws a bottle of Pepsi at the car. Being too frightened to actually confront her face to face – he runs away.

The fact that Tracy wins the election and achieves a high status in life seems to represent how many politicians seem to climb their way out of any situation.

But “Election” doesn’t only critique the political system, it also criticizes the candidates.

Throughout the film, the characters are faced with difficult moral and ethical dilemmas. In one of the very first scenes of the movie, McAllister gives a lecture on the difference between morals and ethics. I love how director Alexander Payne sets up a major theme early on because it makes the viewer think about its implications as the film progresses.

Of all the characters, Tracy seems the most unethical and McAllister seems the most immoral. Tracy surely does wrong things in this movie: constantly backstabbing and cheating her way to the top. But those are ethics, i.e. social rules a society provides us. She’s not violating her morals, i.e. your own principles, because she thinks it’s a-okay to do whatever she wants. It’s only with McAllister do we get to immoral territory because there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned about him: he’s an adulterer.

Throughout the film, he constantly cheats on his wife – which eventually brings about the downfall of his marriage. McAllister put up a facade of an empathetic and helpful teacher when in reality, behind closed doors, he wasn’t acting how he taught his students to act.

If there’s one take away from “Election,” it’s how the people we elect to represent us often aren’t everything they seem. One candidate could be a superficial back stabber. But she tells you she personally cares about your problems – so she’s alright with you. Another could be someone who’s only in it for revenge but she’s running to break down a system you don’t like.

Part of the reason “Election” is so successful is because it accurately depicts our political system. Sure, the film takes place in high school and stars high schoolers – but that’s the point. Payne is making a statement that our democratic process can make us behave like children. Take, for example, Tracy Flick. She lied and backstabbed her way to win the presidency. You could say the same thing for a lot of our politicians today.

I love “Election” for many reasons: it’s entertaining, dramatic, hilarious and silly. But I think my favorite aspect is its themes. “Election” reminds me that the American democratic experiment has holes and problems. Unless we fix them, the plastic politicians and empty promises won’t stop. There are ways to stop it and it begins with us.