Opinion: ‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ and the power of political fantasy

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Opinion by Nicole Hemmer

(CNN) — Part fairy tale, part rom-com, the new Amazon Prime movie “Red, White & and Royal Blue” is the kind of cotton-candy entertainment perfect for the idle days of late summer, or, if you find yourself stuck at home, sick. This delightful confection, based on the bestselling book of the same name, features a love affair between the prince of England and the son of the president of the United States. In a classic enemies-to-lovers plot, the two first topple into a massive cake at the prince’s brother’s wedding, only to quickly find themselves scheduling transatlantic trysts while falling in love.

Fluffy and formulaic, the movie is a pleasurable bit of fantasy: two impossibly handsome men famous for being related to powerful people find their happily-ever-after with one another. But perhaps the most fantastical part of the film is the politics. Alex Claremont-Diaz, Texan son of the first woman president of the United States whose Mexican-American father is also a member of Congress, has a plan to help his mother win re-election by flipping his home state. He turns himself into a Democratic Party organizer for a few months and — spoiler alert — when the election comes down to Texas and Alex’s plan, it’s a happily-ever-after for both his mother and the Democratic Party.

That subplot puts “Red, White & Royal Blue” into a particular film and television genre: liberal wish fulfillment. In 1990s movies such as “Dave” and “The American President,” and television shows including “The West Wing” in the early 2000s and “Parks and Recreation” in the 2010s, writers have threaded their fictional worlds with political fantasies that reflect both the hopes and limits of the Democratic imagination, even when the constraints of reality have been removed.

In “Red, White & Royal Blue,” those hopes — flipping the state of Texas — map neatly onto a set of electoral hopes nursed by Democrats in recent years as they work to grow a base of support large enough to turn Texas into a swing state. The connection between real-world goals and narrative wish-fulfillment are direct. Author Casey McQuiston, a Texan, first thought up the idea in early 2016 but found herself rethinking it after former President Donald Trump’s election. “Suddenly,” she explained in the book’s acknowledgments, “what was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek parallel universe needed to be escapist, trauma-soothing, alternate-but-realistic reality.” As much of a romantic romp as the book and movie became, it was tailored to fit within the limits of an altered world.

Limits have long defined the imagined Democratic victories on-screen. Though sometimes there are grand ambitions — in the 1993 movie “Dave,” in which an idealistic doppelganger takes over for a comatose president, the central goal is a piece of legislation that will guarantee every American a job — often the scale is smaller, focused on process rather than an expansive vision of a remade world.

That is certainly the case with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s creations, the 1996 movie “The American President” and its television successor, “The West Wing.” Wildly popular in the Clinton and Bush years, these stories featured presidents who found it hard to shake their pragmatism. The film’s president, Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), is a deal-making politico who backs out on a promise to his girlfriend (Annette Bening), an environmental lobbyist, in order to secure votes to pass a watered-down crime bill (a very Clintonesque proposal tailormade for the moderate Democratic politics of the 1990s).

When his sense of idealism takes over, it doesn’t result in a new revolutionary vision, but a vow to fight for steeper cuts to fossil-fuel production and tougher gun laws in a new crime bill. The swelling orchestral music that accompanies his conversion (and his tearful reunion with his girlfriend in the dramatic hours before his State of the Union address) makes a grand production of incrementalist politics.

“The West Wing” is, unsurprisingly given its Sorkin-ism, much the same (observers on Reddit and elsewhere have noted Sorkin’s predilection for re-using the same lines and jokes). The show built a reputation as escapist fantasy for liberals left unmoored by the scandals of the closing years of the Clinton presidency and the eight years of George W. Bush (and still serves the same role today). It was regularly cited as an inspiration for Obama staffers attracted to the show’s insider-y look at the West Wing and its characters’ fundamental decency. But for an escapist fantasy, its politics were notably scaled down. Moderation was a virtue; process, rather than big ideas, was the proving ground for morality and political rightness.

That emphasis on process is what makes the politics of “Red, White & Royal Blue” seem smaller than the fantasy of the electoral map hinging on Texas would lead viewers to believe. The movie is more interested in how the Democratic candidate wins than what she does with that power. Which makes sense, given the years in which it was written. With Trump and a radicalized Republican Party posing an existential threat to democratic governance in the United States, winning elections was the most important political project the Democratic Party could pursue.

But process without vision is stultifying, and reflects more than the limits of onscreen political fantasy. It also speaks to a struggle the Democratic Party has faced at the presidential level since at least the 1990s, where the virtue of process — bipartisanship, expertise, technocracy — has often stood in for any broader, fully conceived political vision. Both onscreen and off, Democratic presidents could use a little more fantasy.

The-CNN-Wire
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