In director M. Night Shyamalan's incredible "The Village," there is a small band of people who speak in an archaic register filled with "thee" and "thou," who settle their policy differences through town meetings, and who live a simple life of chores and small pleasures. The adults in this Village, surrounded by a menacing forest, all came from the "Towns," where, to hear them tell it, violence reigns and venality is the norm.
Judging by public life today, many of us would like to live in this Village. You can tell, in part, by what the political parties are peddling. On the right, the rhetoric of values, if taken at face value, sounds downright Athenian in its high-mindedness. Recapture personal morality and life will be simpler, the choices clearer.
On the left, there is an emerging back-to-basics consensus that includes a sort of pugnacious honesty coupled with a faith in the little guy's eventual rising. Howard Dean's ascent to chair of the Democratic Party was fueled by equal parts enthusiasm for his honest style and infatuation with the idea that the Dean "netroots" would somehow reempower the masses. He embodied a story of yesterday (the forthright outsider makes good) and brought a veneer of new technology. But, what ultimately made Mr. Dean palatable was his eight-point plan to revitalize the party, a plan that amounts to little more than "be more organized" - a back-to-basics tack if ever there was one.
Each side, viewing itself at a sort of inflection point where either legacy or survival are at stake, would like to turn back the clock. Each side yearns to recapture something it feels is lost.
But it can't happen. The fundamental characteristic of nostalgia is that it is a desire for a time that never really was.
Some of my friends seem to inhabit an alternate America. Sometimes I live there, too. In this America, Jed Bartlet is president and there is a campaign going on to succeed him. This is America as portrayed on "The West Wing." In this America, everybody is smart, speaks quickly and amusingly, and always has an abiding sense of political idealism. Operatives remind one another, at seemingly every turn, about why they got into politics in the first place. They're in it to make a difference. Sometimes these people lose their way, but there's always a character onscreen who can gently remind them that democracy is really all about helping people.
In this America, a Texas congressman named Matt Santos is running an underdog campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. But he is giving his jaded D.C.-insider campaign manager fits. Not only will he not run "negative ads," but he insists that, if he criticizes his opponent, he will only do so personally, in his own voice. He wanders off the talking points and doesn't follow the script for important meetings. The sophisticates that surround him all gnash their teeth at his starry-eyed democracy mumbo-jumbo and Frank Capra antics.
It's not that these sophisticates are against ideals (they have them themselves), but they know what must be done in order to win. Eggs must be broken to make an omelet, and Santos doesn't seem to have the stomach to break them.
But, watch the camera linger on the nodding faces of ordinary citizens as they listen to Santos's powerful ideas. Watch the gaggle of trailing reporters grow in each New Hampshire town he visits. Watch as he wins the California primary in an upset. In this America, refreshing honesty and fair play are working. Santos is breaking through. We're all rooting for him, at home on our sofas. We assume Santos will do well. There may be twists and turns, but his message will resonate and his honesty will triumph.
But it's a fake. Switch off prime time and we see how incredibly hard it is to persevere as the straight-talking candidate. The Howard Dean presidential campaign collapsed in a scream. Four years earlier, the John McCain "straight talk express" fizzled as sniping between his campaign and that of George W. Bush, fueled by push-polls, reached a climax. The former poster boy of telling it like it is from outside the hallowed halls, Jesse Ventura, is now brought up more in jest than as a role model.
What keeps people in the Village, even in the face of strong temptations to visit the Towns, is a collective nightmare of what might happen if one steps across the border into the forest. The Village is a special place where the prevailing rules - those of the Towns - are in an enforced suspense.
Public life here, in real America, seems more of the venal Towns than of the upright Village. And contrary to "West Wing" parables, those who rise up seem to be the first struck down. Where is the hope? Must we abandon our ideals?
There are small signs of progress. Dean has indeed ridden his plainspoken ethos to power - Democratic party chair is nothing to sneeze at. Senator McCain has recaptured the gloss lost in 2000 so well that he was actually touted as a running mate for Sen. John Kerry in 2004. The authentic voice and story of newly minted Sen. Barak Obama's have placed him on the short list of people who really matter in Washington.
Those of us on our sofas, wishing real life was more like "The West Wing," ought to look around and grab onto these stories. They ought to bring true hope, because they are believable. They tell us that just speaking up isn't enough; we'll need to do the hard work of persevering, too. Improvements won't come about in the space of 60 minutes minus commercials, nor even in the space of one television season. But they will come.
We don't need to move to the Village to hold onto its ideals. We just need to go looking for them here, in the Towns.
• Brad Rourke is a consultant who works on ethics and civic issues.