Conservative Distortions and Delusions: A Review of “I Want Your Money“

The new documentary by filmmaker Ray Griggs, “I Want Your Money”(released October 15) acts as a mouthpiece for the Republican Party. The November 2nd election is fast approaching and many congressional seats hang in the balance. “I Want Your Money” is strategically created and released as an attempt to sway swing voters. Its take on the “small government vs. big government” debate is undeniably partisan. In fact, there’s no actual debate – it simply magnifies conservative commentary on the problems, pitfalls, and moral and political evils of government excess. The opposing side is given scant account – just isolated excerpts and one-liners from big-name Democrats. This technique is only acceptable to a certain degree. Every film is shot from a particular perspective and the myth of absolute objectivity died long ago. No film, person or social movement is necessarily obligated to provide both sides of the story; however, the film’s overall depiction of the political playing field is distorted, even delusional.

Combining documentary footage, animation, interviews and the filmmaker’s personal narrative (think of Michael Moore), the film sets up two main characters with a basic plotline – Ronald Reagan vs. Barack Obama. Reagan is depicted as a commonsensical, small-government people’s hero, while Barack Obama is depicted as an out-of-control spending socialist who wants to redistribute the nation’s wealth. In many ways it is a Cold War redux: capitalism is good, communism is bad. But the Cold War ended twenty years ago, and the film’s interviewees really don’t know much about socialism. If we restrict our thinking to such countries as China and the former Soviet Union, then yes, most of us will agree that socialism not only fails, but is dictatorial and downright oppressive. But what about successful social democracies like Britain, Germany, Holland, the Scandinavian countries and Canada? Such countries, while far from perfect, provide real alternatives to American capitalism. It is also obvious that none of the film’s commentators have read the likes of Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Autonomists or the more recent works of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. These thinkers, while by no means homogeneous, provide very different accounts of socialist possibilities and are undoubtedly anti-dictatorship. Suffice it to say that the film rehashes mid-twentieth-century Red Scare tactics.

Such tactics must be blinding (to the filmmaker, at least) because Ronald Reagan was not and never will be a people’s hero. No amount of conservative revisionist history can change the fact that “the people” suffered under Reagan policies. Subsidized housing for the poor was slashed by nearly $25 billion during Reagan’s eight year tenure; the number of people living beneath the federal poverty line rose from 24.5 million in 1978 to 32.5 million in 1988; homelessness climbed to more than 2 million by the time Reagan left office; the minimum wage was frozen during the Reagan presidency while the nation’s richest citizens increased their wealth; Reagan fired 11,000 employees of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981 for conducting an “illegal strike”; Reagan supported the South African Apartheid, labeling Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress a terrorist organization; in 1983 the U.S. invaded Grenada and installed a pro-American government; the Reagan Administration provided funding and/or material aid to various rightwing movements and governments throughout Latin America, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths; Afghanistan’s Mujahedeen, from which Osama bin Laden emerged, was installed and trained by the CIA during Reagan’s reign; Saddam Hussein came to power during this time period and was deemed a friend of America; Reagan had done nothing about the AIDS crisis until his last year in office, allowing thousands of people to die; and if we take into account the military budget, federal spending actually increased during his eight years in office.[1] The “great communicator” was actually the great con artist, often stealing from the poor and giving to the rich and providing a charismatic personality for imperialist policies.

More troubling still is the film’s twisted account of the conservative constituency. At one level the government is cast as the evil oppressor. As Reagan loudly declared, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” While obviously debatable, this is actually a plausible statement. A government – any government – could indeed become repressive and predatory, but at another, more latent level, the “average, everyday people” depicted in the film are cast as both victims and underdogs. They are victims because they are preyed upon by the over-taxing Democrats, and they are underdogs because they are in the process of rebelling against their oppressive government. This victim/underdog identity is captured well by two scenes toward the end of the film.

First, animated caricatures of Reagan and Obama are placed into a boxing ring for a heavyweight bout between their competing ideologies. Reagan is literally cast as the Rocky Balboa of politics – he is adorned with American flag trunks and is inspired by Rocky theme music. Meanwhile, Obama, when asked for a prediction on the outcome of the fight, states “pain.” This is a quote from Clubber Lang, the mean, vicious – and racially over-coded – antagonist of Rocky III. Reagan, the onetime but fallen hero, rises from the ashes to knock out the illegitimate champ and reclaim his rightful title. Reaganomics reigns supreme.

Next the Tea Party movement makes a brief but poignant appearance. The Tea Partiers are depicted as quiet, traditional Middle Americans who would rather leave politics alone – but this evil socialist government has just gone too darn far. These Tea Partiers are mad as hell and they aren’t gonna take it anymore! They are wanting and willing to take their country back. At this point it becomes obvious that the Tea Party is used as a rhetorical device to concretize the victim/underdog identity. Real people, rather than animations, are being squeezed by their government and finding ways to fight back. It is a call to action based on an appeal to mutual identity: these real people are cast as typical Americans who supposedly look just like “you and me.”

All of this posturing might be plausible if it weren’t so ridiculously distorted. The overwhelming majority of the film’s conservative commentators are anything but victims and underdogs. Even the few nonwhite European commentators are economically privileged. And Ronald Reagan did not exactly struggle throughout his life. These people are politically entitled and socially empowered; however, the same type of generalizations cannot be made about the Tea Party participants. Many of them may in fact be victims of one kind or another. Even if most of them do fall into a middle- to upper-class demographic,[2] it is safe to assume that plenty of them struggle to find work, pay bills, put their kids through college, make ends meet, and, ironically, pay for healthcare – but, as political conservatives, they are not underdogs. For twenty of the last thirty years, America has been run by conservative Republicans – Reagan for eight, Bush, Sr. for four, and Bush, Jr. for eight – and despite the Republican rhetoric, Bill Clinton was not some ultra-progressive president — Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, military excursions into the Balkans, deregulation of economic markets, the outsourcing of jobs, an infamous welfare reform bill and a gargantuan jump in economic inequality aren’t exactly at the top of a Leftist agenda. The Tea Party has it backwards — they are the norm, not the marginalized, repressed or forgotten.

Ray Griggs’ I Want Your Money is not only dishonest and distorted, but disseminates a delusional depiction of Ronald Reagan and the conservative constituency. Rather than heroes, victims and underdogs, they are villains, culprits and the status quo.

[1] For an excellent history of Reagan’s failed policies, see Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! (transcripts available) for the week of June 7 to June 11; Peter Dreier’s “Reagan’s Legacy: Homelessness in America” also provides an enlightening summary.

[2] Lydia Saad. “Tea Partiers are Fairly Mainstream in their Demographics.” April 5, 2010.