“Remember who the real enemy is.”
It’s a pivotal line in the new Hunger Games film sequel, Catching Fire. But it might also be said of the film itself.
On the surface, Hunger Games—both the books and the films—is another liberal dystopian fantasy. Authoritarian government, rebel with a cause—we’ve seen this before, from Star Wars to Schindler’s List. And in general, this is a progressive narrative.
Yet watching Catching Fire in 2013, the narrative is decidedly different. This is a Tea Party movie. The evil government is effete, urban, and quasi-Stalinist. And like the Tea Party Patriots, the good guys are rural populists, fighting for traditional values, and for freedom from the federal government.
In the mythic world of Catching Fire, the citizens of Capital City are like the Romans they are named after: decadent, callous, and enormously wealthy, living on the backs of outlying districts. Unlike in Ancient Rome, however, the districts operate like massive Soviet collectives: they each produce a single set of commodities, and all ownership is concentrated in the State.
As a result, the Bad Guys are a mixture of hyper-capitalists and hyper-communists. Confused yet?
You needn’t be. In fact, the political logic of Hunger Games is as American as apple pie. It’s Jeffersonian populism, coined in the 18th century, renovated by William Jennings Bryan at the turn of the 20th, and rehashed by the Tea Party in the 21st. Farmers, workers, common people: good. City-dwellers, government officials, moneyed elites: bad. This is neither liberal nor conservative, exactly. It’s populist.
Yet there’s a big difference between Jefferson’s times and our own: today, populism is fake. On the surface, sure, it’s about the common man versus big government. But the Tea Party is being paid for by the Koch Brothers and other moneyed elites. And they have more in common with the oligarchs of Capital City than the oppressed miners working in District Twelve.
Remember, in Jefferson’s day, corporations were illegal. The country was still largely agrarian, with modern capitalism just taking root in America’s cities. The world was a lot more like Catching Fire: rural workers, and urban bankers. It made sense to conflate the central government with the wealthy elite—with Alexander Hamilton playing the urban-elite, statist boogeyman.
Today, in contrast, there aren’t just two players—the rural individual and the urban elite—on the stage. There are at least three: individuals, gigantic corporations, and the State. And so Tea Party populism is actually a complete inversion of political and economic reality. Government isn’t strangling business—business is strangling government. Regulations don’t oppress people—they protect people from hugely powerful businesses that have only profit in mind.
After all, who has made out like a bandit since the 2008 economic collapse? Liberals? Christians? Farmers? No, of course—capitalists. The one percent have gotten richer, the 99 percent have gotten poorer, and the wealth gap in America is at record levels. That’s not because of government regulation and redistribution of wealth—it’s because of the lack of government regulation and redistribution of wealth.
The logic of Catching Fire plays right into the Tea Party’s hands—or more specifically, the hands of the Tea Party puppetmasters, exploiting populist resentment and nativist fear to further loosen the government’s grip on predatory business. Catching Fire perpetuates an ideological vision that, today, is a sleight-of-hand.
In Catching Fire’s world, the government owns industry, and so Katniss fights both with a single bow. But in our world, industry is rapidly coming to own the government, and it is the state which stands as a bastion against transnational corporate tyranny. If she were living in our world, Katniss would be fighting the wrong enemy.