Zen and the Art of Triangulation: How “The Karate Kid” Foretold the Rise of the New Democrats

NOTE: Although I try to maintain my objectivity, I cannot escape the fact that my personal political positions sometimes color my analysis. To ensure that this site maintains a well-rounded political perspective, it is useful for us to consider the opinions of others. To that end, this is the first Guest Column on Reel Change, written by my good friend William Jovanovich. William has a background in acting and producing independent films, and he currently works in finance in New York City.

In the 1998 comedy There’s Something About Mary, Matt Dillon’s lowbrow detective Pat attempts to win over Cameron Diaz’s beautiful and intelligent title character by wistfully opining, “I just miss the classics, y’know, like ‘The Karate Kid’ or ‘Harold and Maude (Mary’s favorite film).’ I remember laughing along with the rest of the audience when I heard the line because only an uncultured boob would ever place Hal Ashby’s early 1970’s subversive classic in the same category with a 1980’s popcorn flick.

But popcorn flicks are not without subversive elements. Many movies produced for broad audiences have been useful vehicles for advancing change or cultural criticism. I find they are better at winning hearts and minds than those whose main purpose is political or social argument. That ill-fated series of anti-Iraq war movies never made me doubt voting for George W. Bush but watching Avatar did. Briefly. Even though a high school science class may have ghostwritten the script.

The Karate Kid is a noteworthy example of subversive messaging in a blockbuster hit. Upon its 1984 release, it was a huge commercial success, spawning three sequels, a recent remake, and a variety of merchandise. And it continues to provide some great pop culture references. I have witnessed more than one fistfight where a wisecracking onlooker has shouted out “No mercy!” or “Put him in a body bag, Johnny!” However, reading through the initial reviews and criticism in the years that followed, I’ve yet to find any mention of the film’s political or social commentary. This is an inexplicable oversight.

The story contains an implicit criticism of the Reagan years, of income inequality, and of the hollow, at times cruel philosophy of America’s ruling class. The film opens with Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), a working class teen, migrating from a decaying post-industrial Newark to the booming West Coast. Driving cross-country in their beat-up station wagon, his single mother cheerfully sings, “California, here I come,” an homage to the famous I Love Lucy episode. Daniel is less optimistic about the move, and his fears prove correct.  Moving into a rundown motel outside Los Angeles with poor plumbing and an empty pool, the poor boy from Jersey finds few friends and many enemies. For the first half of the movie, he is tormented by a pack of dirt bike riding, blond haired rich kids who train at a karate dojo that Daniel can’t afford to attend. Furthering his troubles, the ringleader’s ex-girlfriend (Elisabeth Shue) takes a liking to Daniel, but their social class divide discourages him from developing the relationship, as do the repeated beatings he takes for talking to her.

Daniel-san prevails in the end by training with the motel’s handyman/martial arts master, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). Using the superior skills that he develops in just a few weeks (depicted through the now-overused sports training movie montage), Daniel defeats the bullies in a karate tournament, winning their respect and getting the girl in the process. Not bad for a kid from Jersey.

Watching The Karate Kid for the first time in almost twenty years, I found it more politically resonant than most of the anti-Reagan broadsides that Hollywood launched during that era (Wall Street, The Day After, Salvador, etc…) Perhaps this is because it does more than raise questions or highlight social issues; instead it offers a solution, one that Democrats and Progressives would later use to win back the white working class they had lost during the Reagan years and re-establish a political majority.

First, some historical context. The 1972 U.S. presidential election was the greatest political thrashing that Progressives had ever received. After a series of uphill battles in the 1960’s, the New Left had finally assumed control over the Democratic Party, best demonstrated by their nomination of a staunchly anti-war presidential candidate who openly campaigned on a platform of civil rights, women’s rights, and a comprehensive expansion of the welfare state. The voters went a different direction, however, re-electing Richard Nixon in a total landslide. Tricky Dick had narrowly won the ’68 race by wooing white Southerners who had broken with the Democrats over civil rights legislation. In ’72, Nixon increased his margin of victory by targeting a once reliable pillar of the New Deal Coalition: working-class whites.

They had been souring on the anti-war, pro-counterculture shift within the party for several years. More importantly, the industrial labor unions, largely made up of white men, felt ignored and marginalized in this rapidly evolving political coalition. The widening schism between Old Left and New was candidly described by top union boss George Meany at the 1972 Democratic Convention. After reviewing the membership of the New York delegation, Meany was said to have exclaimed with horror: “They’ve got six open fags and only three AFL-CIO representatives!” Divorce papers were served, and the union voters largely went with Nixon.

This was a watershed moment in a now sixty-year long trend of non-college educated whites moving away from the party that offered them real economic benefits toward a party that offered them cultural consensus. This trend continues to baffle and frustrate many on the Left, best voiced by opinion journalist Thomas Frank in his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? and more bluntly by 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean, who publicly told Southerners to stop basing their votes on “race, God, guns, and gays.” Dean’s candor didn’t win him the nomination, but he still gets a lot of guest appearances on MSNBC.

The Karate Kid takes a different approach to the problem. It triangulates. The first half of the movie uses Daniel’s torment at the hands of the Cobra Kai bullies to explicitly voice progressive complaints about America. It argues that the wealthy and powerful have undeserved advantages, which they sometimes use without restraint or compassion to maintain their position in society. The scene where Daniel sneaks into the country club through the kitchen only to be laughed by a crowd of rich WASPs typifies this. It also argues that the poor are inherently disadvantaged and cannot achieve their goals without outside help. What would have happened to Daniel LaRusso if Mr. Miyagi hadn’t intervened in his life? Probably the same thing that happens to real kids who get picked on by bullies but fail to befriend a karate master. Plus, no Elisabeth Shue.

Where the movie departs with progressives is in the solution it offers to Daniel’s problem. Our protagonist morphs from victim to hero after waxing Mr. Miyagi’s classic cars, sanding his floors, and getting up at the crack of dawn to practice Crane kicks. It is as if economic hardship and social stratification can be cured with a little elbow grease. Not to mention the challenges of Daniel’s home life, living in a single parent household where his mother has to work long hours and barely sees him. The Karate Kid’s answer to this? Get a Dad, or at least find a male mentor. This idea, that discipline, hard work, and forming traditional families will improve life for all Americans is the kind of policy response that conservative politicians have been advocating for years, Progressives claim that these ideas are too simplistic, even false, and leave too many people behind to fend for themselves. Nevertheless, these ideas have remained appealing to many voters and, moreover, they are no longer the sole dominion of the political Right. Democratic politicians have been using this same language for years, particularly those who want to win national elections.

When it came to triangulation, Bill Clinton was the undisputed master. He campaigned as a New Democrat – pro-growth (as opposed to wealth redistribution), tough on crime, and  more attuned to the cultural sensitivities of moderate and conservative white voters. His position on abortion (“safe, legal and rare”), his public denunciation of a black rap artist, and his success in passing welfare reform greatly contributed to his success as the only Democrat in nearly forty years to win a majority of white working class voters. Should Barack Obama lose this November, Clinton will remain the only two-term Democratic president since FDR.

Many progressives have since derided the Clinton approach. They claim it failed the Left during the Bush years, when the New Democrats supported tax cuts for the wealthy, harsh anti-terrorism programs and the Iraq War. Looking back on the 2006 and 2008 campaigns, however, it was the election of moderates in the House and Senate that allowed President Obama to push through most of his legislative agenda in 2009 and 2010. And by having substantial majorities in both chambers, it elevated many left-leaning members to significant leadership positions. In my lifetime, the Democratic Party has never won Congress or the Presidency by running on an openly progressive platform. It’s unlikely to happen any time soon. Despite President Obama’s recent leftward moves on immigration and gay marriage, he has done plenty of triangulating this term, and we should expect more before Election Day. Why? Because most Americans still identify more with Daniel LaRusso than they would with a member of Occupy Wall Street. They would rather beat up the bad guy in a fair fight than join an anti-bullying campaign. They don’t want to bulldoze the rich man’s country club; they just want to walk in through the front door.

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