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‘Election’ Is About Everything We Fight About Online

Tradition versus change. The status quo versus gender equality. Trump versus Hillary. On its 20th anniversary, we look back at how a landmark comedy helped galvanize our political discourse — and talk to Alexander Payne about Tracy Flick and Mr. M.

“None of this would have happened if Mr. McAllister hadn’t meddled the way he did. He should’ve just accepted things as they are, instead of trying to interfere with destiny. You see, you can’t interfere with destiny — that’s why it’s destiny. And if you try to interfere, the same thing’s just gonna happen anyway, and you’ll just suffer.”

“It’s hard to remember how the whole thing started, the whole election mess.”

Thus begins the dual voiceovers that will animate everything that follows in Election, the marvelous, still painfully astute comedy that hit theaters on April 23, 1999. The first quote is from Tracy Flick, a high school senior in Omaha, Nebraska, who has her eye on being class president, which she regards as her birthright. After all, nobody works harder or cares more than she does. The second quote is from Jim McAllister, a U.S. history teacher who will eventually do everything in his power to keep Tracy from winning the presidency, which he thinks would be an abomination. After all, nobody works harder or cares more than he does. They don’t know it at the start of filmmaker Alexander Payne’s adaptation of the Tom Perrotta novel, but Tracy and Jim are about to be locked in battle. And in some ways, we’ve all been taking sides in that same epic confrontation for the last 20 years.

When Payne was preparing to work on the script for Election with his frequent collaborator Jim Taylor, he wasn’t yet the two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker of such aching, bittersweet, grownup comedies like About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants. In the late 1990s, he’d made just one film — the well-regarded Citizen Ruth with Laura Dern — but Election cemented his standing as a chronicler of a particular kind of flawed, middle-aged (or older) white man. Perrotta’s novel, which came out in 1998 but was set in 1992, was a reaction to the 1992 election, in which a third-party candidate, Ross Perot, shook up national politics. (In the book, there are three students running for the presidency.)

In an email interview with me, though, Payne admitted that the Perot angle wasn’t his primary interest in the material. “As I recall, Perrotta used that election as some source of vague inspiration for the three characters running for student body president,” Payne writes, “but from his other work [like his novels Little Children and The Leftovers], we know he’s more interested in the quietly dramatic banalities of middle-class American life. And so were we. I always thought we were just making a nice little comedy with some realistic and hilarious characters, so I was surprised later when many viewers saw it as a political metaphor.”

But it wasn’t just Election’s world that intrigued Payne — he also latched onto the way that Perrotta told the story from different characters’ perspectives, in their own voice. “Of course I liked the comic and realistic setting,” Payne tells me, “but what drew me to the adaptation really was the formal challenge of multiple voiceover. I very much like well-done first-person films, and I’d never seen a film structure quite like this.”

Because of Election’s reputation as a smart satire — as the great high-school comedy that nobody thinks of in those terms because it seems too sophisticated and incisive to be “just” a high-school comedy — and Tracy’s ascendance into the pop-culture firmament, what’s perhaps most striking about watching the film now is its multiple voiceovers. I’ve seen Election a few times since declaring it the best movie of its year, but it’s funny how I always overlook how terrific the voiceover is. In fact, it informs the entire story and how we feel about these characters. Tracy and Jim (and a few others) aren’t just telling us how they see these events — they’re trying to sell us on their particular worldview. And one of the reasons why Election has endured, in a way Payne could have never possibly anticipated at the time, is that the film establishes the parameters for just about every internet fight that’s been waged this century, especially over the last few years.

Tracy, played by a rising star named Reese Witherspoon, is the only child of a single mother who has inspired her daughter to believe in her dreams. (As Tracy tells us, her mom writes letters to accomplished women, “like Elizabeth Dole and Connie Chung,” to get their advice on how to make it in the world.) Tracy is part of myriad clubs at Carver High School, and she believes as president she can make a real difference in the lives of her fellow students. She’s a go-getter, and even at a young age, she’s clear that she isn’t going to let the patriarchy get her down. (As Tracy tells one of her fellow female classmates, “The pressures women face mean you have to work twice as hard — and you can’t let anything or anyone stand in your way.”) If “Fight Song” had existed back then, Tracy would have been blasting it.

Jim, played by Tony-winner and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off icon Matthew Broderick, is a husband who’s begrudgingly trying to have a baby with his wife, although they fear they may have waited too long. But at school, he’s a star, often winning “Teacher of the Year” awards and throwing himself into his work, volunteering for extracurricular activities and advising the student government. “The students knew it wasn’t just a job for me,” he tells us. “I got involved. And I cared. And I think I made a difference. I knew I touched the students’ lives during their difficult young-adult years.” Like Tracy, he sees himself as basically a decent, selfless person trying to do some good in the world.

In theory, these people ought to be pulling in the same direction — and, indeed, if she becomes president, they’ll be working together a lot. But Election’s sparks are kindled by an unspoken animosity between them that will eventually be very pointedly spoken. Their friction is, at first, the byproduct of a terrible revelation: Jim’s best friend Dave, another Carver teacher, had a sexual affair with Tracy, leading to his firing. Jim knows unequivocally that what Dave did was abhorrent — he’s shocked by what his friend did — and yet there’s … something … about Tracy that makes him not want her to get what she wants, which is student body president. And so he talks an amiable, popular, not-very-bright football player, Paul (Chris Klein), into running against her.

Because Election never says explicitly what drives Jim to sabotage Tracy’s chances of winning, I was curious if Payne could share his thought process about Jim’s motivations. Was it out of loyalty to Dave? Or was it something else? “Has nothing to do with loyalty to his friends, but he certainly knows the skeletons in her closet,” Payne replies. “The answer has something to do with resenting her — and what she represents — on many levels.”

That animosity feels entirely connected to certain types of resentment we see play out online a lot. Maybe it’s middle-aged white guys who are resentful of a changing world. Maybe it’s older people being resentful of a new generation emerging to replace them. Or maybe it’s disenfranchised men resentful of go-getting women who “don’t know their place.” Whatever the reason, these possible explanations fuel Jim’s desire to punish Tracy. Along the way, a seemingly good guy becomes a monster.

Or does he have a legitimate beef with Tracy? In Perrotta’s novel, Tracy wasn’t the same young woman we see Witherspoon play. “Tracy’s a very different character in the book,” the author admitted in 2017. “She’s much more sexual and sexually confident, and she wears sexy clothes, unlike Tracy in the movie, who wears these schoolgirl skirts and turtlenecks.” When I asked Payne how he and Taylor approached the character, he explains, “We envisioned Tracy a lot like Perrotta had in the novel, although we desexualized her quite a bit. Perrotta’s Tracy was more of a hottie, but Jim and I thought her sexuality would be more interesting in a movie if you didn’t see it so readily on the surface. Indeed, we show her pretty much victimized by the offending teacher rather than taking the lead.”

In the film, Tracy isn’t overtly traumatized by her sexual relationship with Dave, and if anything, her resilience only makes her stranger and more distasteful to Jim. Other students look up to good ol’ Mr. M or need his help — Tracy alone is so self-possessed and mature that she isn’t wowed by his slightly patronizing paternal way around her classmates. In fact, she pities him. “I feel sorry for Mr. McAllister,” she says during one voiceover. “I mean, anyone who’s stuck in the same little room, wearing the same stupid clothes, saying the same exact things year after year for his whole life, while his students go on to good colleges and move to big cities and do great things and make loads of money, he’s gotta be at least a little jealous.”

Whether or not Jim is in fact jealous of her, she carries herself as if he should be. But as opposed to the sexually confident teenager in the book, Witherspoon’s Tracy is the type of young woman that’s maybe even harder for men to confront: an unashamedly assertive and ambitious striver. She doesn’t much care what Mr. M thinks of her — in Tracy’s eyes, he’s just a thing in the way.

In that same 2017 interview, Perrotta owned up to his own shifting feelings about empowered women, which inspired his conception of Tracy. “I was writing about my own generation of women,” he said. “I went to a working-class high school, and then I went to Yale, and I met all these women who had been empowered in a way that a lot of the girls I had grown up with hadn’t been. They felt that the world was wide open for them. They were powerful figures, and I was both fascinated by them and a little intimidated. And then I went and I taught at Yale and Harvard for 10 years after that. I was just teaching freshman comp but meeting all these powerful young women, and I did have this feeling of, this is something new. I didn’t know that these sort of superwomen existed. They were scary to a lot of men, I think, and at least I think I put my finger on that sort of ambivalence that came from encountering these women.”

Even if the Tracy of the film isn’t so outwardly sexual, Payne lets her sexuality serve as a kind of nuclear radiation underlining Jim’s motives. The first thing that Dave says in Election is about his supposed beloved Tracy: “Her pussy gets so wet, you can’t believe it.” And when Jim tries to get his wife pregnant — their marriage passionless — he flashes to Dave’s wife to get him horny before suddenly and accidentally then flipping to Tracy, which both repulses him and triggers some powerful hate-fucking. As we learn, Jim has a secret porn stash in his basement, where he goes to watch a buxom young blonde actress, the very opposite of his bored, middle-aged brunette wife. In fact, the porn star looks a little like Tracy, and whether because of anger, jealousy or buried attraction, Jim seems to want Tracy to lose so that the two of them won’t be working together so intimately.

In the 20 years since Election’s big-screen debut, Tracy has become a bellwether for strong, independent women. (Amy Poehler’s Parks and Recreation character Leslie Knope feels like a later incarnation of the same sort of proudly ambitious careerist.) But this type still has a bit of a stigma to it. Especially during the 2016 presidential campaign, it was hard not to think of Tracy whenever Hillary Clinton delivered her point-laden, unsmiling speeches. Like the Witherspoon character, Clinton wasn’t so much worried about superficial concerns as “being charming”: What mattered was that she demonstrated that she had the skill, tenacity and seriousness for the job. In Election, Tracy is eminently worthy of the presidency but is a pretty terrible candidate. Her speech at the school assembly is a bore. She’s not exactly blessed with the common touch. These were some of the same deficiencies Clinton faced in 2016: She wasn’t a stirring orator, and she often felt uncomfortable on the stump. And perhaps even worse, Clinton would be asked about her kinship to Tracy, a presumably unflattering comparison to a character who, despite her many positive attributes, can also be insufferable and entitled.

Understandably, female commentators took notice, and were not amused. Writing in The Atlantic in June 2016, Megan Garber articulated this frustration succinctly:

“[D]espite all the accomplished women who have occupied Hollywood’s various West Wings, it’s Tracy Flick, the manic pixie scheme girl — the perfectionist, the know-it-all, the girl whose hand was perma-raised — who has persevered as a metaphor. It’s Tracy Flick — not Elizabeth McCord or Mackenzie Allen or Selina Meyer, but Tracy Flick, whose ambition makes her a menace — whom Hillary Clinton is (still!) asked about. And that’s likely because of things that have, in the end, very little to do with who Clinton is and much more to do with the work she has been engaged in this year. Election is unique, and uniquely resonant, because of the premise its title suggests: It depicts a woman who is not just passively occupying political office, but actively striving for it.”

Without being fully conscious of it, Jim speaks to men’s discomfort with a female striver. “I’d seen a lot of ambitious students come and go over the years,” he says early in Election, “but Tracy Flick, she was a special case.” His voice isn’t particularly warm when he says it, his register residing somewhere between pity, contempt and eye-rolling dismissal. But the truth is, no one in Election is particularly fond of Tracy. Paul’s closeted and hopelessly misanthropic sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) refers to the shiny, driven Tracy as a “cunt” (in a prayer to God, no less), while Carver’s male-dominated school hierarchy mostly seems to tolerate her. Dave correctly surmises that she’s basically friendless, one of the reasons why it’s relatively easy for him to forge an inappropriate connection with her. Put bluntly, she’s an unpopular nerd who has devoted her every waking moment to becoming a success. Many boys do that, too, often to be lauded for their genius or ambition in adulthood. But for Tracy, well, she’s a “special case.”

Both in the movie and IRL, there are plenty of reasons to be sympathetic toward Tracy in this particular faceoff. But what about Jim? If he becomes Election’s monster, was he always a bad person? Or did this story reveal his “true” terrible nature that had been lurking there all along?

I mention to Payne that Election established a type of protagonist he’d dissect in subsequent films, that of the defeated, aging white male. Often, these characters are treated both comically and compassionately. So what appealed to Payne about Jim? “As products of the American middle class ourselves — Jim [Taylor] in Seattle, I in Omaha — I think we relate a lot to guys like that,” Payne responded, “and in [our] films … that figure perhaps became our comic archetype. I certainly had some Jim McAllisters as teachers — everyone has.”

As Tracy has become a thorny cultural fixture — either a symbol of empowered women or endemic of umpteen uppity pains in the ass, depending on which Reddit thread you frequent — Jim remains a less-studied figure. He’s just as important to Election’s narrative as Tracy is, but the character hasn’t been as embraced and analyzed as profoundly as his teen nemesis. The grim explanation for that very well may be that the Jims of the world aren’t so novel because they still run everything.

Writing in The Cut about six weeks before the 2016 election, journalist Maureen O’Connor noted that the animating animus behind Jim’s actions is evident throughout society, with despairing consequences:

To be clear, Election is still a sharp and entertaining movie, and Mr. McAllister was clearly designed as a pathetic anti-hero whose fragile masculinity was a source of humor. But I can’t shake the feeling that, in an era of alt-right toxicity and Gamergate attacks, McAllister’s entertainment value has changed. In the late 1990s, his powerless frustrations were funny and a little bit sad. But today, when groups of strangers routinely channel their malevolence into coordinated attacks on random women whose so-called crimes are roughly the same as Tracy’s — annoying others simply by existing and striving and refusing to back down from their goals — the whole affair is much darker. McAllister is no longer a powerless twerp with benignly misogynist impulses — he’s a precursor to the type of hatred that would one day drive chanting crowds and respected officials to call for the imprisonment (or even execution) of Hillary Clinton. As is also the case with Donald Trump, that which seemed laughable a few years ago is now alarmingly, gruesomely real.

Is that a stretch? Maybe. C’mon, Jim isn’t that bad, is he? Sure, he tried to rig a student election, had an affair with his best friend’s wife and threw a milkshake at a car containing Tracy near the end of Election. But at least he’s not an alt-right misogynist. Right?

It’s one of Election’s slyest tricks that, although Jim does a lot of bad things, we tend to regard him more as harmlessly appalling than truly terrible. And much of that has to do with Broderick, who’s such a supremely likable onscreen presence that we’re almost compelled to feel sorry for Jim. “He just had the right qualities, the ones I had wanted in the first place, and he was game for anything,” Payne says when I asked what made him cast Broderick. “The studio had actually forced me to approach Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise first, but I was fairly sure they would pass, and they did. Plus, he’s lovely to work with, shares a large degree of Jim [Taylor] and my sense of humor, and gave, I thought, a very convincing performance — realistic but comic.”

Broderick set a template for the sorts of male actors who would populate Payne’s films. Jack Nicholson, Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, George Clooney, Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Matt Damon: They’re all portraying men who are sad and searching, cut adrift from what they know and forced to acclimate to unfamiliar, even hostile circumstances. Like Jim, these characters are all exceptionally average white guys. They mean no harm, but they’re also not aware of much outside their own bubble. In Payne’s movies, sometimes these men become aware and change. But in baseball terms, they all start life basically at second base, maybe even third. Payne invests in their disillusionment, confusion and fears of mortality — he evokes our sympathy expertly — but he also knows that they can’t stay the way they are.

When Election came out, Broderick got top billing — he was the much-bigger name at the time — and even the film’s contours lead us to think of Jim as the main character. Jim is older than Tracy. Jim sees Tracy as a nemesis, which to his mind makes him the story’s hero. And Election is told more from his perspective than hers. The movie is, in essence, a representation of the white male patriarchy, where Tracy becomes the irritant that must be defeated. Broderick is “likable” in the movie, even if Jim is pathetic, while Witherspoon is “comedic” playing this “extreme” character. We talk about the two actors and their roles differently because we think about these types of people differently in our society.

Not that Payne allows our sympathies to be so simple. We don’t know much about Jim’s backstory, but he seems like someone who’s basically a decent person — well, until the movie happens, of course. But Election is wise about how we look down at teachers, degrading them as walking failures who obviously couldn’t do anything more impressive with their lives. (I remember seeing the movie in 1999 with a friend who was just starting her teaching career. She hated how Election painted the world of educators, no matter how much I tried to insist that the film was commenting on the societal assumptions, not on actual teachers — but my friend wasn’t having it.) Lord knows Tracy has zero respect for Mr. M, who is unnerved by how unimpressed she is by his nice-guy, salt-of-the-earth demeanor. It’s clear she’s in his head: Throughout Election, Jim constantly tries to pump himself up in his voiceover by sounding more positive about what’s happening in his life than reality would suggest. If Tracy is unpopular, Jim is fighting off the sneaking suspicion that he’s a loser. He’s worked hard his whole life, he’s followed the rules, he’s been a good person … and yet, nothing has exactly played out as he would have liked. He’s childless, he’s bored with his marriage and this annoying girl at school makes him feel bad about himself. How is that fair?

Election’s combatants are obsessed with this idea that life ought to be fair — that no injustice should go unpunished. Tracy sees herself as a shining star — “I’ve come to accept that very few people are truly destined to be special,” she says near the end, “and we’re solo fliers” — and she’s infuriated that she’s being held back by a vindictive teacher who’s trying to stick up for his lecherous friend. Jim sees himself as a model educator who ought to be celebrated, and yet deep in his bones he knows Tracy will soon surpass him by having a successful life. When Jim decides to rig the election results so that Paul will defeat Tracy, he does it partly because he sees her prematurely celebrating in the hallway after spying on the results. But it’s also because he resents what she represents: a bright future that has no need for him.

“Who knew how high she would climb in life?” he says in that moment through voiceover. “How many people would suffer because of her? I had to stop her… now.”

And so, Jim flouts the rules in order to teach her a lesson, to put her in her place. But it doesn’t work — instead, it scuttles his career and makes him infamous for trying to sabotage a teenager running for class president. Yet, Jim felt justified in his action. Maybe there is such a thing as destiny, but the Jim McAllisters of the world don’t want to feel that their role is to be the passive, bland onlookers to other people’s greatness. Maybe Tracy is ambitious and empowered. Maybe she’s a charmless brat. Maybe Jim is a privileged jerk. Maybe he’s a decent guy who’s tired of feeling unappreciated. Who’s to say?

The resentments and buried anxieties swirling through Election are what power so much of our internet discourse. We want to be respected, yet we feel like the aggrieved party when someone else gets acknowledgment, furious that it’s not us. We’re either fighting to change things or fighting to keep things exactly as they’ve always been — or, more accurately, sometimes we’re in one camp and other times we’re in the other. (When I ask Payne if he finds himself siding more with one or the other character after all this time, his answer was straightforward: “No, I like them all.”) Tracy represents youth, the future, the potential of everyone who’s not a white, straight, cis man out there in the world. Jim represents tradition, the establishment, the status quo, the play-by-the-rules type, the decent everyday fella, the people who don’t want to be left behind through no fault of their own.

There ought to be room for both of them in our society. But as Election still proves after 20 years, there’s not even enough room for both of them at Carver High.