Depending on whom you ask, Michael Moore’s latest documentary either “shows off his kinder, gentler side” or shows that he is “angrier than ever.” Headlines have alternately described “Where to Invade Next,” released in theaters nationwide last week, as “lighthearted and optimistic,” “radical,” Moore’s “funniest film in years” and his “most subversive.” It is, in other words, Moore at his best.
But the film is a departure from Moore’s previous work for one major reason: Instead of pointing his camera at problems in the United States, in “Where to Invade Next,” Moore embarks on an international search for policies that might help Americans live better. Throughout the film, Moore personally “invades” foreign countries to learn about their ideas, many of which actually originated in the United States, and reclaim them for the American people. The result is both an entertaining romp and a powerful demonstration of what can be achieved by thinking outside the box — or, in this case, our borders. Many American viewers will be startled by the policies that Moore encounters on his journey, including free college tuition in Slovenia, generous paid vacation time in Italy, and state-sponsored reproductive health services in Tunisia.
And that’s precisely the point. Even though the entire film was shot abroad, “Where to Invade Next” is ultimately a commentary on inequality in the United States, where basic economic rights that are taken for granted elsewhere are increasingly out of reach for much of the country. Accordingly, the film is perfectly timed for the moment, in which the devastating impact of deeply entrenched inequality is on full display in Flint, Mich., and elsewhere. And it’s especially relevant to the 2016 election as millions of Americans, largely due to the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), are coming around to the idea that the kind of progressive policies Moore highlights can and should be part of their lives.
Indeed, it is an unhappy coincidence that “Where to Invade Next” was released amid the ongoing crisis in Flint, Moore’s home town, where a corrupt and captured government’s futile cost-cutting efforts tragically poisoned the city’s water supply with toxic lead. Of course, Moore put Flint’s widening inequality problem in stark relief with his breakthrough 1989 film “Roger & Me,” so it should come as no surprise that he has been among the most vocal critics of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s disastrous handling of the water crisis. In a Time magazine column, for example, Moore described the poisoning of Flint’s mostly black residents as a “racial crime,” and he has publicly called for Snyder’s arrest.
But while Flint may have been “forgotten,” as Moore recently said, the city’s residents are far from alone. In cities and towns across the country, rising inequality is taking a heavy toll and fueling the decline of the middle class. As the Pew Research Center reported in December, the middle class is shrinking both as a percentage of the population and in terms of the nation’s overall wealth, more and more of which is being accumulated by those at the top of the economic ladder.
As a result, a growing number of Americans believe that the economy is rigged against their interests, and that belief is shaping the 2016 presidential campaign. Exit polling from the New Hampshire primary found that Democratic voters ranked income inequality as their top concern, making it plain to see why Sanders won in a rout. Meanwhile, the disturbing rise of Republican demagogue Donald Trump is largely a consequence of white, middle-class angst and anger.
Beyond voters’ visceral response to inequality, there is also the metastasizing problem of inequality in our elections themselves. Six years after the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United, the role of money in politics continues to expand. The 2016 election is projected to feature record spending totals, much of it coming from super PACs and “dark money” groups funded by billionaire donors. The Koch brothers and their political network, for example, plan to spend $750 million on the election — which is actually less than their original estimate of nearly $900 million. This flood of spending threatens to drown out the voices of regular citizens, and, in many places, it has already threatened their right to vote. Twenty-one states have enacted voter-ID requirements or other restrictive voting laws since 2010, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, and “16 states will have new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election” this year. (In the wake of Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death, the election-year battle over his replacement may very well become a referendum on the court’s ruling in Citizens United, as well as its partisan dismantling of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder.)
Yet, while this is in many ways a perilous moment for the nation, there are some promising signs for our fragile democracy. As a coalition of reform groups shows in a new report titled “Our Voices, Our Democracy,” the American people are speaking out and “demanding a government that is truly by the people, where every voice is heard and every vote counts.” In November, for example, voters in Maine and Seattle overwhelmingly approved ballot initiatives to make their elections more democratic through public financing systems. The momentum for action to fight inequality of all kinds can also be seen in President Obama’s call last week for automatic voter registration, in movements such as Black Lives Matter and Moral Mondays, and in the fact that the next primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Sanders will take place in the forgotten city of Flint.
In a 2014 speech, Moore commented that “humor can be used in a devastating fashion to shake people out of their seats and do something.” The headlines are right: “Where to Invade Next” is funny and angry and optimistic and radical. Go see it, get up and do something.