The Politician opens with a question: Does doing the right thing matter if it’s not done for the right reason? It’s the question uttered by multiple characters in that first episode, and it follows us throughout the entire first season of the latest embodiment of the minds of Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan, the trio behind Glee and Scream Queens.
There’s no formal answer given to that question — and the exploration will presumably continue with more seasons of the show, expertly set up with the Season 1 finale — but if critical reaction is any indication, the answer is a resounding, ‘Yes, it matters!!!!’
Netflix’s first foray into the Murphy canon introduces Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), the ambitious adopted child of extremely wealthy Santa Barbarans — the unloving Keaton (Bob Balaban) and the extremely loving Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow) — who has inherited his father’s ability to genuinely not care about anything and his mother’s disposition to turn on the necessary charm in the blink of an eye. This seemingly sociopathic way of moving through the world serves Payton well; he is going to be President of the United States, and no obstacles, emotions included, will get in his way.
When he meet Payton, a student at Saint Sebastian, he’s embarking upon the senior year points of his plan: to get into Harvard (the school that has produced the most former presidents) on his own merits (avoiding a potential smear campaign that alleges his money is the only reason he gained admittance), and to become president of his student body, allowing him to enact change on the small-scale that he will later replicate for the entire country.
As such, the school election becomes a microcosm for Payton’s future presidential election, and he’s already got a stellar team supporting him on his rise: Campaign Manager James (Theo Germaine), First Lady Alice (Julia Schlaepfer), and Chief of Staff McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss). Throughout the season, we see their inter-team relationships expand and contract through aggressive disagreements while they make both normal political moves — painstakingly project election data — and abnormal ones — secretly test a sample of his vice presidential candidate Infinity’s (Zoey Deutch) blood to determine if she’s actually sick or a victim of Munchausen by Proxy (again, in order to avoid a potential smear campaign).
The lingering question at this stage is why so many people blindly believe in Payton, to the point where they would do objectively bad things in order to progress his goal, never having proven himself beyond his pure ambition.
But this blind following isn’t without precedent. There’s a prominent figure who follows Payton’s rise fairly closely: Senator Mitch McConnell, who carries the distinction of being simultaneously the most powerful and the least liked person in the Senate.
Like Payton, McConnell’s interest in politics began early. As NPR reported, when he ran for his student government, he employed a solid campaign strategy (getting endorsements from the popular kids). When he ran for public office against a well-liked incumbent, he tirelessly sought to generate dirt on them, then ran them to the ground. He made allies with the union workers, promising to have their back, only to turn on them after he secured their votes. (The anti-union powers offer greater campaign contributions than the unions, so he allegedly flipped the moment he could.) His career has been led by ambition, and now, that ambition for his Republican aims is finally paying off: He has a presidential ally in Trump, and while Trump has been doing whatever Trump does, McConnell has been swiftly passing laws that fit with his agenda, and blocking those that don’t.
The only difference is that McConnell is using his ambition to achieve conservative aims, while Payton, overly concerned with the minority students (the Haitian vote!) and taking a strong stance for gun control, uses his for liberal aims. It’s easy to deride McConnell’s heartless behavior when you don’t believe in his goals; it’s less easy to denounce a candidate’s behavior when they’re buying out the local gun store and donating the deadly devices to art, so that none of them will end up in the wrong hands.
So, why not, instead, back a heartful candidate who wants to make the change they genuinely feel matters, rather than the heartless one who only vows to do that which will benefit his personal goal?
Well, in this fictional political world, there doesn’t seem to be a choice. Payton’s opponent, Astrid (Lucy Boynton), is equally as unfeeling in her attempts to secure the presidency, bringing on board the first Black queer vice presidential candidate Skye (Rahne Jones) just for the distinction and making valiant attempts to discredit Payton’s campaign by leaking a video of Infinity calling a seemingly gay man a “butt munch,” thus evoking a slur. Both sides of the aisle are rabid for power.
There almost was a choice, though. In the first episode, Payton finds out that River (David Corenswet), his overly feeling, incredibly charming Mandarin tutor and the only person who seems to truly believe that Payton can be good, is running against him. River shows the school what it might be like to follow a candidate who cares about the well-being of his classmates, who genuinely wants to listen to them and learn how he can make their lives better.
Seeking this position almost on a whim after a heavy experience made him realize the good he could do for his community in the position, River calls to mind the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar — freshman Congresswomen whose passion to do what they think, hear, and see is right for their constituents is undeniable. Neither seemed to enter politics with some greater political goal in mind; Ocasio-Cortez, a former waitress, and Omar, a former nutrition educator, simply saw things they didn’t like happening in their communities and decided they could help make things better.
Like the real-life representatives, River’s popularity as a candidate saw a sharp spike when he addressed his constituents as his peers in his first (and only) debate against Payton, physically bringing himself down to their level by coming off the stage and sharing his vulnerabilities. Payton’s only saving grace was, sadly, River’s death; if not for his own self-defeat, River surely would have won the election, and all the political conniving would have been naught.
When real people who actually care about making their world better enter the political ring, voters can feel that, and they can choose to follow someone led by ambition, or they can choose to uplift someone with ambition, but led by passion. So, it seems the question we should be asking isn’t if doing the right thing matters if it’s not done for the right reason. The real question is: Do you want it to matter?