While a sign of robust democracy has always been the freedom of the press and freedom of speech, there can be moments where this freedom contributes to democratic backsliding. Democratic backsliding is otherwise known as a slow deterioration of democratic principles like fair elections or trust in government institutions.
Mainstream programming like Saturday Night Live, Who is America, and Borat portray political leaders as incompetent through their satirical, comedic broadcasting. This can be viewed in two ways: a true expression of freedom, or a dangerous demonstration of the current polarization in America. When popular media sources continuously ridicule political leaders, there can be an unintended consequence of polarizing the American public. Despite this, I argue that the release of the second Borat film shows that while backsliding can be a concern of political satire, American democracy still remains strong.
The depiction of politicians in the mainstream media represents the wedge between parties in the United States. A sign of democratic backsliding goes beyond partisanship– it occurs when an us versus them mentality takes over. What keeps partisanship from becoming dangerous is the idea of mutual toleration, which refers to the respect that each party has for the other despite ideological differences.
The current media interpretations of the opposite party are counterproductive to building mutual toleration. Take for example the latest Borat movie, named Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm in which prominent politician and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani encounters a fake interview in which it appears he takes an offer to be intimate with the interviewer. He enters a bedroom with a young girl, and the rest is up to interpretation and debate. The consequences of Giuliani’s depiction as so gullible, and frankly, perverted, could be seen as a tool of polarization and delegitimization of the Republican party.
The mutual toleration of the different political parties relies on each party seeing each other as respectable and capable of rule, regardless as to whether or not they agree with each other’s ideologies. Borat leaves little to be respected of Giuliani, despite his claims that he was set up and that he was not unbuttoning his pants or making any type of sexual advances. In this sense, it could be seen as damaging to the legitimacy of democratic trust in our leaders to portray political leaders in satirical or comedic ways that detriment mutual toleration.
While there are reasons to question whether or not freedom of speech contributes to democratic backsliding at the expense of public trust in political officials, it should also be noted that satire can relay important information. In Borat, Sascha Baron Cohen goes to live with Q-Anon conspirators, and hears them describe Democrats as “demons”. Exposing the truth of the political landscape through the media helps expose the true nature of the public will in a way public opinion polls could never do. Allowing this freedom of expression makes political opinions accessible to the general public, and can show fallacies in reasoning in a more approachable way than an academic context.
In Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm the scenes with Rudy Giuliani could be interpreted as inflammatory and slander to those who do not believe he was looking for a sexual relationship with the young girl interviewing him. Sascha Baron Cohen, actor and producer of both films in the series, comments that the movie was put out before the election as “… a reminder to women of who they’re voting for — or who they’re not voting for”. Cohen admits to using his platform to express his disdain for the political leadership prior to the 2020 presidential election. Media in this way can be used to demonstrate freedom of speech and association, and without this creative freedom, Cohen may not be able to express his true thoughts.
Borat should be seen as more than a ridiculous movie with quirky characters who have no idea about America. Borat actually shows an America that many are unwilling to see; an America that without self-criticism could be susceptible to democratic backsliding. While some may label this movie as libel or slander, satire in the media should not be ignored as a form of effective expression. With the heaviness of modern-day politics, a comedic demonstration of political realities may be the most productive way to inform the public about politicians and widely shared opinions.