If you were growing up in the 70’s or 80’s, you might remember the ABC After-School Specials that were shown a couple of times each month. These mini-movies addressed issues relevant to kids and teens–some were rather corny, but others pretty hard-hitting for the day. An example of the latter was called “The Wave”, and it aired in 1981. It was based on a real-life experiment that was done at a California high school back in 1967.
High school teacher Ben Ross is teaching his students about the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. After watching some old films showing the victims of Hitler’s Holocaust, the students ask him how the German people could have fallen for such a leader. They wonder how they couldn’t see what was going on in their own country.
With no real answer to give them, Ross decides to try similar leadership tactics in his classroom as Hitler used on Germany. He begins to use a similar cadence in his speech. He says they will call their new movement “The Wave”. He speaks to them of “Strength through discipline. Strength through community. Strength through action.” He insists they stand and sit at their desks in a stiff posture…and he is amazed to find the students doing it on their own, day after day. He even marvels at the whole experiment in a conversation with his wife. When she asks him how far he thinks he can go with it, he tells her, “I don’t know. But I intend to find out.”
Within two short weeks, the whole school is caught up in The Wave, with very few exceptions. One boy in particular— Bobby, the class loner, bullied by all—is finally a part of the group. He’s now finally a leader.
On the other hand, Lori, the girl who once was the leader of her peers, finds herself an outcast when this new movement sweeping the school starts to bother her. She takes to the school paper and begins writing articles against it, promoting the idea of individuality and thinking for oneself. She finds herself the target of harassment, threats, and is nearly physically assaulted by her own boyfriend. After nearly hitting her, he comes to his senses and they decide they have to try to do something about The Wave.
This little after-school special from 35 years ago tells us all we need to know about the potential dangers of populism in less than an hour. Of falling for slogans and cheap one-liners from those who wish to lead us without digging deeper to find out what it is this person is really about. Of following anyone who says what they’ve been wanting someone to say for years…of allowing anger and frustration to cloud judgment, even to the point of abandoning your own core principles and individuality.
That boy Bobby is like lots of Americans who are sick and tired of no one in Washington listening to them. They feel bullied and kicked around by the people who are supposed to serve them. They are easy prey for anyone who comes along and makes them believe, “I’ve got your back.”—when really, they couldn’t care less. It was Bobby who was the most devastated to find out that The Wave was really just an experiment…there was nothing real about it. And he was just a lonely outsider once again.
Such is the way of many populist movements. The Little Guy will still be the one left out in the end. If you disagree, think back to the woman who, back in Election 2008 became known as “Peggy the Mooch”. Peggy Joseph was the one who gushed at an Obama campaign rally. “I won’t have to worry about putting gas in my car; I won’t have to worry about paying my mortgage…if I help him, he’s gonna help me.” When documentary filmmaker Joel Gilbert interviewed Joseph for his film,“There’s No Place Like Utopia” in 2014, she had realized she’d been duped. No longer an Obama supporter, Joseph told him, “He lied about everything.”
I feel compassion for that woman, just as I felt compassion for her fictional counterpart Bobby…for all of the Bobbys and Peggys out there who, time and again, keep looking for leadership in all the wrong places. Even Jesus came upon these types of people—He called them “harassed and helpless”.
In this election, both the Democrats and Republicans have a candidate that many in the media are calling “populists”. Or possibly “faux populists” as National Review refers to them. One promises the debt-laden millennials a free ride for life; the other says all the things his supporters want to hear, but has no detailed plans on how to make them happen…or how we’ll pay for all of it. No one cares. They just want change.
That sounds eerily familiar. “The Wave” is worth watching because it’s very timely. Even compared to other after-school specials of the day, it was exceptional and won many awards, including an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program. Without giving too much away (in case you decide to watch it in full on You Tube), teacher Ben Ross shocks and grieves his students when he reveals truth to them, asking, “What causes people to deny their own history?”
What’s more, he warns them against blindly following a leader: “You accepted the group’s will over your own convictions, no matter who you hurt. Oh, you thought you were just going along for the ride- that you could walk away at any moment, but where were you heading? How far would you have gone?”
America…how far will you go?