To kick it off, though, movies: Preston Sturges movies. No "Mr. Smith" fairy tales for Preston Sturges, and no conspiracy theories, either. Sturges wrote and directed movies that made great fun out of social status (The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story) and many of them are set in or around politics (including Hail the Conquering Hero, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and Sullivan's Travels). Sturges can be brutal in taking pols down a peg, but there is no uncorruptable hero on a white horse to save the day. Instead, politics remains a worthwhile profession and a worthwhile and necessary task even though the people involved are petty, self-interested, and phony as often as not.
The key Sturges movie for me is The Great McGinty (1940). As a movie, it's clearly the work of someone learning his craft. His stars here, Brian Donlevy and Muriel Angelus, aren't exactly the most enthralling, although Sturges has already begun gathering the great character actors he worked with in several pictures (Donlevy's other great role, at least to my knowledge, was just a year earlier as the sadistic Sgt. Markoff in Beau Geste).
But as a political movie, it's great. I've used this movie several times in teaching the ethics of being a politician, and although sometimes students simply see McGinty and Akim Tamiroff's Boss as unambiguous corrupt bad guys, most wind up agreeing with me that there's a lot of uncertainty here. William Demerest's character sums it up:
If it wasn't for graft, you'd get a very low type of people in politics, men without ambition, jellyfish!It's played for laughs, and gets them -- but he and the rest of the gang are also making the same case made by Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, that self-interested politicians make democracy work for ordinary citizens. And that is an argument far too rarely heard in American political culture.
I highly recommend all of the movies mentioned in this post, but I think the one that'll tell you the most about American democracy is The Great McGinty.