Is Mr. Smith in the Tea Party?
Now that college football season is over, Tito is going to make me write real posts again.
There was an interesting post a few days back from Stanley Fish comparing Palin’s vision of American to Frank Capra’s, particularly as embodied in his classic film (and my favorite movie) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The movie *spoiler alert* involves an young idealistic Boy Scout leader who is nominated to the Senate because the powers that be, including a sitting Senator and a large businessman, believe he can be easily manipulated to serve their interests. Mr. Smith stumbles into the corruption and attempts to expose him. His enemies mount a successful smear campaign for them, causing Mr. Smith to have to filibuster both to save his seat in the Senate and to expose the corruption. This is where Fish (who also mentions some other Capra works) comes in:
In each of these films the forces of statism, corporatism and mercantilism are routed by the spontaneous uprising of ordinary men who defeat the sophisticated machinations of their opponents by declaring, living and fighting for a simple basic creed of individualism, self-help, independence and freedom.
Does that sound familiar? It should. It describes what we have come to know as the Tea Party, which famously has no leaders, no organization, no official platform, no funds from the public trough. Although she only mentions the Tea Party briefly in her book, Palin is busily elaborating its principles, first in the lengthy discussion of Capra’s Jefferson Smith and then, at the end of the same chapter, in an equally lengthy discussion of Martin Luther King. These two men (one fictional, one real) are brought together when Palin says that King’s dream of an America that lived out “the true meaning of its creed” would be, if it were realized, “the fulfillment of America’s exceptional destiny.” A belief in that destiny and that exceptionalism is, she concludes, “a belief Senator Jefferson Smith would have agreed with.” (In the spirit of full disclosure, I myself became a believer in American exceptionalism the first time I visited Europe, in 1966.)
Exceptionalism can mean either that America is different in some important respect or that, in its difference, America is superior. Palin clearly means the latter:
I think however that the idea which Fish ascribes to Palin, namely that Mr. Smith stands for a lot of ideas of the tea party, is wrong.
It’s undeniable that the movie has lots of “Capra-corn” with many moving pictures of monuments and a speech praising the ideals of America. However, the entire point of the movie is that Smith runs into a government that is not properly functioning. As opposed to many visions of America which have democracy as a magic pill to justice, Mr. Smith recognizes that in fact the system is incredibly corrupt. The entire state (never named in the film) is run by a businessman; this corruption is ignored by the Senate who is perfectly willing to send Mr. Smith out of town in disgrace with scant evidence. When Smith begins his filibuster, efforts by both the press and the people are smashed. The press bows down to the money and prints whatever Taylor (the businessman) tells them, and the people trying to support Smith are knocked out of the street by firefighters and trucks. In the end, Senator Paine (Smith’s adversary) is able to produce 50,000 letters from the state asking Smith to resign.
In short, all of the American ideals of freedom fail to procure justice. The speeches about American ideals, the reading from the Constitution and the Declaration have not swayed. The graft will go through, and Smith will still be ousted. Smith is left defeated and even Saunders, his love interest, screams from the balconies for him to stop. At which point we get a great speech in movie history
What is particular about this speech however is not that it’s not particularly American; it’s Christian. At the end, Smith uses the Christian ideal of “love they neighbor.” And it is that ideal that ultimately saves Smith.
This is true for most of Capra’s movies. George Bailey is saved by an angel’s intercession and returns only when he prays for life. John Doe is saved from suicide when he is told about the real John Doe, Christ. All three movies involve men who ran into incredibly corrupt governments ran by businessmen; all three are saved by Christian ideals.
Now, I would be stretching Capra’s movies a little too far if I argued that this showed that Capra was anti-American. But it is clear that Capra thinks the success of the American project requires a centrality of Christianity. He is under no delusion that the American machinations of the Constitution provide virtue; virtue is encouraged and secured only through the grace of Christianity. His vision of America requires Christianity.
This is why I think the comparisons between Smith & the Tea Party are not accurate. The Tea Party has made great pains to keep social issues and Christianity out in order to make a broader base. The Tea Party emphasizes American ideals alone to provide salvation for the country’s problems. Even putting aside the fact that Capra is clearly no economic conservative (all the bad guys are businessmen and George Bailey’s Building and Loan would make most Tea Partiers weep), Capra would not have left the social issues or Christian issues to the side the way the Tea Party has.
If Capra is an American exceptionalist, he is only because he believes that America allows Christian ideas to flourish. The Constitution alone cannot provide justice; instead in order to make those rules work you need common sense and a little looking out for the other guy too. Capra believed America needs Christianity if it wants to achieve an “exceptional destiny.” Otherwise, it is just another corrupt and bankrupt society.