Is Mr. Smith in the Tea Party?

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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.

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  1. The only tea-party organization with which I am involved is the First Coast Tea Party (FCTP) in Jacksonville, Florida. I’m a somewhat inactive member. My opinion of the FCTP is that it has unabashedly kept social issues and Christianity in the picture. Just to mention one example, at a FCTP rally on April 15, 2010 at the Jacksonville Landings, Star Parker was the keynote speaker and testified to the saving power of Christ in her life and her use of the Bible for guidance; and she stated her opposition to abortion and the slavery of the nanny state. At least one FCTP leader also referred to her Christian beliefs and the need to put God first, as I recall. And we sang Glory Glory Alleluia!

    PS: If readers haven’t heard of Star Parker, I suggest they go to her website.

  2. Good analysis, although I think it applies to only certain libertarian segments of the tea party movement, and not to the movement as a whole or to some of its most high profile “leaders” (for lack of a better word, as I see the tea party movement as essentially grassroots and somewhat leaderless).

    For example, I doubt very seriously that Palin is interested in divorcing the American experiment from Christian virtue (and, in fact, it is because of her putting her pro-life ideals into action that I believe she is most vilified). Another tea party favorite, Jim Demint, has even expressed on at least two occasions that, without Judeo-Christian virtue, conservatism in general, and the tea party movement, in particular, is unworkable:

  3. Actually there is evidence in the film A Wonderful Life that George Bailey would be prime tea party material:

    He is a sharp business man: Often overlooked is a scene in the film where a rent collector for Potter tells him that Bailey is cutting into Potter’s business by financing the building of low cost houses that are of better quality than what Potter is renting out. The rent collector, played by a wonderful character actor who died just in the past few years, tells Potter that in a few years if this keeps up he will be asking Bailey for a job.

    He recognizes that his father, a wonderful man in many ways, was no business man.

    Potter’s path to development was a dead end with the town literally going to pot. Bailey’s business acumen, sans government involvement except for the nuisance bank regulators, was ensuring a brighter and more prosperous future for everyone.

    Bailey wanted to be an engineer and not tied down: an independent man who would build great structures. Bailey becomes a family man, but he is still creating a great structure: a more prosperous and happier Bedford Falls. He is doing it, no one else, as his absence in the alternate reality shown by the angel Clarence makes clear.

    I will draft a post for tomorrow demonstrating why Senator Jefferson Smith, if he were alive today, would be a leader in the Tea Party Movement.

  4. The difficulty in analyzing the tea party movement is that it is a generic description of a grassroots movement involving disparate individuals. Even the term tea party “leaders” is misleading because it signifies a a rather amorphous group of people. And to go along with what Jay said, most of the tea partiers are indeed socially conservative and make no attempt to divorce social issues from our discussion. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I believe that polls indicate that self-identified tea partiers are even more socially conservative than the GOP in general.

  5. Akismet will sometime get cranky Jay and hold a comment with links for moderation or toss it into the spam file. Only the gremlins of the internet know why. I approved your comment.

    Does Akismet filter out hate speech? Jay did say “Palin”. Hopefully by me putting it in scare quotes it will pass this comment.


  6. …but I believe that polls indicate that self-identified tea partiers are even more socially conservative than the GOP in general.

    I would agree with that. Evidenced by the utter contempt from the left and the left-leaning/establishment type GOP leaders and talking heads.

  7. Jay,

    I think Akismet will filter a post with more than one link. At least that’s been my experience.


    There’s always this:

    “Now that the midterm congressional elections are over and a sizable number of conservatives—including Tea Party members—have won office based on promises to slash federal spending and shrink the government, you might think that economic issues have trumped social-cultural issues in the public mind. You might also think that that the highly charged culture wars that have raged for decades over abortion and same-sex marriage have finally been replaced by battles over government size, effectiveness, and spending.

    Not so fast. While it is true that economic issues top the public agenda—how could they not with unemployment stuck at 9.6 percent—it is also true that every Tea Party candidate, including self-proclaimed libertarians, ran on pro-life platforms.”

    I suspect as others have pointed out, that there is a mix in the Tea Party. But I don’t think it holds that social issues have been cut out.

    BTW. I will be in Baton Rouge for business. Perhaps we can get together for an Abita. What’s your email.

  8. It’s true that pinning the Tea Party on anything is difficult because it is so amorphous. I do think it’s true that members of the Tea Party are more socially conservative than the regular GOP. However, I think the strategy of downplaying the social issues is not one confined to the particularities of this economic crisis. Instead, my understanding has been that it’s more of a Reaganesque Big Tent strategy: although many disagree with us on social issues, more agree with us on economic issues and so let’s hide the social issues part or make it irrelevant to our actual governance or campaigns. I’m thinking particularly of Gov. Mitch Daniels here who seems to view the social or religious issues as nuisances to his real and far more important mission of economic responsibility.

  9. I will politely abstain from commenting about George Bailey.

    It’s been a long time since I saw Mr. Smith. What I remember most about it was the commentary about the influence of the press. The MSM was the mouthpiece of the corrupt political system, and deliberately deceived the people. I think a lot of Tea Partiers would see similarities with today’s reality.

  10. Don’t restrain yourself Pinky. When I read this comment by you about Bailey last December I laughed until I feared I could not stop:

    “Boo hoo, George. My dad never gave me a bank, and if he did I wouldn’t have run it into the ground. Ungrateful jerk. Clarence was lying to you – the world doesn’t revolve around you, George. Your wife could have done better.

    Sorry that slipped out.” 🙂

  11. Don – Nice to be remembered. I’ll say this: George Bailey opted for a nice, private-sector bailout, exemplifying the principle of subsidiarity.

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