The citizen-politician -- Gone the way of the Oldsmobile?
And a staple it has been at our family and probably yours over the holidays for years. I know you know of other movies starring Jimmy Stewart, but what about ones directed by Frank Capra. And even better than that, starring Stewart and directed by Capra.
I knew you knew. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." This classic argues that the average man, decent of heart and pure in his intentions, was the best sort of public servant. It is a logical myth for a democracy to cling to: The Republic's salvation can be found in the people's wisdom.
Tales of ordinary men bravely venturing into the public arena are always tales of naiveté. And they always involve an encounter with corruption. Stewart faced off with a dastardly senator in "Mr. Smith." As with the encounter with the banker in "a Wonderful Life," decency triumphs.
And what of the great democratic myth that high office should be accessible? By the time "Mr. Smith" premiered in 1939, it was already an exercise in nostalgia. More than 10 years earlier Walter Lippmann had observed that mass media and increasingly complex social relations had made any expression of the people's "common will" impossible. By necessity, he argued, government should be a partnership of scientific experts and professional politicians. Only such elites could grasp the issues and make informed decisions, checked by voters who rallied behind one party or another.
Yes, elites can get things wrong, sometimes badly wrong. But most of the time they couldn't possibly do worse than the citizen-innocent. We love to hate "professional politicians," but like it or not, politics is a profession. Even the attributes of the political class that we claim to despise are, more often than not, virtues. We sometimes recoil at Bill Clinton's cool and LBJ's cunning, but how else are competing interests brought to consensus?
Most of the above concerning "Mr. Smith" is from the 8-13-04 wsj by a Noah, "a television producer in Los Angeles." I threw in the "Wonderful Life" stuff. (The article is about the "American Candidate," "an election-season reality show [that] revises the unreal idea that average citizens should rescue politics.")
I still like the idea of the citizen-politician, the idea that the average man or woman, decent of heart and pure in his or her intentions, was the best sort of public servant. I know, I know -- I'm old-fashioned.