Thoughts on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Starring a naive and indignant James Stewart alongside the wisecracking Jean Arthur, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), written by Sidney Buchman and an uncredited Myles Connolly, constructs compelling drama out of institutional procedures and political machinations (literally, the political machine). One would think that it would therefore make great pedagogical material for a civics class or something, especially given how it celebrates Smith’s (Stewart) patriotic idealism, but it goes too far and reveals a seldom mentioned truth of democratic politics: Everything is subjective.

Jefferson Smith is appointed interim senator by virtue of his naivety, but he nonetheless stumbles upon and filibusters a graft dam-building project engineered by his state political bigwig, Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). He’s aided throughout by his cynical yet passionate-at-heart secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Arthur), who has all the best lines despite Smith’s talking filibuster. Smith is the outsider introduced to the new environment, and we get to learn everything along with him, from legislative procedure to Senate rules. And when Taylor pulls out all the stops to fight Smith, we also get to see how a media smear campaign works in a monopoly market.

Along the way, all the institutional rules of the Senate to do with truth and integrity are broken, and we get our first unintentional lesson: Institutions matter only when their members have the decency to follow the rules. Of course, we who live under the Trump administration know all about that. The second unintentional lesson may be a bit more sobering. You see, the smear campaign succeeds, and Smith collapses from exhaustion on the Senate floor thinking that his efforts have failed. Most people still think that Smith is a corrupt fraud, and the good guys carry the day only because Smith’s state’s senior senator and co-conspirator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) can no longer stifle his conscience—again, personal decency wins out. So here is the second uncomfortable lesson: The will of the people is fundamentally manipulable. Democracy is a shouting game. In fact, that’s why senators were originally elected indirectly, to counter the supposed populism of the House of Representatives.

The film is clear on who’s a good guy and who’s a bad. But in life, it’s rarely so clear. If right and wrong are in the eye of the beholder, then what counts as decency and what counts as capitulation is essentially subjective. We’re all adrift in the abyss.

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