Dec 23, 2014

It's a political life

In a final scene of the 1946 Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey opens a Christmas present from his guardian angel. It's a copy of Tom Sawyer with the inscription, "Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends."

What are the politics of that sentiment?

Two friends debate the political leanings of It's a Wonderful Life at the group blog Mere Orthodoxy. Chris Schaefer argues that the movie is not as conservative as conservatives think it is. The movie is liberal-ish in its critique of capitalism and in its New Deal-era values, even if it's not explicitly politically left.

In the movie, for example, being moral means being bad at business.

Schaefer writes:
George improves the lives of his customers AND that he has a successful business full of entrepreneurial spirit. Is that really what is happening? As far as we know, his for-profit company never makes a profit, and his community spirit interferes with his entrepreneurial spirit at every turn. Think of his comment to the bank-examiner that 'between us, we're broke' or when the real estate agent points out to Potter that the Baileys 'don't make a dime' off of the houses they build. The Bailey Building and Loan isn't a successful business full of entrepreneurial vim; it's a community service center subsidizing people trying to live above their means.
For 1940s audiences, the rhetoric of the villain Mr. Potter would have been heard as an echo of Republicans' opposition to the New Deal, Schaefer argues. The central concern about bank runs, on the other hand, would have aligned George Bailey with the politics of Franklin D. Roosevelt. As evidence for his historical argument, Schaefer cites an FBI memo concerned the film's writers were closet Communists agitating class war.

"It wasn't for no reason the FBI suspected the movie had strong potential to influence people in anti-capitalist ways," Schaefer writes.

Keith Miller, taking the conservative side of the argument, claims this critique mischaracterizes conservatism. Conservatives -- besides a small faction that makes up the "greed is good" crowd -- don't really object to people helping people; they object to government intervention into communities. It isn't the valorization of markets and market logic as much as it's appreciation for individuals and communities that is the heart of this political position.

"The film encapsulates a lot of my small government, pro-family political philosophy," Miller writes.
When I see the Bailey Building & Loan helping folks escape the slums, I see a for-profit company improving the lives of its customers. When I see George foregoing his honeymoon and keeping the Building & Loan afloat through the bank run, I see the entrepreneurial genius benefiting everyone around him. When I see George providing private charity to Violet (or even the otherwise unemployable Uncle Billy), I see a demonstration of how a freer market with less of a public safety net would actually work.
Did the Bailey business make a profit? The film would seem to leave that open to interpretation, and Miller and Schaefer's interpretations differ.

They also interestingly see completely opposite lessons from the run on the bank that's so pivotal to the film's plot: Schaefer sees it as evidence of what government can do. The otherwise precarious existence of a way of life can be underwritten by government, in this case through the Banking Act of 1933, which created the FDIC, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Miller watches that scene and takes away the opposite lesson: "Who needs Fannie Mae, the FDIC, or even Social Security when you've got George Bailey?"

Such are the ambiguities of art.

There are key moments in the film that can be read as leftist, if not left, and the film also holds up some very conservative ideals. One's position on the politics of It's a Wonderful Life likely depends, too, on one's working definition of conservative and liberal, and how the possible political spectrum gets articulated.

Miller is too slippery with his definition of conservatism. Actually existing conservatism is not really a movement of "Baileys not Potters," as Miller would have it. It's rather a movement of Baileys and Potters. At least since Ronald Reagan was the public spokesman for General Electric, American conservatism has argued that corporate giants and "the little guy" are on the same side, and that what's good for business is good for individuals and their communities.

It's plausible to read Bailey as a conservative; it's implausible to read Potter as not a conservative.

Schaefer's argument about the historical politics of the film, on the other hand, is not as strong as he might think. The director, Frank Capra, was staunchly anti-Roosevelt and anti-New Deal. Somewhere in that same FBI file with the memo from an informant expressing concern about the leftist persuasion of It's a Wonderful Life are apparently other memos where Capra himself is the informant, reporting to the FBI about suspected Communist activity. Capra was an immigrant who believed you could pull yourself up by the bootstraps. In a 1981 interview, he even dismissed the New Deal, saying the real story of how American survived the Great Depression was "the people" and how "they never quite lost the faith." If his films are read through his politics, one can see stories that work to turn the sentiments of New Deal-era populism and American folk culture into bonafide anti-government conservatism.

To paraphrase Schaefer, it is not for no reason that conservatives like Capra movies.

And yet it's also not for no reason that many viewers have seen democratic and Democratic values in It's a Wonderful Life over the years.

The film, it would seem, resists any easy political appropriation. Even in an era when it can seem that everything is and has to be left of right, red or blue, liberal or conservative, some sentiments are hard to polarize. When the film's goofy angel inscribes his gift to George Bailey with the platitude about true success in life being friends, it's not apolitical, but it's not exactly political either.