It was probably inevitable that someone would appeal to Frank Capra’s classic 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life in the context of our present political situation. The film enjoys iconic status, and its story—featuring the protracted struggle between public-spirited George Bailey and greedy Mr. Potter—resonates with contemporary arguments about the privileged rich and the struggling middle class.
The inevitable became actual in late October, when documentary filmmaker Ken Burns used Capra’s masterwork to explain his support for President Barack Obama. A vote for Obama and the Democrats, Burns argued, was a vote to preserve Bedford Falls, that is, the idealized America in which George Bailey lives, serves his community, and protects his fellow citizens from Potter’s relentless greed. In contrast, he suggested, a vote for Mitt Romney and the Republicans would be a vote to create an American Pottersville, the alternate reality the film depicts in which George Bailey never lived and Potter was free to exploit and oppress everyone around him, creating a town that was not a community but an aggregation of cold and selfish individuals.
In response, some conservatives might observe, with Meghan Clyne, that Capra’s Mr. Potter actually possessed some sound economic sense from which contemporary liberals could well learn. After all, if today’s America shared Potter’s sensitivity to the dangers of loose credit we might have spared ourselves considerable trouble over the last decade or so. Most conservatives, however, will not welcome being linked to Potter, a villainous figure whose inhumanity far outweighs his financial astuteness. They will complain that Burns has caricatured their views by setting them up as defenders of a modern Pottersville.
On the other hand, conservatives must be somewhat sympathetic to Burns’s approach to thinking about the political questions we confront. Burns’s approach is conservative in a broad sense: by evaluating contemporary America against It’s a Wonderful Life, he is in effect taking his bearings from a morally wholesome and politically healthy past. But judging what kind of country we should try to be now, according to a positive view of what kind of country we used to be, is an essentially conservative undertaking.
Nevertheless, Burns’s argument is wholly one-sided. A fully honest engagement with It’s a Wonderful Life—or, more importantly, with the past America that it represents—would have to admit that we cannot find there a complete endorsement of contemporary American liberalism. On the contrary, it would be fair to say that the American liberalism of recent decades and of the present day is in some respects hostile to, and in fact has done much to destroy, George Bailey’s Bedford Falls.
In the first place, it is worth observing that the federal government’s role in creating and preserving a decent, caring community is very different in It’s a Wonderful Life than in the mind of Ken Burns. Burns thinks we can establish such a community by voting for a certain presidential candidate and supporting a certain national political party. Capra’s film seems to teach a very different lesson. The federal government makes only a limited appearance in the story, and its presentation is ambiguous.
On the one hand, the federal government is implicitly present as the institution that leads the nation to win World War II, a feat for which it is treated with nothing but respect and pride.
On the other hand, its relation to domestic politics appears decidedly less favorable. In one scene, Mr. Potter, to his mounting frustration, learns in a meeting how George Bailey’s business practices are prevailing over his own. When his secretary interrupts to remind him of an appointment, he responds, “Tell the Congressman to wait.” The message is clear: the richest man in town has access to, and indeed a kind of dominance over, his elected representative that others do not have. Thus the film treats the relationship between centralized government and the rich far more realistically than Burns’s sentimental liberal vision, according to which the federal government is simply the friend of the poor and the middle class.
In any case, Bedford Falls is preserved as a moral community not by the intervention of the federal government but by the public-spiritedness and virtue of local citizens led by George Bailey—who, as far as we know, never gets to meet the Congressman, let alone tell him to wait. Needless to say, the solving of social problems by virtuous individuals working together at the local level has certainly not been the American Left’s preferred method over the last three or four generations.
Religion, too, holds a very different place in Bedford Falls than in contemporary liberalism, and in such a way that contemporary liberals could hardly claim to be defenders of the kind of community depicted in It’s a Wonderful Life. The film begins with a series of prayers, prayers made by various citizens on behalf of George Bailey, whose life has reached a point of crisis. Indeed, the film tells a story of divine intervention into one man’s life, an intervention prompted by the prayers of his friends. The film is unintelligible except on the supposition that there is a God who is concerned with the fate of each person, who watches over his creatures and listens to their prayers.
Moreover, we learn from Capra’s story that one expression of God’s care is his law, which must not be violated even under duress, and which will be supported by the laws of a decent community. George Bailey admits that he was considering suicide, but other characters remind him, and us, that suicide is against the law both in Bedford Falls and in heaven.
It would be unfair to say that contemporary liberalism entirely repudiates this religious view of life, but it is fair to say that it has often harbored and treated as an ally a radical secularism and skepticism that does repudiate it, openly and aggressively. There is in America today an increasingly imperialistic form of atheism. Not content merely not to believe, it feels a public duty to attack and ridicule those who do. It dismisses with scorn the idea that humanity holds any special place at all in a cosmos ruled by necessity and chance, let alone the belief that there is a personal God who cares about the fate of individuals and responds to their prayers.
Liberalism sometimes, rejecting belief in any law higher than that devised by men, goes so far as to promote a radical form of autonomy according to which even suicide could be viewed as a “right.” Again, I do not mean to say that this position is embraced by all contemporary liberals, but it finds a political home with them that it does not find with conservatism.
Religion also holds a place in the public life of Bedford Falls that America’s contemporary liberalism disallows. In the film’s famous last scene, George’s daughter Zuzu tells him, “Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” We know from the rest of the story, however, that George’s children attend public school, because earlier in the film, in the grip of anger and despair, he complains bitterly about the poor quality of his children’s teachers, who are supported by the taxes he pays. In Capra’s Bedford Falls—as in the rest of 1946 America—teachers were free to promote religious belief in public schools. This arrangement has since been undermined by liberal activist judges pushing for the state’s equal neutrality between religion and irreligion—despite that idea’s lack of roots in America’s traditions, its Constitution, or an impartial reading of how the founders understood the First Amendment.
If religion helps explain the goodness of those citizens who want to help George Bailey, it does not seem to explain his desire to help them. George never mentions a religious motive for his public service, and he even admits—ironically, in his own prayer—that he is not a praying man. What, then, is his motive? Contrary to Ken Burns’s suggestion, Bailey is not driven to serve his fellow citizens, at the cost of his own ambitious dreams, simply by love for his fellow men. Bailey is certainly a decent and humane person, but his decency and humanity alone cannot overcome his deep desire to escape Bedford Falls, which he regards as a rather insignificant place, and to make his mark on the larger world.
What prompts Bailey to stay and serve his fellow citizens is a most conservative impulse: filial piety. The Building and Loan, the business that allows Bailey to help ordinary people realize their dreams of home-ownership, was built by his father, Peter Bailey. His father asks him to consider taking over the business, explaining to him the importance of its work in the community. George Bailey resists, but changes his mind after his father’s death, especially when the business faces liquidation if he does not stay to administer it. Out of love and respect for his father, the younger Bailey keeps a photograph of him at his desk years after his death to remind him of his motive for maintaining the Building and Loan.
This kind of filial piety—the sense that one should weigh heavily the wishes of a father against one’s own ambitions, and perhaps even sacrifice the latter to the former—is utterly alien to and relentlessly undermined by contemporary liberalism’s cult of individual autonomy, understood as freedom from all traditional authority, even and especially the authority of fathers.
Finally, we might consider the standards that guide Bailey’s service to his fellow men. Why does he think it’s important to help them buy homes for their families? Bailey follows his father’s example, which is more than merely traditional. When Peter Bailey tries to convince his son to work at the Building and Loan, he justifies its work by appealing to human nature. He tells him that the institution’s work helps to satisfy a “fundamental urge,” that it is something “deep in the race” for a man to want his own, privately owned home. This standard found in human nature supplies the Baileys, father and son, with a standard of goodness, of what constitutes true human flourishing, that teaches them how to do good for their fellow men. The things that are good are the things that are experienced as good by human beings as such, and not merely the things that any particular set of human beings might happen to desire.
Contemporary American liberalism has largely rejected such standards of goodness as unduly restrictive and even oppressive. Fixed standards rooted in human nature might require that society say “no” to some disordered desires that are incompatible with our nature. Our liberalism, however, recoils from such discipline, because it is incompatible with liberalism’s egalitarianism, its insistence that all ways of life and all desires must be regarded as equally acceptable.
These reflections have tried to extend beyond the boundaries of film interpretation. The many ways in which contemporary liberalism has rejected and tried to dismantle Bedford Falls show us its own complicity in creating an American Pottersville, despite its own best intentions. Though liberalism rightly recoils from Pottersville’s greed, its effort to undermine the habits that traditionally check humans’ selfishness and cultivate their concern for other people—individual virtue, religion, respect for tradition and one’s elders, and permanent moral standards rooted in human nature—reveal that something older and better than contemporary liberalism is needed to achieve the decent and caring society that it seeks.
Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press).