An old high school friend tweeted: “It’s a Wonderful Life has be the most anti-Tea Party movie ever.” I rakishly tweeted back: “False.” Rather than attempting to hash out this disagreement within the confines of 140 characters, we resolved to do a Gladwell vs. Simmons sort of thing, exchanging long-winded emails to see if we could hash it out.
My friend, Chris Schaefer, has led a peripatetic life ranging from Oklahoma to Morocco. As of late, he seems to have settled in Paris. We agreed to let him have the first word:
Chris: I was being a good American and doing my annual Christmas-time viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life when I had this moment. It was one of those eyebrow-scrunching, lip-twisting, just-wait-a-second-there moments: Conservative Americans cherish Frank Capra’s classic, and yet important parts of the film don’t seem terribly conservative. I wondered if conservatives’ appreciation for family, faith, and community in the movie doesn’t cause them to miss echoes that the original audience would have picked up on immediately.
It’s a Wonderful Life came out in 1946 right as the United States was exiting an extremely difficult decade and a half. There’s a reason why Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe those who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. Two of the greatest challenges that animate the film are bank runs and lack of affordable home ownership–the difficulties of The Greatest Generation in Bedford Falls as it were. These two issues play out in significant ways. George Bailey doesn’t go on his own honeymoon because he has to use his own personal savings to pay his clients who are caught up in the uncertainty of a bank run. And the entire business concept of the Bailey Building and Loan was based on providing home ownership for the poor of Bedford Falls, which was not so much a business as a non-profit social organization if we can take Potter’s critique and the bank-examiner’s presence as any indication.
So what happened between the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the end of World War II in 1945? The New Deal. And in the New Deal, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed through the creation of two organizations that addressed both of these issues. The Banking Act of 1933 created the FDIC (whose sticker you will inevitably find on your bank’s window), guaranteeing deposits up to a certain amount. The bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life happened just before its creation, and so for viewers in 1946 it served as a scary reminder of how things used to be before the Democrats pushed through the New Deal.
In 1938, Fannie Mae was also created at Roosevelt’s behest in order to increase home ownership and make housing more affordable. Both of these programs were pushed through against Republican opposition, and both would have benefited the residents of Bedford Falls–those who did “most of the working and paying and living and dying” in the community, as George so passionately put it. George’s support for the poor on these issues would have recalled the Democratic rhetoric, while Potter’s heartless commentary on the plight of Bedford Falls’ poor would have echoed the anti-New Deal Republicans.
Don’t take my word for it, though: these leftist echoes scared the FBI. A 1947 FBI memo (pdf, pg. 14) indicated concern that the screenwriters were closet Communists and that the portrayal of bankers and rich people was highly suspect. Now, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI wasn’t always the most level-headed of organizations, but the fact that they were concerned about the leftist tones of It’s a Wonderful Life means that some aspects of the film resonate in different ways today.
So what’s your call, Keith? Am I missing something? Or, in their deep appreciation for the film, do conservatives today ignore the historical and political context of It’s a Wonderful Life?
Keith: I am one of those conservatives who loves It’s a Wonderful Life and actually believe that the film encapsulates a lot of my small government, pro-family political philosophy. While I’m glad to have my presumptions challenged, I think that you’re wrong to say that this movie is anti-capitalist.
I will grant your presumption that we should consider the historical situation at the time of this movie’s release to help us understand how certain scenes would be understood. Like Scalia at the movies, we should consider the original public meaning, right? But we’re not merely asking a purely historical question, right? I’m not particularly interested if some FBI agents struggled to separate the idea of a bad banker from the idea that all bankers are bad. I’m similarly nonplussed by the question of whether Republican identifiers would have been torqued by watching the film in 1946.
Political coalitions have shifted quite a bit in the last two-thirds of a century. Back then, it was not unusual to be for both higher government spending and traditional family values. Indeed, as both parties were rather conservative on social issues, the economic divergences played a larger role in determining voting behavior. Today’s political fault lines obscure these differences. Now, if one is for traditional family values, that identity tends to dominate and make differences of economic regulation seem comparatively minute. All that is to say, that it could be that the folks who wrote this film were both “conservative on social issues” in some sense that we can recognize, while still advocating for leftist solutions to some of the economic issues of the day.
However, I don’t actually see how the movie supports left-leaning economic policy. The movie exults in the way the Bailey Building & Loan helps Mr. Martini escape Potter’s rental slums. You suggest that scene would be a comeuppance to those dastardly anti-New Deal Republicans who opposed the enactment of Fannie Mae. Actually, I bet those Republicans supported the end of the policy–getting folks into their own homes–and merely objected to the efficiency or constitutionality of the means. To see it your way is like maintaining that today’s GOP is against children eating lunch and that a movie showing a non-governmental actor providing lunch to hungry kids would be a real dig against conservatives.
On the contrary, 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.
Who needs Fannie Mae, the FDIC, or even Social Security when you’ve got George Bailey?
But beyond these incidental plot twists, don’t you see how the actual thrust of the movie is conservative? George Bailey denies himself and his desire for freedom and travel, and ties himself again and again to the small town and community. He was derogatory of his “not much a businessman” father, but eventually became his father and, in doing so, blessed everyone in Bedford Falls. Isn’t that conservative? Continue reading