Mr Smith Goes to Washington centers on the efforts of an individual senator against a legislature nearly totally corrupted by a political machine (controlling both public opinion and the government’s private dealings), greed for political and economic gain, and fear of retribution and political ruin for anything less than total allegiance to the political machine’s agenda. Corruption being thus entrenched and the function of government being thus perverted to serve only its members’ personal gain, Mr Smith (in believing politics to be honest, the Senate virtuous and the endurance of the founding principles of American democracy in modern politics) represents the outsider’s, the idealized view of government. The absurdity of Mr Smith’s ignorance is a counterpoint to the absurdity of the total Senate’s corruption, and, while both are improbable, Mr Smith’s characterization is necessary within the satire that is Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Although Mr Smith’s character, his naiveté and boyish reverence for the American ideal are sentimental and improbable, analogs to his qualities of outsider and disrupter of the status quo (and to his popularity for these qualities) may be drawn from the popularity of the outsider and disrupter in modern American politics; this popularity, unlike that of Mr Smith, stems from public cynicism or apathy, not, as in the film, from idealism.
The film portrays corruption as the norm in state and federal government and personal gain as the aim of government. In this, the film exaggerates the profusion of government corruption, and to this exaggeration the opposite must likewise be an exaggeration: Mr Smith, in contrast to those in power who view power and government as a means for profit, believes that American democracy is unconditionally just, its principles immovable, its founders infallible. Mr Smith, therefore, does not recognize the necessary imperfection, conflict and confused but democratic progress that is government. In this way, Mr Smith’s characterization is improbable for a senator, although necessary to the plot.
Arriving in Washington with little more than knowledge of American history and abstract sentiments on the virtue of American government, without any knowledge of the practicality of government nor the sensationalism of the media nor the extensive influence of Taylor nor the cynicism of senators, Mr Smith’s effort to pass legislation creating a national boy’s camp becomes a struggle to defend himself against slander, against Paine’s accusation of fraudulence, to prove himself honest and his slanderers fraudulent. Reciting the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, Mr Smith struggles to remake the Senate into the honest, virtuous body he believed it was; to accomplish this he must overcome Taylor’s influence and the senators’ greed and fear — thus disrupting the corrupt status quo. In this, Smith’s characterization as disruptor is necessary to the plot, believable and applicable to modern politics.
Modern American politics is in part defined by the public’s belief, however unfounded, in the corruption of government. This belief in institutional and, increasingly from the Republican party, electoral corruption attracts cynical or apathetic voters to populist, seemingly outsider candidates (as Donald Trump) who are characterized as Mr Smiths: honest candidates seeking power only to remake government, removed from the practicality and intrigue and thus the alleged corruption of the status quo. Beliefs in the entrenched corruption of government are unjustified and threaten to remake a just democracy into a tyrannous rule of the majority; populist candidates, like Donald Trump, who claim to fight corruption sooner are themselves corrupt, self-serving and undemocratic. Thus, the idealized, virtuous, disruptive image of the political outsider that is Mr Smith is applicable to modern politics sooner as a facade to self-interest, disruption of a democratic status quo, and the chaos of authoritarianism than a necessary reality. Mr Smith’s knowledge of American history, reverence for democracy and American government must be met by the modern politician with a critical and constructive perspective and comprehensive knowledge of the practicality of government.
The importance of Mr Smith Goes to Washington is its exaggerated, satirical quality which portrays the potential for the corruption of any government, even of American democracy, if the politician fails to balance idealism and skepticism, traditionalism and innovation; if greed is followed before duty; if power becomes its own end. The film at once cautions against cynicism and encourages skepticism and nuanced understanding of politics. In a time of increased polarization, misinformation, media bias and intolerance of disagreeing views, the film portrays the potential for any government to corrupt, any democracy to cease to believe in itself and in the power of one individual against injustice. This portrayal of what may be if we surrender our individuality, our healthy skepticism to the apathy and discontent by which authoritarianism comes to power, is ever more relevant.
The improbable character of Mr Smith is, then, a symbol of the might of the individual, the urgency for principled government and faith in democracy, the importance of moderation, the necessity for tradition and improvement — for no institution or individual is without flaw.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
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