While flipping through the channels
last weekend I stumbled upon the Jimmy Stewart classic, "Mr. Smith Goes to
Washington", which I think is a great example of the struggle between idealism
and cynicism in American politics.
For those who haven't seen it,
Stewart plays an idealistic junior senator (Jeff Smith) who discovers a profit
scheme between his state counterpart in the senate (Joseph Paine) and the
corrupt political machine that has been calling the shots in their home state for years. The incident shakes Smith's great
appreciation the American political system and the ideals that America was
When confronted by Smith, this is
Senator Paine's response:
"Thirty years ago I had your
ideals. I was you. I had to make the same decision you were asked to make
today. And I made it. I compromised - yes!
So that all those years, I could sit in that Senate and serve the people
in a thousand honest ways. You've got to face facts, Jeff. I've served our
state well, haven't I? We have the lowest unemployment and the highest federal
grants. But, well, I've had to compromise. I've had to play ball. You can't
count on people voting. Half the time they don't vote anyway. That's how states
and empires have been built since time began. Don't you understand? Well Jeff,
you can take my word for it. That's how things are."
Tocqueville often talks of the
importance of civic engagement as a tenant of healthy democracy. Has the cynical approach to
government described by Senator Paine become increasingly necessary due to a lack of civic
engagement? Do you believe it is
acceptable for politicians to "compromise" or go against the will of the people (or simply hide
things from them) because the populous is not engaged enough to dictate
policy in their best interests or simply doesn't care? Would Tocqueville consider this despotic? Would an increase in political engagement help to curtail political corruption and cynicism?
Would it be possible for an idealistic politician like Smith to exist in politics today (see link below to get an idea of his persona)? Or, is Smith's idealism and national pride misplaced and naive, especially in modern politics?
Unfortunately, I could not find a video link to Senator Paine's speech, but here is a compilation of some of the movie's famous scenes.
If the link doesn't work, right-click it and open the link in a new tab or window. Although much of the film appears quite dated and at times cheesy by today's standards (it was released over 70 years ago), many of the themes are still very relevant. In my opinion, it is a must-see for anyone interested in American politics.