A few nights ago, as I was watching It’s a Wonderful Life for about the twenty-third time (I’m still not sure if partial viewings count toward the total), I paid special attention to the part where George Bailey finds himself in Pottersville. This nightmarish sequence, lovingly arranged by George’s guardian angel, has burned itself into our collective memory. Today it seems more relevant than ever.
Where exactly was Pottersville? It occupied precisely the same space as George’s hometown, Bedford Falls. It even looked vaguely like Bedford Falls. But instead of a wholesome little burg filled with characters Norman Rockwell might have painted, the town had morphed into a dark and seedy sinkhole of vice, cruelty, fear and alienation. Why? Because George Bailey — the earnest, ever-striving, ever-frustrated hero — had never been born. And his absence allowed the resident plutocrat, Mr. Potter, to spread his tentacles over every last enterprise in town.
Most of us have come to regard this eternal Christmas classic as a study in good versus evil, of community spirit versus capitalistic greed. It’s a tale about the virtuous “little guy” bravely fighting corrupt private interests, in unambiguous black and white.
And yet… it turns out that director Frank Capra was a staunch Republican who routinely voted against FDR. Jimmy Stewart, almost indistinguishable in real life from George Bailey except for his spectacular Hollywood career, was a veteran Republican, too. And let’s not forget that George Bailey himself was an active practitioner of private enterprise. So maybe It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t quite the anti-capitalist screed some of us have come to believe it is.
Here’s what I think Capra is telling us: there are good capitalists and evil capitalists… capitalists who enrich the community and capitalists who enrich themselves at everyone else’s expense. When the latter breed of capitalist is allowed to triumph, the result is Pottersville — in short, economic and spiritual devastation for the “99 percent.”
Moral of the story: The good capitalists — the George Baileys of the world — are indispensable bulwarks against the unrestrained greed and ruthlessness of the big-money interests. In short, the George Baileys have to prevail or we’re toast.
Am I sounding a call to arms for America’s moderates? You bet I am. Capitalism and its rewards have been shifting inexorably away from Main Street toward Wall Street. The Mr. Potters have seen to that. Now it’s time to fight back… to revive Main Street and cage the wild beast that is Wall Street. Moderates have to play a pivotal role in the struggle of the 99 percent against the 1 percent, or we could be in for some epochal ugliness in the years ahead.
As I write this, in the closing month of A.D. 2011, the great American middle class has been ravaged by chronic corporate downsizing and outsourcing. The “job creators” refuse to create jobs even as they sit on overstuffed cushions of cash, and their unapologetic greed is generating rancorous rumblings among the masses. The fortunate few live like Bourbon aristocrats while the rest of us watch our nest eggs crack and ooze ominously. College tuitions have soared so high that only rich kids can emerge from their four-year adventures without decades of debt dangling over their futures. And of course the poor are suffering as much as ever, with this one important difference: they have considerably more company now. That fellow living out of his car down the street used to be a contender.
To make matters worse, Wall Street and its media mouthpieces have hypnotized millions of ordinary folks into believing that unfettered corporatocracy is good for them. (Never underestimate the power of patriotism, religion, freedom and taxation to convince Middle Americans that they should cheer for the elite.)
The Republican front-runners for the 2012 presidential nomination have been a succession of clowns and robots, growing progressively nuttier in their pronouncements before their campaigns implode. But they keep coming at us. The thought that one of them might actually stumble across the finish line should be enough to wake all moderates from their slumber.
Now that Herman Cain’s quirky campaign has self-destructed, the laurel wreath of GOP leadership has descended upon the oversized head of Newton Leroy (yep, you can look it up) Gingrich. Almost a caricature of the arrogant ruling-class apologist, Gingrich has gained notice — not all of it positive — by mocking jobless “Occupy Wall Street” protesters and calling for child labor in poor communities. The ultimate Beltway insider, Newt has made a fortune playing for both sides of the K Street-Congress power axis. Yet he’s imaginative enough to position himself as a maverick in his race for the White House. (Remember, the Tea Party is supposed to be a grass-roots movement of ornery outsiders, and Newt plays the role like a pro.)
As a radical moderate, I believe that a Gingrich presidency would be unhealthful for most living things. The man still faces long odds, of course, and chances are that his wayward tongue will eventually trip him up. He’s compelling as a speaker and pontificator, but he’s not easy to like: cocky, bullheaded and unsympathetic — especially with his legacy of having divorced his first wife while she was bedridden with cancer. He surprised a lot of us when he stood up for illegal immigrants who have led blameless lives in this country… but a cynic would dismiss his high-minded overture as a calculated appeal to moderates, whose votes he’ll have to lasso if he wants to capture the presidency. He’ll have to convince those moderates that he’s not the reincarnation of Mr. Potter.
But I’m convinced he is. And it all boils down to this: the George Baileys among us need to rouse ourselves to action and defeat the Mr. Potters before they defeat us. We need to regulate the excesses of Wall Street, force corporations to put ordinary employees on their boards, and — most important of all — break the sinister and mutually lucrative alliance between lobbyists and our elected representatives. We’ll break it by Constitutional amendment if possible, by civil unrest if necessary. But break it we will, even if it means evicting every incumbent from the halls of Congress. The current arrangement cannot stand if we’re to continue describing our nation as a democratic republic. I don’t know about you, but I have no intention of spending the rest of my life in Pottersville.