I recently had my first ever viewing of the classic film Mr Smith Goes to Washington.
Besides an expectedly good performance by James Stewart, I came away with a bit of sadness.
It’s remarkable to me that the same struggles and stereotypes in regards to government are just as true today as they were over 70 years ago, in 1939, when the film was first released.
The film plays heavily on the idea that the legislature is no place for honest men, that graft and backroom deals are the modus operandi for all who office on Capitol Hill. The political process is broken, and the best one can do is to keep quiet in order to get reelected.
As Americans, we are a proud people, often loudly proclaiming the virtues and superiority of our great nation. We are so proud of our democracy, but there is little desire for most to become a professional participant in it.
Why isn’t the role of Senator a much sought-after role? Why isn’t the holding of an elected position in Congress the aspiration of most of the young and energetic within our borders?
True, being a Senator has the sense of being among the elite (since there are only 100 of them), but there is no sense that it is the ideal role for those who would choose a virtuous life of honesty and integrity, who desire to give themselves to the task of governance, for the betterment of all.
Still today, it is a cliche to say that Congress is just a bunch of crooks, or that Congress is the opposite of progress.
How can we be proud of this? How can we be proud of the fact that over 70 years of dissatisfaction with the operation of our government has not given way to any improvement in the general perceptions of the populace about its lawmakers?
I was a bright, young kid…the kind that gray-haired librarians would smile across the counter at and say, “You’re going to be President some day!”
In eighth grade, I had the opportunity to serve as a page in my state’s House of Representatives. It was a paradigm-shattering experience for me. I watched daily for a week as the gears of government clunked and churned. I sat confused as a legislator gave a speech or presented a bill, only to find that none of his colleagues were actually listening to him. I marveled at the fact that representatives who had not been present for roll call still showed up on the voting record for the various bills put forth that day–owing to the fact that whoever occupied the seat next to theirs felt free to push their voting buttons according to their own whims.
“This is how our great nation functions?” I thought. My fourteen year-old mind never recovered. I would live to prove that librarian wrong: I had no desire to be President, or to attain to any other elected government office. (I did aspire to be Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for several years afterwards, but that’s another story.)
I marvel that we seem to think so lowly of the nuts and bolts of our government, yet we are hell-bent on spreading democracy around the world. Does democracy have its advantages? It does. I do certainly treasure the freedoms that have resulted within our country and have experienced life in countries where they do not exist. But is democracy a perfect form of governance? I’m quite sure that we have yet to prove that it is.
And I must admit: I’m thankful that eternity will ultimately be a monarchy.