Senator Jeff Flake and Frank Capra’s Vision of a Democratic America

When I watched Senator Jeff Flake’s speech a few days ago, it reminded me of Frank Capra’s movie Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Like Senator Flake, Frank Capra and his collaborators were worried about the threats to our democratic traditions during the 1930s. Though Capra was a conservative Republican, he worked with left wing collaborators in his movies on issues that were of common concern to both liberals and conservatives. Robert Riskin (the screenwriter of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, and Meet John Doe) was a New Deal liberal and Sid Buchman (the screenwriter of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington) was an American communist.

Joseph McBride wrote in his book, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success about Capra’s respect for divergent views:

The auteur theory… did not recognize the degree to which a filmmaker such as Capra could be influenced by conflicting points of view and incorporate them into his work, nor the degree to which a filmmaker might be expressing his times as much as he was expressing himself. And though there was much controversy in the 1970s about how much credit Robert Riskin deserved for Capra’s success, not even Riskin’s supporters ever pointed out that the crux of the problem was that Capra and Riskin did not have identical sociopolitical views, or that their films could have been a volatile fusion between two conflicting viewpoints rather than a smooth and unified expression of one man’s ideas. Nor was there any cognizance of the degree to which Capra in the 1930s acted as a relatively passive sounding board for the political views of his diverse brain trust, which included the far-right Myles Connolly, the Roosevelt liberal Jo Swerling, and the left-liberal writer and associate producer Joseph Sistrom…. Capra in the prime of his career liked to surround himself with colleagues who were not yes men, and his ability to listen to and absorb such a range of viewpoints ‘made him an interesting guy’, contributing to the complexity of his films.

Frank Capra collaborated with his more left wing screenwriters because liberals and conservatives were both concerned about protecting America’s democratic traditions in the face of a Great Depression, threats from Hitler, Mussolini and imperialist Japan, and demagogues from both the Left (like Huey Long) and the Right (like Father Coughlin). Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and Meet John Doe deal with themes like how the wealthy have a responsibility to help the poor, how the community should help those who are struggling and marginalized, how we have to be vigilant to protect our liberties, and how important it is to protect the individual’s right to speak out even if his or her opinion goes against the group.

Capra was able to collaborate with his more left wing screenwriters because the Republican Party of the 1930s had much more common ground with the Left than the Republican Party has with Democrats today. Capra was a Republican at a time when the Republican Party was still close to a progressive Republican tradition that was embodied by Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Robert LaFollette. Progressive Republicans had fought for the regulation of corporations, fought for the rights of African Americans and minorities, and lobbied for a greater democratic process in the elections of public officials. This progressive Republican tradition eventually faded as the more conservative business-friendly part of the Republican Party took control of the party, but it still had some sway among some Republicans during the 1930s. As late as 1924, progressive Republican Robert La Follette ran as a third party candidate for the U.S. presidency and garnered 17% of the vote. Progressive Republicans were eventually absorbed into Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition in the 1930s.

Though the American Left and Right had many philosophical differences, they both share a deep love of America’s democratic traditions and individual freedoms.

Here is a video of Senator Jeff Flake’s announcement that he won’t seek reelection and his critique of President Donald Trump.

Here is a scene from Frank Capra’s movie Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, where Senator Jeff Smith talks about the necessity of fighting for lost causes.

In this scene from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Senator Jefferson Smith points out that liberty is too important to be buried in text books. Capra emphasizes the necessity of teaching to younger generations the democratic values that make our democratic republic possible.

In this scene from Frank Capra’s movie Meet John Doe, John Doe tries to speak out against the corruption of a potential fascist movement but is shouted down by a crowd. It depicts the necessity of protecting the individual’s right of free speech, even if it goes against the prevailing opinions of the group. Without this protection, powerful interests can steamroll individuals who try to confront them.

In this scene from Frank Capra’s movie It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey decries the wealthy bankers’ lack of empathy for the poor and defends the right of working class people to live a decent life.

About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Angelo Lopez has had illustrations published in Tikkun Magazine, the Palo Alto Daily News and Z Magazine. From April 2008 to May 2011, Angelo's cartoons were regularly published in the Tri-City Voice, a weekly newspaper that covers the Fremont, Hayward, Milpitas, Neward, Sunol and Union City areas in California. He did a political webcomic starring his cartoon character Jasper for the progressive blogsite Everyday Citizen. Since December 2011, Angelo does a regular weekly political cartoon for the Philippine News Today, a Filipino American newspaper based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Angelo is a member of the Sunnyvale Art Club, and the Northern California chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. During the 1990s, he was a member of the part-timer workers SEIU unit in the city of Sunnyvale. Angelo won the 2013, 2015 and 2016 and 2018 Sigma Delta Chi award for editorial cartooning for newspapers with a circulation under 100,000. He has also won the 2016 RFK Book and Journalism Award for Editorial Cartoons. Angelo won first prize for the Best of the West contest in 2016 and third prize in 2017. Angelo is married to Lisa Reeber. They enjoy taking walks, watching movies and hanging out with their nieces.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s