Editor’s note: John Burris is a former member of the Arkansas Legislature and the author of this opinion column.
Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.
Republicans should have a goal for the coming year: talk like you’re George Bailey making a run for mayor of Bedford Falls, not like Mr. Potter, the lead antagonist in the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The 1946 film conveys deeper meanings about life, family and friends. But there’s also a not-so-subtle message about business, character, and attitude. It’s all fiction, but relevant.
George Bailey, the cantankerous but honest middle-class man, had a knack for never thinking less of his neighbors. Ernie the taxi cab driver. Martini the bar owner. Or even Nick, the bartender. They were friends. They were respected. He saw their hard work and contributions, but knew they just needed a ladder to help them to a better place. That ladder was Bailey Building and Loan.
Mr. Potter called the workers in town “rabble.” He said they were lazy and didn’t own homes because they lacked his thrifty intelligence. He said if they’d save more and work harder, one day they could make it out of the slum housing he generously provided them. He was the successful businessman. They were something less.
In a race for mayor of Bedford Falls, it’s safe to assume that George Bailey would have won. So why do so many Republicans talk like Mr. Potter?
On a drive last week, I saw a large trailer in a field backed against the interstate, with a large banner draped over the side noting: “You’re either contributing or a parasite. Democrats are the party of the parasite.” If you Google almost any Republican candidate for president, you’ll find a quote not so different. It may be slightly filtered to sound less abrasive. Or maybe not. It’s a simple but angry way to view the world.
There are parasites. There always have been and always will be. But conservatives believe people, at their core, want to work and contribute. Individual empowerment and personal responsibility are guiding principles of our cause. The laziness of a few shouldn’t define how we see the whole.
Beyond that, there are real institutional barriers to obtaining needed things in today’s economy, like healthcare. I’ve never had the courage to look an hourly shift-worker in the eye and tell them that if they only worked a little harder, one day they’d be able to have health insurance like me. It wouldn’t be that different from Mr. Potter shrugging his shoulders and saying people should simply save more money to escape his slums, all while doing everything he could to keep them there.
It’s not about supporting a specific policy, like the Affordable Care Act or the Private Option, aimed at solving a social problem. Disagreement over a solution is inevitable. But we should focus on the causes of the problem instead of blaming and criticizing the people who are its victims.
Democrats are far better at the tone, but not the substance. Their policies trap people, not help them climb.
The Bailey Building and Loan survived the Great Depression, but it wouldn’t have survived the “Dodd-Frank” law, which all but eliminated local discretion in making loans. City regulators would have ensured Ernie stayed a taxi driver for the rest of his life, instead of giving way to competition that would let him choose to be an Uber-driver instead. And Sam Wainwright would have never had the ability to advance thousands of dollars to save George’s business, since his plastics manufacturing company would have likely been stalled in EPA licensure and certification.
That is the reality of liberalism. George Bailey didn’t offer HUD housing, and his friends didn’t want it. They wanted something of their own.
Conservatives have the solutions that lift our friends out of poverty and into productivity. But the manner in which those principles are relayed, as well as the messenger delivering them, matter more than the content.
George Bailey, defending to Mr. Potter the home loan he gave Ernie, made a speech still fitting for the politics of today: “My father helped a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what’s wrong with that? Why… here, you’re all businessmen here. Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? You… you said… what’d you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken down that they… Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about… they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him.”
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a Christmas movie. But it’s also about what people want and what’s motivates them to chase it. Republicans should see the world like George Bailey. It’s easier than being mad.
It’s not bad politics either.