Mr Smith and the New Deal: pro or con?
But it is not clear that Mr. Smith speaks for Popular Front values or for the New Deal Democratic values. To be sure, Jefferson Smith sits on the majority side of the aisle, which places him in Roosevelt's and Wheeler's Democratic Party. And the Democratic Senate establishment that attacked the motion picture could have seen it as endorsing FDR's attempt to purge his Senate enemies in 1938. Roosevelt was also, like Jeff Smith, breaking with the political boss (Jim Farley, in the case of the president, Jim Taylor in the case of Senator Smith) who had initially sponsored him. Just as Taylor's newspaper chain went after Smith, so the vast majority of newspapers opposed FDR, with the Roosevelt-hating Chicago Tribune slamming Capra's film. Finally, Jeff's boys' camp invoked the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC, the New Deal's most popular program).
The case for an anti-New Deal reading of the film is even stronger. By 1939 Burton Wheeler was not easily classifiable as pro-New Deal, and neither was his film counterpart. But while Wheeler was criticizing FDR and party patronage from the left, the film senator was arguing from the opposite political pole. Smith refuses to use government taxes to finance his camp (in contrast to the CCC), raising money from his boys instead. No New Deal senator would have filibustered against a relief bill that promised to feed the starving and construct public works. Indeed, Wheeler had actually convinced Roosevelt to build a dam in Valley County, Montana; as he later put it, "when FDR wanted to help a Senator, he built a dam for him.” Standing against deficit spending, big government, the welfare state, and that quintessential New Deal project, the federal dam, Senator Smith sounds more like Reagan than Roosevelt.
Whereas economic royalists and the private corruption of monopolies were the New Deal targets, Mr. Smith attacked political corruption, and this after the 1937 depression had refocused New Deal attention on the problem of corporate economic power. New Dealers endorsed trade unions, which are absent from Mr. Smith. Senator Wheeler had put himself in physical danger by supporting the Western Federation of Miners and the Industrial Workers of the World, violently repressed during and after World War I; Jefferson Smith's father was killed standing up not for the mine workers' union but for an individual prospector. Indeed, the "syndicate" that went after Smith's father could very well have been a union.
….And then there is Jefferson's Smith's weapon, the filibuster.
La Follette—Wheeler quotes him--had defended the filibuster as "the
most useful weapon a liberal minority possessed against a conservative
coalition." By 1939, however, Wheeler himself was filibustering against
Roosevelt's effort to repeal the Neutrality Act, and most of his isolationist
allies were conservatives. Radio news broadcaster H. V. Kaltenborn
defends the filibuster within Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as "democracy
in action." Between the production of Mr. Smith and its release, however,
Kaltenborn was attacking the Neutrality Act filibuster outside the film
for frustrating the majority will.
The filibuster encapsulates Mr. Smith's political indeterminacy.
To stage a debate between pro- and anti-New Deal Mr. Smiths,
as if the winner grasped the film's political key, is to be false both to the political context that generated the film and to the motion picture's actual historical reception. Capra never voted for FDR, after all, while his Popular Front screenwriters Robert Riskin and Sidney Buchman never voted against him. The fight about Mr. Smith, like the fight within it, pitted the countryside against the capitol, not the left against the right. Because the battles within the Capra motion picture do not line up with the battles outside it, the film can generate anxiety from within a consensual space, operating inside the New Deal order without speaking for the New Deal.
Michael P. Rogin and Kathleen Moran, “Mr. Capra Goes to Washington,” Representations 84, In Memory of Michael Rogin (Autumn, 2003), pp. 213-248 [219-20]