• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #40: Jefferson Smith


Senator Smith waits patiently for the advent of the online comments section.

I don't think I need to recap the plot of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington here. If you haven't seen it, or if it's been so long that you forget the details, go and see it, again or for the first time. There's a reason this film is so beloved, and so resonant in our popular culture. It's a myth that speaks to our deepest fears and hopes, the fragile axiom that one citizen can make a difference in a system corrupted by money and power.


Jefferson Smith, the youth leader turned rookie Senator, is what we tell ourselves we want. It's the lie we tell ourselves when we vote, when we debate candidates and policies, when we line up in our political trench warfare. The truth, the foul truth, is we don't really want a crusader, a virtuous knight templar, a paladin. We want our side to win, and we really don't care if a dam gets built with earmarked funds as long as the laundry we root for is ascendant. That's the true tragedy exposed and presaged by Capra - not that the system is broken, but that we don't care that it's broken. Our prejudices and ideological comforts are sufficiently calcified that we've given up on fixing it. Now we just want to win, no matter the cost to our neighbors and our nation. Politics has become a reality show where we root for fractured imagery and frothy platitudes and argue not with information and wisdom but with ugly memes and hateful shards of rage.

Jefferson Smith isn't walking through that door. Because if he did, you wouldn't vote for him anyway.

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