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George Bailey has a message for our nation’s leaders

The fictional character in “It’s a Wonderful Life” shows that integrity should always outweigh convenience.

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James Stewart is shown in a scene from “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946).

Associated Press

One of my favorite lessons in leadership amid times of uncertainty comes from a scene in Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life.” A rumor goes around that Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, the local community bank, is going bust, and so a frightened, angry crowd has stormed the building to try to get their deposits out before all the money is gone.

George Bailey, who runs the Building and Loan, knows that this spells disaster, since the institution doesn’t keep everyone’s money on hand at all times. Seeing the commotion, he abandons his honeymoon plans to confront the restive crowd. The people packed around the deposit window are allowing their anger and fear to propel them down a path that will destroy their collective savings and harm the broader community. If they persist in demanding their balances in cash, the building and loan will go bust, and the town will be at the mercy of the cruel slumlord Mr. Potter.

George jumps behind the counter and assures his customers that the building and loan will be just fine — if they keep their heads. He reminds them that the building and loan has helped each of them in times of need, appealing to both their sense of community and their long-term self-interest. In the face of George’s calm persuasion, the angry mob melts into a group of neighbors who suddenly grasp their shared interest. The building and loan — and the community — are saved.

George Bailey did what great leaders do when selfishness and uncertainty turn scared people into an angry mob: They tell the truth, no matter how hard or unpopular. They calm and persuade. And they point us away from selfish, short-term advantage toward long-term, mutual benefit. History, of course, is full of examples of the opposite: leaders who refuse to tell hard truths, who incite rather than calm.

Since the November 2020 election, we have faced a run on the bank of our democracy. Rumors have swirled that the presidential election was illegitimate due to widespread fraud and corruption, defeating President Donald Trump in an election he would have otherwise won. The rumors are wholly untrue. The election was free and fair, and President Trump lost, as has been repeatedly validated in 50-plus courts across the nation, including the Supreme Court.

Like a bank run, a rumor that an election has been corrupted is a self-fulfilling prophecy: the fear that a perfectly functioning democracy has been subverted leads people to subvert democracy, triggering an ugly spiral in which those who fear that democracy has been corrupted then seek to bring about the ultimate corruption of democracy — rejection of the outcome of a fair election.

These false rumors have spurred an angry, frightened crowd to look to our Republican elected officials for answers. Some of these leaders have chosen the route that George Bailey chose — to tell the truth and to urge calm. Others have chosen a more dangerous path.

Principal among the former group is Sen. Mitt Romney, who has calmly and firmly told the truth that President Trump lost a fair election. For this he has been harassed and jeered and threatened. In spite of this abuse, he remains undeterred. We are very lucky indeed to have him representing us in Washington, and to the world. We’ve seen similar leadership from Govs. Spencer Cox and Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and Rep. John Curtis, all of whom were quick to acknowledge President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Gov. Cox, at his inauguration, spoke both hard truths and appealed to our better angels. George Bailey would have been proud.  

But these recent events have shone a light on failures of leadership, as well. When facing a mob inflamed by a lie, Utah Reps. Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens affirmed what is objectively untrue, further inciting the mob towards violence and insurrection. Only God can know their motives, but we can safely say that either they have failed to grasp a vitally important reality — that Biden won a free and fair election — or they do grasp it and are pretending otherwise. Either one is wholly disqualifying. 

Their failure has had tragic short-term consequences: it provided legitimacy to a conspiracy-addled fantasy that propelled a mob to storm and desecrate the U.S. Capitol, all for the purpose of forcibly preventing the rightful winner of the election from assuming power. Six people are now dead, and that number would likely have been much larger had the mob had its way.

The long-term effects of these events will take time to unfold, but history suggests that unless we change course quickly, they will be far-reaching and dire. The bank of democracy can only sustain so many runs before it is rendered insolvent. Congressmen Stewart and Owens failed us and the Constitution at a moment of crisis, and they should be held to account via the democratic process they have recently defamed and degraded. 

Frank Capra, the director of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” was born in Italy, and he saw America through the worshipful eyes of an immigrant. He told of his journey to America ending with the sight of the Statue of Liberty, and his father exclaiming to him that it was “the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem! That’s the light of freedom!” Capra’s faith in America was boundless, and this shone through in characters like George Bailey and Sen. Jefferson Smith. 

These fictional heroes stood up to the dark forces of anger and fear and avarice to help realize the promise of America. We are greatly blessed in Utah to have leaders in real life who have done the same. Let us seek more leaders like Sen. Romney, Govs. Herbert and Cox, Lt. Gov. Henderson, Congressman Curtis and so many other ordinary citizens willing to tell the truth in the face of pressure and panic. Mr. Capra would be proud.

Davis Bell lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and five children. He works as a software executive and spends his spare time exploring Utah’s amazing outdoors.