Weekly Briefing

The Potter strategy

Why the right tries to poison people against their own government

One of the best (and sappiest) American holiday movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life” – the story of a small town businessman named George Bailey (played by actor Jimmy Stewart) who foregoes his dreams of conquering the world in order to help save his backwater hometown from the clutches of a greedy and ruthless fat cat named Henry Potter.

A key scene in the movie revolves around the portrayal of a real world phenomenon that afflicted hundreds of American communities during the Great Depression – a “bank run.” In the film, residents of Bedford Falls descend upon George’s small savings and loan (or “building and loan” as it’s referred to in the movie) to demand that they be allowed to withdraw their deposits or “shares.” When George explains why it’s not possible for everyone to withdraw his or her money all at once, many announce that they’re heading off to take Potter up on his offer to buy their shares immediately for 50 cents on the dollar.

At which point, George leaps over the counter to address the crowd:

“Tom! Tom! Randall! Now wait… now listen… now listen to me. I beg of you not to do this thing. If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan there’ll never be another decent house built in this town. He’s already got charge of the bank. He’s got the bus line. He’s got the department stores. And now he’s after us. Why? Well, it’s very simple. Because we’re cutting in on his business, that’s why. And because he wants to keep you living in his slums and paying the kind of rent he decides.”

He goes on:

“Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling. Potter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicky and he’s not. That’s why. He’s picking up some bargains. Now, we can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.”

The modern day Potters

If the situation George is describing sounds familiar, it ought to; it’s being played out every day on a much grander scale in the current state and national public policy debates. The only difference is that it’s not just a building and loan and the future of a small town that are at-risk. Today, it’s our democratic government itself and the country as a whole that are under the threat of a hostile takeover bid.

Think about it for a minute: Who are the “buyers” – the modern day Potters, if you will – when it comes to the institutions and structures that make up modern government?

Who is it that’s publicly and incessantly denigrating our commonly held institutions even as they double down on their own efforts to swoop in and seize control of them?

Who is it that’s spending unprecedented sums to: elect public officials who will do their bidding, lobby for the passage of laws that will enhance their power and sell off public assets and institutions, and convince a forgetful public that they’re better off “on their own” rather than sticking together?

It’s the modern day Potters, of course: the Rupert Murdochs, the Art Popes, the Koch Brothers, the Richard Scaifes and those they employ.

These people and their minions preach every day about how bad government is; about how they want to get it down to the size where they can “drown it in the bathtub” and about how government limits our “freedom.”

Here’s the new darling of the far right (a woman who spent a good part of her career working for the IRS!), Congresswoman Michelle Bachman as she addressed supporters in Iowa recently as reported by The Nation magazine:

“‘Why is it that government always wins? Why is it the taxpayer always loses?’” Comparing the fiscal condition of the federal government to a family in bankruptcy, and blaming that on ‘government theft,’ Bachmann positioned herself as a warrior against a rapacious behemoth. ‘Why should we bankrupt ourselves, why should we bankrupt our kids…to keep this thing going?’ she asked. ‘It is a money-eating machine in Washington, DC, and I say it’s time to dismantle the machine.’”

But, of course, despite the ravings of deranged demagogues like Bachmann and a handful of true believers on the fringe, the big money people have no real interest in truly dismantling government. Like Mr. Potter they simply want to erode public support and confidence in it and, thereby, drive down the “price” so they can move in and take control.

In short, they don’t want to do away with government; they want to buy it.

Closer to home

The Potter-like hostile takeover model is readily evident in the actions of conservatives in North Carolina. The recent Policy Watch Investigates series about the actions of a powerful member of the House Republican leadership team, Rep, Stephen LaRoque of Lenoir County, highlights a classic example. Here is a man who’s made a political career out of railing against government and all things public who, it turns out, makes a living by loaning public money – often to fellow conservative friends – and taking heaping helpings for himself.

There are numerous other examples – from the right-wingers who’ve found well-paid employment in the offices of conservative lawmakers to the conservative academics and pseudo-academics who take positions at public universities to promote the demise of all things public to the school “privatization” advocates who negotiate lucrative contracts to help run and supply supposedly “public” charter schools.

In area after area, the right follows the Potter game plan: work to undermine the public institutions that threaten your hegemony by sowing public misunderstanding and mistrust and then move in and take over.

Calling George Bailey

In the movie, George Bailey and his family help to stem the bank run panic by convincing the residents of Bedford Falls to stick together and hold on to their common asset. While everyone can see that the building and loan is far from perfect, ultimately, the people come to understand that it’s still theirs and a darn sight more useful to all of them as a flawed, but commonly-held institution than as merely another disposable asset for the town tycoon.

In the modern real world, it remains to be seen whether anyone can pull off such a feat with respect to the public systems and structures that bind us. With hard economic times still afflicting the country, the pull of the panic-mongers and their snake oil “free market” solutions is powerful.

Let’s hope the upcoming political and electoral wars bring a new and energetic cadre of George Baileys ready and willing to ascend the nearest soap box in order to deny the plutocrats the prize they seek.

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