The Wizards of Washington Can’t Deliver


The political community is abuzz about the growing possibility that Republicans might win control of the Senate this November. But little attention has been paid to a larger and more significant trend. Like former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, President Barack Obama saw his party lose control of Congress during his time in the White House. Never before in American history have three presidents in a row received such a rebuke from the voters. This is a fundamental rejection of both political parties.

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To understand this frustration, consider a lesson from one of America’s most beloved movies — “The Wizard of Oz.”

L. Frank Baum, the author of the classic children’s tale, was a populist. Some believe the original story was a commentary on the 1896 presidential election won by Republican William McKinley. The tin man and scarecrow are said to represent what populists saw as the natural alliance between factory workers and farmers. The wizard was McKinley, and Dorothy represented the essential goodness in all of us. Oz itself, of course, was Washington, D.C.

My favorites were the witches. They were stand-ins for the biggest threats to ordinary Americans. The Wicked Witch of the East stood for the mortgage bankers. As you recall, she was killed by Dorothy’s house falling on her. The Wicked Witch of the West represented drought, and that’s why Dorothy brought about her demise with a bucket of water.

If all this sounds a bit far-fetched, go to the Smithsonian and look at the ruby slippers. The script displayed with the shoes shows that the slippers were originally silver. That was scratched out and replaced with the now familiar color. Why?

While it’s hard to imagine now, monetary policy was a hot issue in the 1890s. Populists wanted the dollar backed by both silver and gold. The more traditional position was to remain on the gold standard. In that context, silver slippers walking on a yellow brick road evoked a powerful political symbolism. Even decades later, when the movie was made, the passions were too strong to show on the big screen.

It’s fun to explore the symbolism in the story, but doing so perhaps causes us to miss the main storyline. Dorothy braved the entire adventure through a forest filled with lions and tigers and bears and fought a wicked witch for only one reason. She believed with all her heart that if she did so, the Wizard of Oz would solve her problems. In the end, she learned that the Wizard was a fraud. Dorothy also learned she already had the power to solve the challenges she faced.

For most of the past half-century, Americans have been misled to believe that if they can only elect the right politicians, the Wizards of Washington will solve their problems. Because of that, millions have poured their energies and passions and money into campaigns and elections. The disillusionment spreading across the land today stems from the growing realization that no matter what hoops the voters jump through, the Wizard can’t deliver.

There is, however, a better way. We can roll up our sleeves, work together with our neighbors, and solve the problems facing our communities. This path is both challenging and empowering. For those of us who have confidence in the American people, it’s also a reason for optimism.

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