Let’s consider what George Bailey does in the movie: He builds affordable housing (socialist!) and lends money to lower- and middle-income families (leftist!) including “ethnic types” (social engineer!) in the belief that they can become more productive citizens (commie!). All the while, he sacrifices his own ambitions and livelihood to serve the community (wimp!).
Meanwhile, the movie’s villain is the prosperous and prudent Mr. Potter. What does he do that is so evil? Expecting people to exercise thrift instead of borrowing beyond their means? Lowering costs and maximizing profits to improve returns to himself and his shareholders? Diversifying by expanding into different industries? He even supported national defense by heading the Draft Board! Nowadays, he wouldn’t be considered a villain. He’d have several best-selling business books and a show on Fox Business Channel.
But for me, It’s a Wonderful Life is subversive because it glorifies values we Americans have forsaken.
First, it stresses the importance of community and the common good. George Bailey understands that by helping people climb up from poverty, the community as a whole benefits. This was made clear in comparing Bedford Falls with Potterville. Bedford Falls was prosperous, safe, and clean. Potterville was a den of vice and crime. Serving the common good makes life better for everyone. When the poor and middle-class are exploited, life isn’t safe for the wealthy either.
Along with the importance of community is the notion of self-sacrifice. For those of us who have been raised on a diet of dog-eat-dog reality TV competition shows, George Bailey looks like a pathetic buffoon. Even he resents his acts of martyrdom as he watches the people he helped wind up getting more wealth, acclaim, and appreciation than he does. And let’s be honest: most of us who give to others don’t have the happy ending when the whole community bails us out in our time of need. Often, people just spit in our eye and ask us to give them more. (I’ve been in that situation a few times.)
Yet, without people who are willing to sacrifice for others, where would our communities be? There would be no schools, no police officers, no fire fighters, no youth or senior programs. And don’t forget that It’s a Wonderful Life was released immediately after World War II when millions sacrificed their own lives to keep our world safe. We may never be rewarded directly for what we give to others, but we are benefited by the sacrifices others are making for the general good.
It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t just about the impact of one person’s life, it shows how each of us impacts our community. Everything we do affects others. By giving generously of ourselves, everyone benefits — including ourselves. By acting selfishly, everyone suffers — including ourselves. At a time when any government program that benefits the community is considered “socialist,” companies raise stock prices by laying off and exploiting workers, and people become instant celebrities through self-indulgent behavior, the truly American values of George Bailey have become subversive indeed.