IN FRANK Capra’s classic 1939 film Mr Smith Goes To Washington, James Stewart plays junior senator Jefferson Smith, a man who finds himself at odds with a corrupt political establishment. In the famous climax, Smith tries to prove his innocence by staging a filibuster, talking for hour after hour in a monologue that reaffirms American liberty and tries to expose the machinations of his opponents.
This week, a US politician reenacted the iconic sequence for real, accompanied by a chorus of popular support playing out live on twenty-first-century social networks. Rand Paul, the junior senator for Kentucky, stood for 13 hours to delay the appointment of John Brennan as head of the CIA. Brennan is a key architect of President Obama’s controversial drone strike policy, which claims the right to kill US citizens without due process even on American soil.
Paul held his ground for hour after hour, laying out an impassioned, nonpartisan case for the right of citizens not to be punished without a trial, citing sources from Magna Carta and the Federalist Papers to Friedrich Hayek. As it became clear he was willing to stay on his feet until he could stand no more, #standwithRand began to trend on Twitter, and supporters from both sides of the political aisle supported his principled advocacy of individual rights over state power. It was an electrifying moment, where cultural history and the latest technology combined to shame the elite and highlight one man standing against unrestricted authority.
I first wrote about senator Paul three weeks ago, when his reaction to Obama’s state of the union address revealed a voice more courageous and original than the Republican party’s official respondent Marco Rubio. This week he has again proved himself not just one of America’s most promising young politicians, but someone worth our attention here in the UK.
The toxic reputation of politicians in Britain is all too well-known, and in many cases too well-deserved. It isn’t just that voters have been shocked into cynicism by the petty villainy of the expenses scandal or more recently by Chris Huhne’s self-serving mendacity. The problem runs far deeper. For as long as I have been able to vote, politics as usual has meant party leaders who parked any principles they had at the door of power, from the spin-driven, sexed-up world of New Labour to David Cameron’s gutless coalition, happier talking up cuts than making them.
That cynical era has led this country to the brink of bankruptcy. We need politicians again who are more than careerists and less committed to reflecting every passing ripple of public outrage. We need leaders like Margaret Thatcher, who could brandish a copy of Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty and say: “this is what we believe.” We need leaders who do not use focus groups to tell them what they think.
Senator Paul has done his country and all who watched his stand a favour, by reminding us what a principled politician looks like. Now we just need some of our own.