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Perhaps we're still in Oz

| Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 8:05 p.m.

L. Frank Baum's classic “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” published amid the economic and political chaos of the 1893 financial panic, has “eerie parallels to today,” according to Loyola University political science professor Michael Genovese.

Genovese's theory is that Dorothy (representing the Midwestern farmer or “The Everyman”) is swept from home in a tornado (representing the Industrial Revolution); her landing kills the Wicked Witch of the East (bankers and capitalists) who kept the munchkins (the little guys) in bondage.

To return home, she travels through the Land of Oz wearing silver slippers (Hollywood later made those slippers ruby-colored) — a reference by Baum (in Genovese's opinion) to the bimetallic monetary system advocated by populist politician William Jennings Bryan.

Traveling along the yellow brick (or gold standard) road, she meets a scarecrow without a brain (representing the farmer who doesn't have enough brains to recognize his political interests), a tin woodsman who lacks a heart (representing industrial jobs that turned men into machines), and a cowardly lion (representing the populist Bryan — all roar and nothing else, in Baum's opinion).

They all go off to Emerald City (Baum's version of Washington) in search of what the Wizard of Oz (the president, then William McKinley) might give them.

Of course, when they meet the Wizard, he resembles most politicians of Baum's era as well as those of today: He appears to be whatever people want him to be but, in the end, is nothing more than a common man who rules by making people think he is something he is not.

Baum's political allegory was written at the turn of the 20th century during the fading days of the Populist movement. The story colorfully chronicles the end of Populism and the issues on which the sometimes rambunctious movement was based.

Populism emerged as a result of industrialization and the changes it forced on Main Street and on agriculture communities, mostly in the Midwest. Those folks whose livelihoods were centered on farming felt economically threatened by heavy farm debts, low crop prices and high freight costs to transport their goods; they were particularly upset with the high interest rates that resulted from the use of the gold standard for the nation's currency.

They blamed the Northeastern elites, the bankers and the railroads. When urban factory workers aligned with farmers, they became a brief political force, mostly supporting Democrats, according to Genovese.

In many ways, they were similar to today's tea party movement and its eventual alignment with the Republican Party, which turned that movement into a potent political force.

The late 19th century witnessed an enormous social readjustment to a new economic system — the Industrial Revolution powered by steam, coal and, eventually, electricity.

Today, the Information Revolution — powered by computers, the Internet and social media — is witnessing a similar social and political readjustment.

Both of these periods in our history have been plagued by profound discontent with the way government is functioning — or, perhaps more accurately, not functioning.

And it easy to see why “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” can be considered an allegory for today's dissatisfaction with politicians: Dorothy still would represent “The Everyman,” the Scarecrow would still represent voters who supported the Wizard (in our case, President Barack Obama) but who don't have enough brains to recognize their political interests; the heartless Tin Man could easily represent folks in post-industrial service-industry jobs; the Cowardly Lion could easily stand in for Joe Biden — all roar and no substance.

As today's version of Dorothy & Co. march off to the Emerald City, or Washington, they would expect to get what the wonderful Wizard of Oz (Obama) will give them — because, of course, all throughout his latest presidential campaign he promised everything to everyone.

Baum was so enamored of President William McKinley that he once penned a poem to him. Yet he at least was honest enough to concede in his book that his McKinleyesque Wizard was nothing more than a common man — just like most elected officials who promise to be all things to all people.

Which makes you wonder: In some updated version of Baum's classic tale, would anyone out there (aside from some disgruntled Republican) offer such an honest appraisal of our current president?

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or

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