WASHINGTON – Whatever the eventual outcome of the democratic party primaries, we have a Barack Obama phenomenon that is more then just a momentary blip. Whether he will eventually prevail or not against Senator Hillary Clinton, Obama’s staying power, in fact growing profile, in terms of widespread support across races and age groups and his ability to attract massive financial contributions to his campaign demonstrates that, yet again, at least a sizable portion of the American electorate is transfixed by the idea that a “New Type of Leader” will get us on “The Right Path”.
This large segment of the electorate seems to conceive the political process as an exercise in spiritual self-renewal, as opposed to a process aimed at selecting a competent chief executive. What is held against Obama by the traditionalists –lack of experience—is indeed a virtue for his supporters. He is not tainted by the process. Barack Obama is new; indeed extra new. A junior Senator from Illinois with a negligible political record (at least compared to many more seasoned politicians). He is different not for what he is (who knows really…) but for what he seems to symbolize.
Among other things there is an assumption regarding his purported ability to make us finally heal and thus transcend the race issue through his very physical being as a biracial man. All this is mixed with an ideal blend of youthful vigor and principled, ecumenical idealism, finally pasteurized by an enlightened and wise pragmatism of post-partisan politics. “The Man with two Races” represents himself as the Uniter. The One who can lift us beyond petty politics by disclosing a “Vision” that sets all of us onto a “Higher Purpose”.
We have serious problems –he tells us– and we should confront them with the appropriate gravitas blended, though, with the “can-doism” of a reawakened American Pragmatism. And here we go again. We really want to listen to someone who tells us that if we only put our minds to it, the sky is the limit. We are Americans. United behind a Genuine Leader who will tirelessly exhort us to be the best that we can be –the New Coach of Team America– we shall regain our sense of purpose and be once again an unstoppable force for good.
Back in 1995 we had another African American whom we flirted with: General Colin Powell. After Powell had retired from being the first soldier, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, there was intense speculation that he would run for president. So, we were told by U.S. News & World Report ,(Cover story August 21, 1995), that Colin Powell is “The Man to Watch”. But what did Powell have that made him so attractive?
He was an ex soldier with no recognizable political base or clear political program. Well, that was precisely the point. He was unknown and thus he could make us dream whatever we wanted to dream. This deep fascination with the “good outsider”, now renewed through the Barack Obama phenomenon, reveals a great deal as to what many Americans unconsciously expect from a president.
At least for some Americans, and the young first and foremost, the qualities desired in a elected public officer are not primarily intelligence, common sense and steadfast pursuit of a goal until it is accomplished.
No. We want “Leadership”, “Vision”. We may not say it openly, yet we are usually bored when we hear from a would be president about what his administration will do about energy, taxes or infrastructure spending. We want to sit, riveted in front of the TV, transfixed by the eloquence of a Man who introduces us to His Vision. We want to hear stirring rhetoric about our “Unique Destiny” as Americans; our Nation’s “Bright Future”.
This, of course, does not mean that we like to give unchecked, dictatorial powers to the presidents. No Mussolini, Hitler or Peron for America.
Yet, we want to be seduced. We want to be inspired. Deep in our hearts we want a Prophet in the White House. We want a man whose vision surpasses all others, a man who will touch our spirits, a man who will energize us to accomplish great deeds.
The attention given to General Colin Powell months after his retirement was based on the fact that we could believe that he had these qualities, while Bill Clinton, the incumbent president at the time, did not seem to.
Of course nowadays Bill Clinton has been reconstructed as the inspired good president who gave us peace and the roaring ‘90s. But, at the time, he did not appear so inspiring. The crushing defeat of his party in the Congressional lections of 1994 attested to that. Deep in our hearts, in the elections of 1992, we wanted a champion; and instead we got a policy wonk of questionable moral character. Bill Clinton extolled the merit of “Reinventing Government”. He pushed government-business alliances to produce a new generation of cars. He wanted a comprehensive health reform but in the end he could not explain it. For a time, he forced many journalists to understand and explain to a confused public what a “BTU” (British Thermal Unit) is.
But he had not defined for us a “Heroic Journey”, a “Manifest Destiny”. There was no “New Deal” to be struck. No “New Frontier” ahead of us. No “Great Society” to be built.
Further, at the time there did not seem to be real dragons to slay across the Oceans. America was the Superpower, but we could not congratulate ourselves anymore for being the “Leader of the Free World”. The few attempts aimed at defining something new in foreign policy, such as humanitarian intervention in Bosnia, democracy building in Somalia or drawing the line on human rights in China excited very few people.
While we contemplated unenthusiastically the political horizons, fate had it that a new suitor with all the right credentials seemed to be coming along. Powell had all the qualities to become the object of our next infatuation. He had an impeccable resume. He was (is) a self-made American, a product of the military meritocracy which tempered his character. He led the military during the Gulf War. A black man universally respected by whites. Serious, witty and humble. Even better, he was politically untested. He never held elected office, so he has no record to defend or to distance himself from.
Hence the flurry of speculation. What was Powell going to do? Would he really be running for president in 1996? Was he a Democrat or a Republican ? As a General turned politician, was he going to be more like an Eisenhower or a Washington; a Jackson or a Grant ?
But the real (even though not fully articulated) question was: “Is this self-assured, competent soldier the hero who will lead this disoriented tribe away from the swamps of uncertainty and doubt and into the Promised Land of Prosperity and Security?”. Will a president Powell succeed in the task where all the other false prophets (President Bill Clinton included) failed us? Will he finally “fix” America for us?
While the context and the cast of characters have changed somewhat since the 1990s, the dynamics and the emotional drivers behind the Barak Obama phenomenon are pretty much the same. So, the hope of his many supporters is that Obama, with his exotic resume, his gravitas, his beautiful voice, seriousness and appeal to our moral principles will fix America for us. Unfortunately this is not just the proverbial wrong issue. The fact that an issue can be framed in these terms in the context of an election in a modern democracy reveals profound misgivings on the part of the public, as well as the opinion leaders who fuel these debates, on what the political process in a democracy should be about.
Would Colin Powell have made a good president? Of course, we’ll never know that. He snuffed the dream by taking himself out of the picture. But, had he decided to stay in and become president he probably would not have been worse than average.
As for Obama……who knows? Maybe what he lacks in experience he can make up with good instincts. But the real problem which reveals a profound misgiving about the nature of the political process is that the enthusiasm for his candidacy does not reside on the political plane. It resides on a semi-transcendental plane. It has to do with Faith and Belief rather than with the mundane bricks and mortar of the public policy pitfalls that should consist in the wise allocation of limited resources. Obama is not about policies; but about our need to be inspired by “Leadership-and-Vision, Moral-Character-and-Conviction-of-One-Man”.
But if this is the reason for the appeal of an individual who is running to be the head of what, after all, we call an “administration”, then we have a misunderstanding about the role of the political process in a democracy.
Let us make this clear: Nobody, nobody can “fix” America relying on his own inspirational abilities. Most of all, nobody will be able to fix it within the four years of a presidential mandate (or even within eight years –should he be reelected). America’s problems, like those of any complex, modern society, are systemic and as such they can be seriously addressed only over a long period of time.
“So what –one might say– even if we need long term solutions, let’s put someone in charge who will put us on the right track to begin with. That surely beats doing nothing or having another half-witted character in the Oval Office”.
Here is another fallacy. A president may identify problems and even suggest the right cures; but he cannot transform the soul of a nation. Not even if he is another Ronald Reagan-style “Great Communicator”, a politician who can rally diverse constituencies behind controversial programs. And the obstacles on the way to the implementation of Grand Designs, (taking for granted that sensible policies are indeed contained in them) are neither “congressional gridlock” nor the entrenched “interest groups”, nor the “bureaucracy” –and not even outside dangers such as Al Qaeda, or emerging rivals such as China.
The obstacle is us. All this yearning for inspirational leadership indicates that we have forgotten that an effective democratic government is premised not on the extraordinary qualities of a few; but on the deep and reasoned understanding of our condition and our real (as opposed to imaginary) choices on the part of the many. Further, democracy can function well only if the many do understand what can be addressed by us collectively, through the political process; and what has to be addressed instead by the people, individually, or in association with one another, on their own. Put it differently, the vaunted concept of the “Bully Pulpit” –the opportunity of a principled president to literally force the country on the way of wisdom, is a myth. At times it is a dangerous myth; as it creates expectations of a renewal engineered from above that routinely go unfulfilled. In an ideal republic, Good Government is the product of a healthy society. It is not the result of choosing the Superior Man as President.
Those individuals whom we reverently call our Founding Fathers grappled from the very beginning of the Republic with these issues. They found no final answers; but they certainly agreed that a democratic form of government requires a great deal of reason on the part of the people who make up the Republic. Indeed, democracy is premised on abundant reason. And reason, here, is to be understood as a clear sense of individual responsibility and self-reliance accompanied by a shared sense of justice and human decency that will prevent prevarication and abuses at the expenses of few or many. It also means a pragmatic understanding of what it takes to get something meaningful done in terms of time, effort and money.
But the record shows that, at least when we consider the highest elective office in the nation, many of us use little or no reason as the criteria to assess potential candidates. We crave someone “who will put things in order”. This person must look and sound persuasive. He must look good on TV. His positions on the issues are far less important than his rhetoric. He does not have to be right. He just has to sound right. Mesmerizing speech is far more important than content.
This state of affairs indicates a peculiar dichotomy in the American Collective Psyche.
On the one hand, we have a tradition that looks at government in a skeptical and somewhat suspicious way. And thus we sing the praise of a system of checks and balances which was designed to prevent any individual, faction or interest to entirely dominate the system. Indeed, as James Madison wisely put it long ago, men are not angels. So we must have a system of government which will create some healthy protection, a hedge against the power-hungry, the silly or the incompetents who are bound to be among our political leaders. Thus, a simple idea: do not give too much power to anybody. In fact, create a healthy competition among the key institutions of the Republic.
Make sure that no sweeping plan will be adopted too quickly. Let the Congress be in the way of the president, let the Courts check on the laws, let the president veto imprudent legislation, and so on and so forth. The marvelous result of a rather weak government will be that the citizens will not be hindered in their own private pursuits for whose protection, (remember the Declaration?), governments were created.
On the other hand, to this commonsensical, realistic, pragmatic approach enshrined in our Constitution, we juxtapose a romanticized view of government. We look at politicians –and presidents in particular– not just as chief executives, as the heads of what is still called, (after all) an “administration” but as the equivalent of Biblical leaders. Deep down, we do not want an “administrator” in the White House. Deep down we are on the lookout for a Moses who will lead us from the wilderness of confusion (economic, social, national, international, ecological –you name it) into the Promised land of Self- Assurance, Hope and Prosperity.
So, we are really torn between two opposite ideas about the political process. We have the world of the harsh everyday reality that makes us suspicious of any politician and skeptical about any and all of their claims. And then we have another world in which we invite politicians to tell us that they will fix everything. We want them to tell us that, if only we will vote them into office, nothing less than the Full Restoration of the American Dream will be bestowed upon us alongside with Justice and Dignity for All.
Is there a way out of this confusion? Of course there is: but it is complicated, as it summons our personal sense of responsibility. We need to rediscover what we have forgotten. We need to learn again that the premise for a successful democratic government consists in an informed, politically and policy literate citizenry which understands issues and can formulate reasonable opinions about them. Such a literate populace will tend to choose from within its midst elected leaders who will be (hopefully in most cases) at least not below average in their understanding of the needs for the common good.
This rather mundane truth is the simple secret of successful democratic government. Success lies in the nurturing of civic virtues and at least basic knowledge about issues on the parts of the citizens. The same citizens will also understand that it is impossible to ask government to fix problems –such as drug addiction and crime– which are deeply embedded in stratified bad personal habits for thousands and thousands of people. No doubt, well conceived public policy measures can help, but only if the rest of society agrees and changes its behavior.
But we do not want to bother with this simple yet harsh reality. A reality which summons our sense of personal responsibility. And we harbor instead a dream. We want to believe that somewhere, somehow there is a “Moses in waiting”. Just let him come along and He will sort out the mess.
The fact that a sizable percentage of Americans is prone to believe in these simplifications explains our infatuations. The Barak Obama phenomenon is largely a manifestation of this wishful thinking. While at the local and state level our political process is about the representation and the protection of vested interests, (taxes, zoning, infrastructures, basic services), at the national level it is a sequel of love affairs and disappointments with various politicians who carried “messages” that had very little to do with public administration.
How could all this happen in our Republic? Difficult to say. But, for sure, overtime we have lost the original sense of democratic government. Overtime we turned significant moments of our democratic life (such as party conventions) into rituals (at time solemn, at times ridiculous), which seem to celebrate extraordinary people. We seem to have forgotten that democracies can thrive only when everybody –governors and governed alike– display more virtues than vices.
Furthermore, probably unconsciously, we created physical symbols that seem to corroborate our distorted views. The Founding Fathers met on several historic occasions in a Hall in Philadelphia that is anything but grand. But we, the posterity, in order to celebrate them, have built shrines. Just go around the city of Washington and you will see not just monuments erected to eminent and worthy Americans. You will see Temples honoring Demigods whose lives and deeds are wrapped in the mist of legend. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln are not represented as men –however eminent. They are Heroes, Visionaries, Saviors. They are our “American Holy Trinity”. God the Father (Washington), God the Son (Lincoln, both Savior and Martyr) and God the Holy Ghost (Jefferson, worshipped for having inspired the birth of the Nation). Indeed, if we look up in the Capitol Rotunda, what do we see? A God-like George Washington looking at us from the Heavens.
Parts of the city of Washington are the functional equivalent of the Vatican for the Catholics or Mecca for the Muslims. Places of worship where perhaps we are also reminded of the lessons of democracy; but where we especially celebrate the “Mystery of American Renewal” (Bill Clinton’s words during his inaugural address) –as if it were a myth of Death and Resurrection.
So, if America is a “mystery” it is not part of the conscious experience. It is a miracle; an act of God. And the president must be a mix of a Biblical Prophet and the Roman Pontifex Maximus. As Prophet he leads. As Pontifex he celebrates, invokes and blesses.
Only in America, among the modern industrial democracies, do we find in the speeches of presidents so many invocations to God and his blessings. Imagine the French President routinely concluding a speech with the formula “God bless you and God bless France”. It would be odd, if not bizarre.
But not in America. We do have a special relationship with the Almighty who –as we can read on our dollar bills– “Annuit Coeptis“, (“Smiled on our Undertakings”) and it is “In God [that] We Trust”. From this vantage point, America is a mystical, rather than a political creation. This is not a state. For many at least, it is the New Jerusalem. As the Jews of old, we have a special Covenant with God and He will not let us down. In the hour of Great Peril he will send to us another Great Man. And this Hero may sacrifice himself in order to give us a better future. Thus Lincoln, and thus John and Bob Kennedy.
But the peculiar thing is that the celebrated heroes of our past certainly did not regard themselves as Gods. They were concerned members on their communities who acted to promote ideas which had gained wide currency among the educated elites of the late XVIII century. The concepts of individual freedom, representative government, tolerance and free expression were not conceived in America. America is unique in as much as these ideas managed to take firm roots here, while they never found sufficiently fertile ground where they have been produced –that is in the Old Continent.
Most fundamentally, the George Washingtons of the time understood that the fortunes of democratic government did not and do not rest on the extraordinary leadership capabilities of some philosopher-president; but in the mature civic spirit of the majority of the people whose thoughtful involvement in public affairs is the life blood of a republic. Indeed, a successful democracy is premised on responsible and thoughtful citizenry; citizens who first and foremost want to and can manage their own lives; citizens who are responsible members of their families and of their communities. The Founding Fathers understood that restraint and common sense were precious commodities, not to be taken for granted but absolutely necessary. Hence the healthy skepticism expressed by Publius in the celebrated Federalist Paper Number 51.
We instead seem to misunderstand a great deal about our history as a successful democracy. We attribute our glorious past to all-knowing demigods and our not so brilliant present to their absence from the scene. We have totally unrealistic ideas about what national leaders can do and thus we feel entitled to be constantly disappointed. We have silly love affairs with candidates and presidents only to discard them like yesterday’s newspaper because somehow they failed to make us dream as long as we wanted them to.
So, the political debate is disproportionately devoted to the symbolism of government rather than the substance and the consequences of governmental action. Electoral campaigns are circuses dominated by pollsters and image consultants with a silly chorus of a sensationalist media.
Ronald Reagan said that “It is morning in America” and America believed him; not because, upon careful consideration, we concluded that what he said was true; but because he said it well and with the right intonation and with the occasional tear in his eye which added credibility to his delivery.
All those who knew better were silenced by the chorus of silly adoration. Thus it was in bad taste to make an issue about the fact that president Reagan understood little about issues and that his misguided economic prejudices were contributing to the destabilization of our national finances. The people liked their Great Communicator and nobody seriously tried to tell them the truth.
George Bush Senior instead spoke with convoluted syntax, appeared uncertain about “the economy” and we fired him because we were told by the pundits that he lacked “vision”. Never mind that he won the Gulf War. The problem is that the economic recovery that was supposed to follow our victory did not materialize in time for the November 1992 elections. Never mind that every reasonable person knows that a president can do very little to control economic cycles. America felt very uncomfortable about its economy (later findings proved that the situation was not so horrible after all) and felt unhappy with a president who, when asked as to his plans, could only look embarrassed and mutter vague hopes that things somehow would adjust themselves. Since things did not get any better soon enough, (we are an impatient people, you know), we decided that we should try a different cure.
So, a crucial percentage of the American people, this bastion of rugged free enterprise, historically suspicious of government cures for economic ills, was sold in a matter of minutes to the idea that we, as a nation, were failing because we were the only major country lacking an “economic strategy”. Remember “the Economy- Stupid”? This was Bill Clinton’s main ammunition during the presidential campaign and the real winning point. All successful nations –explained super policy expert Bill Clinton– succeed because they have a “strategy”. Under the mindless and intellectually obtuse Republicans –added Professor Clinton– we failed to develop one, hence the lingering recession. Elect Clinton, implement the Bold New Strategy and everything will be fine.
Out went Bush, in came Clinton “The Leader with the Strategy”. At that time, nobody bothered to examine closely the premise laid out by Clinton: i.e. that centrally planned economic “strategies” are successful. Well, the record shows that most nations that tried to implement economic strategies (from the heavy duty Soviet style ones to the more modest “dirigiste” models like the French) failed miserably. West European Social Democracy, the well intentioned economic and social model of the 1960s and the 1970s, is now regarded as a monumental strategic failure which sapped the energies of European societies. But we never bother to look these facts up. As a nation, we become so absorbed with the latest slogan –as long as it is propounded with sincere conviction by the latest would-be Moses– that we do not bother to check the facts and the real experience of the others.
And so we live in ignorance of what government can do and what to expect from presidents. What is worse, many among the experts, the analysts, the pundits are unconscious victims of the same ignorance. Of course, at least some of them know better. But why be spoilers? No. The game has to continue. We cannot say that the Emperor has no Clothes. And, in this case, the Emperor is not the president. The Unclothed Emperor is a fickle people whose pulse we are constantly taking, with the help of the most sophisticated pollsters in the world. And yet we know very well that on most issues the opinions expressed in various polls are just epidermic moods of moody people; responses of the moment to the fad of the moment.
We are constantly asking Americans how they judge the performance of a president and then we sometimes see how the results of these polls become self-fulfilling prophecies. Yet, whenever we test the substantive knowledge of the same people about the actual actions of the administration –that is to say the facts on which they base their ratings on the president’s performance—quite often we discover significant ignorance. So, The People actually know little; yet somehow they have the gift that makes them able to discern a good president from a bad one. And the TV anchors who announce the results of these polls assume a grave intonation, as if they were reporting on the careful deliberations of the village elders, as opposed to the epidermic emotions of not so deeply informed people.
But the issue here is not who is to blame. The issue is that these attitudes about democratic government and our elected representatives show how dysfunctional our society is becoming. I say our “society” and not our “political system”, for the political system is the expression of the society and its level of maturity.
That having been said, what is to be done? There is no simple solution. The long term cure is education, education, education. And education goes beyond “information”. Civic Education involves, as a minimum, a basic grasp of where the healthy boundary between the personal and the public sphere in a democratic society should be. If most Americans understood this, and acted accordingly, we would see many of our “problems” in a far better perspective. We would then be self-guided as individuals. From government we would expect no miracles; only fairness aimed at giving everybody a good chance to participate and good administration.
Of course, this is a portrait of an ideal society in an ideal world. Still, this is the direction that we should aim for. Continuing to lull ourselves in our misguided fantasies about Saviors and Rescuers –Barak Obama being only the latest manifestation of this syndrome– will not improve our condition a bit.