By Paolo von Schirach —
WASHINGTON – Americans love biographies. A classic sub-category of this popular genre is books about the lives and deeds of past US Presidents. It is surprising to see how so many different authors keep coming up with new angles and new material on Presidents Washington, Lincoln or Johnson.
A skewed perspective
Still, one can see a big problem emerging from the enduring popularity of so many books about the lives of Great Men. Regardless of the perspectives and sometimes fresh material offered by the authors, the subtext in most of these books about very consequential presidents is that America must have Great Presidents in order to meet the Great Challenges, so that it can move up to the next level of Greatness.
It is of course obvious that it would be really nice if here in America we could always or at least often elect men or women of superior intellect, high ethical standards and superb leadership and political skills. But manifestly we do not. Very often we come short.
This being the case, the biographies of Great Presidents at least indirectly become opportunities to compare past giants to past and recent dwarfs, and then lament our current and possibly future national misfortune on account of lack of high caliber presidential talent. This narrative often leads many to the logical conclusion that, lacking exceptional individuals at the helm, America will probably stagnate or decay.
This perspective and the conclusions it leads to are wrong, really wrong. And this is because the implicit conceptual premise –we must have Great President otherwise America is doomed– is wrong. This Republic was not founded on the explicit or implicit assumption that for America to thrive, or even survive, only Great Men should be elected to high office.
A flawed premise at the root
This Republic was founded instead on a different, but unfortunately equally flawed, premise implicitly agreed upon by the Founders. The premise was that most Americans —“We the People”, the ordinary citizens– are and will be mostly decent and reasonably wise people who will then select decent people among the fellow citizens running for elected office, including president. If not always, at least most of the time we shall elect rational and wise people to high office.
Unfortunately, this implicit assumption that we must have and will have wise citizens in this republic, although different from the notion that we must have Great Presidents in order to thrive, is also a fantasy. Where is the evidence about the prevalence, at the time of the founding of America, now and in the future, of the prevalence of these qualities of reason and tolerance within the American society? This assumption was wishful thinking on a gigantic scale on the part of our Founders. It is simply not true that most people –the building block of our American polity– are and will be reasonable and rational, if not always, at least most of the time.
This wishful thinking, this superimposing of an aspiration (“it would be nice if we could have a New Republic made up of wise people”) on the reality of flawed and not nearly perfect people allowed the Founders to go ahead with their extremely ambitious self-government project whose success, in their own words, was based on the prevalence of wise and moral citizens, notwithstanding the empirically observable absence of such a strict prerequisite.
We managed to survive
In all this, what is truly extraordinary is that, despite this flawed premise, America managed to survive and even thrive for such a long time. The problem is that it seems that now we are running out of luck. Millions of Americans plainly show that they are not wise when it comes to choosing their leaders and their programs. On the contrary, alarmingly large numbers of our Fellow Citizens are avid consumers, believers and propagandists of crazy fantasies, weird conspiracy theories and crackpot ideologies.
And here he have a serious problem. Even if we accept that our society will be somewhat flawed due to the immaturity and imperfections of some of its members, we should agree with the Founders that a well functioning Republic can exist only if most of “The People” genuinely share basic values and beliefs and exercise their cherished freedom wisely, with moderation and tolerance towards others. Absent that, we can still have a democracy –but in name only. In truth what we have instead is a dysfunctional, chaotic polity that may somehow survive, but certainly not a thriving, cohesive society.
Optimistic Founders assumed rationality
The Founders were wildly optimistic. They believed that self-government was possible and would succeed in America because they truly believed that all individuals by nature are and will be mostly rational. Being reasonable and pragmatic human beings, the citizens would be naturally drawn to come up with rational, balanced solutions for the country’s problems, after engaging in mature debates and discussions, on the merits of the issues before them.
If these fantasyland assumptions genuinely believed and embraced by the Founders had been true, then we could rest assured then and now that, no matter who would compete for and win this or that election, most of the time the country would be in reasonably safe hands. Maybe we would not have Great Presidents. But most of the time we would be able to elect solid, competent and capable individuals from within our midst who would be able to handle public affairs in a reasonably enlightened and productive way.
Irrationality would be the exception
The Founders did concede that every now and then there would be some who would act in the public arena under the spell of unreasonable and may be foolish passions. Occasionally there would be rabble rousers and other unethical persons motivated solely by self-centered interests and personal ambitions. But these would be the rare exceptions, the unfortunate aberrations.
Most of the time, most of the people –the citizens and the leaders they would choose– would be wise. Being wise, the citizens would retain the ability to sift through the ideas and their advocates and then discard the dubious products and their proponents; and then choose the best from a reasonably good and occasionally exceptional menu.
This faith in a common sense driven America was articulated by Abraham Lincoln as a candidate for an Illinois Senate seat. In one of his 1858 celebrated debates with his opponent, Stephen Douglas, Lincoln reportedly said, “Judge Douglas cannot fool the people: you may fool people for a time; you can fool a part of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”
Back then, that was a clever debate line, articulated by Lincoln during a widely followed political campaign. But was what Lincoln said true? Most importantly, is it true today? Is it really true that “you can’t fool all the people all the time?”
Irrationality has reached dangerous levels
Given the worrisome developments of the last decade or so, can we envisage instead America as a political battlefield dominated by irrational ideologies spearheaded by national leaders and would be leaders intent on advancing extreme and crackpot plans, with some of them engaged indeed in an effort to fool all of the people of all the time? Can we see the triumph of extreme ideologies and populism at the expense of reasonable plans? Well, if the last ten years can provide any guidance, the answer is yes.
And we did not get to this dangerous place because we lack a deep bench of Great Men and Women ready to jump in and save us. In this toxic atmosphere, the wise are simply not listened to. And this is because our society is no longer –if it ever was– the society of mostly reasonable people the Founding Fathers believed they lived in and assumed would be able to self-perpetuate itself, generation after generation.
It is not that somehow, due to historic accident, these days we have the bad luck of being stuck with wicked or incompetent candidates for high office who end becoming our leaders. Our problems do not stem from the lack of great or at least acceptable candidates who will make great or at least decent Presidents.
The real problem is us.
The truth is that as a society we are not wise enough. If we ever really had it, we seem to have lost the ability to calmly analyze and sift through ideas and candidates, and then simply push aside the crackpot plans and egomaniacal would-be leaders who from time to time may and do appear on the American political scene.
The sustaining myth is gone
What the Founders got really wrong is that, contrary to their (strong but unfounded) beliefs inspired by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, the dominant political philosophy of their era, human beings are not —repeat, are not— naturally predisposed to choose and then nurture reason within themselves, and tolerance with one another. Men and women born in this Republic, or elsewhere in the world for that matter, are not naturally truth-seeking creatures born with the propensity to pursue real knowledge and public policies inspired by their natural wisdom. Some certainly are. And this is good. But not all, and certainly not a majority.
And here is our dilemma. Our old political-cultural references and values are essentially based on beautiful dreams elaborated by thinkers of the late XVIII century that we held on to for a surprisingly long time. Strong belief in the truthfulness of these dreams somehow (and surprisingly, I should add) acted as the gravity-defying invisible bond holding together our fragile polity. I argue that this myth-based bonding agent based on the completely unproven belief that “most of us Americans are and will be Good and Wise Citizens” managed to prevent our American edifice from falling apart, simply because enough people believed that it was true.
But today that beautiful dream that magically kept this republic going has withered. It is no longer strongly believed. At best it is now a faint echo from a distant past. It does not stir many people. Most young Americans today have only a vague understanding of –let alone faith in– the unshakeable beliefs about the fundamental goodness and rationality of most people that inspired and sustained our Founders. This being the case, the new generations are not really interested in studying them, let alone embracing them. This is a serious problem.
Humankind has been pursuing wisdom for millennia. In the West some tried to describe it, embrace it and then teach it to others, so that all of us would have at least a chance to become wise. (Although pursued through other means, in the East the search for wisdom is equally important.)
And yet, any empirical observation indicates that we come short, way short. Nowadays, our political debates are dominated or at the very least strongly influenced by wild ideologies often based on insane fantasies and dangerous conspiracy theories.
As we all know, in November 2020 we had a national election following tried and tested accepted procedures. And yet millions of Americans to this day strongly believe that the official winner, Joe Biden, did not win; because they have been repeatedly told by Donald Trump, the losing candidate, that this “victory” is the result of massive fraud on an unprecedented national scale. Trump produced no credible evidence to supports his fantastic claims. And yet millions believe him anyway.
By the same token, thousands of Americans, inspired and egged on by Donald Trump, the losing candidate, apparently believed that it would be an act of genuine patriotism to storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 in a crazy and completely illegal attempt to prevent the final certification of the November 2020 vote.
Let us be serious. These are not small glitches in our system, bumps in the road. These are dreadful illustrations of a society well on its way to becoming unhinged. There is no precedent of an angry mob violently storming the US Capitol, America’s parliament, in order to stop and reverse the final validation of a perfectly legitimate presidential election. Likewise, there is no precedent of a large majority of the lawmakers of one party casting a vote aimed at challenging the validity of a certified national election.
This is a crisis
Unless we want to fool ourselves, this state of affairs amounts to a crisis, with profoundly negative implications for the future viability of this Republic. America was founded by overly optimistic self-taught men who believed that it was possible to create a state founded on self-government because “The People” are essentially good. Had they been convinced that “The People” were and would be immature and prone to fall for unhinged fantasies, would they have pursued their daunting effort to establish a Republic whose eventual success was and is premised on the enduring wisdom of its citizens?
Can education help?
According to the Founders, if some of the people do not have enough wisdom, there is a great remedy: education. Education comes in to assist in the effort to awaken and then nurture our innate rationality. The cobwebs of ignorance, superstition and foolish ideas will be dissolved in a healthy clean bath of unbiased scientific knowledge. The pursuit of knowledge and truth, in turn, will make people wise. And this essential human quality –wisdom– would make this Republic possible.
There is of course some truth in all this. Education is an extremely important tool. Still, as a minimum, the Founders should have created, or at least made clear provisions to guarantee uninterrupted support to institutions that would be tasked with the critical responsibility of molding wise citizens.
Who will take care of teaching our values?
Indeed, as the foundations of this American polity were and are based on intangible and fragile beliefs, who should be taking care of their upkeep? Looking at our current predicaments, whatever has ben done in terms of making wisdom prevalent rather that rare in America is as a minimum inadequate. I am sure that we can do better, even though the challenge is immense, since we are talking about restoring the very foundations on which our Republic rests.
Be that as it may, for sure, this critical objective of nurturing wisdom in our midst is not going to magically manifest itself. Someone has to do something –and quickly. Remember: widespread wisdom is the precondition for making the self-perpetuation of our democracy possible. Failure to act means that the bad moment we are experiencing now will probably become the new normal.
Teaching young people how to become wise is a daunting task. In the course of western history, eminent philosophers pursued wisdom and tried to teach it –with very modest results. Can we do better, going forward?
I have no idea. But I do know that if this trend is not reversed our outlook looks bleak. Indeed, if these new lows in our public discourse and behavior will be followed by even lower ones, we shall soon slip into systemic dysfunction. And when dysfunction will dominate, the fragile edifice we call America, lovingly built by Founders who had embraced this beautiful dream of a democracy that would endure because of the inherent rationality of its citizens will collapse.
Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.