The failure of both the right and the left to appreciate the limits of the presidency should worry anyone who values representative democracy
Barack Obama offered us “change we can believe in.” Donald Trump claimed that he “alone could fix” the system. Now Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have lots of plans. It seems with each new election our expectations only grow, setting us up for yet another four years of disappointing results.
Individualistic countries like the United States in particular, put a great deal of emphasis upon leadership. That emphasis has only grown stronger in the age of 24/7 news and social media. It appears Americans have managed to pull off the seemingly impossible feat of simultaneously humanizing their leaders and placing them on a high if wobbly pedestal.
The way we commonly teach and write about history doesn’t help. The great man theory of history is only slightly less flawed than it used to be now that we are careful to include great women and individuals from other traditionally under-represented minorities in our history textbooks. The real problem never was with the lack of diversity among our heroes but with the over-emphasis on heroic individuals portrayed as though they had been created ex nihilo, complete with bootstraps to pull themselves up by. It’s a narrative that supports the myth that a single determined person can change the course of history even when society is totally unwilling or unprepared to go along.
Transformation is, in fact, a rather chaotic emergent dance between society and its leaders. The hero’s journey is always a contextual one that takes place within an environment that is at least a little open to his or her message. We never read about the heroes who came along at the wrong time because the transformations our heroes facilitate are always the one’s we are in some sense already prepared to begin.
In their book Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed, Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton describe a leader as someone who has “immersed themselves in their community” rather than as someone in charge of it. Good leaders are humble. They understand that asking the right questions is at least as important as having the right answers and that making connections with others is essential to identifying common goals that people can support.
What distinguishes good leaders from bad ones isn’t their power. It’s their capacity to relate with others, build large networks and boundless curiosity that sets them apart. These characteristics make good leaders well positioned to notice when the public’s values are changing. They appear to be the ones who are taking us to the promised land because their empathy, “immersion in the community”, and curiosity enables them to see where we’re ready to go before most of us are conscious of it ourselves.
However, bad leaders also have something akin to a sixth sense when it comes to the public’s mood. They can detect anger, fear, and the greater tolerance for corruption and cruelty that comes with them and are happy to use these collective weaknesses to facilitate a transformation of another sort. Men like Donald Trump may not know much but they do understand our craving for distractions that will take our mind off the increasingly complex problems being churned out by a rapidly changing world. In exchange for giving them the power and attention they desire these so-called “populists” promise to solve our problems for us and relieve us of the duties that come with citizenship in liberal democratic societies.
The left is no less vulnerable than the right is to the appeal of a strong leader. Though I have no doubt the motivations of both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are far purer than those of Donald Trump, each of their campaigns is built upon the premise that having a president with far reaching plans is the key to transformative change. Anyone who has spoken at length to one of their more ardent supporters knows that support rests in no small part upon the conviction that Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren equals Medicare for all, student loan forgiveness, and tuition free college education.
In my opinion those are all reasonably good ideas. The problem is that getting from here to there isn’t as simple as electing a president who thinks so too. As theories of change go, to say nothing of an understanding of the US Constitution, the idea that electing a single leader with radical ideas will be enough is seriously flawed at best and dangerous at worst.
While Franklin Roosevelt gets all the credit for the New Deal, people forget that by the time he was elected in 1932, the Great Depression had already brought considerable political change. In the mid-term elections of 1930, the Democrats gained 52 seats in the House of Representatives and 8 seats in the US Senate. Though the Republicans still controlled the House of Representatives by 2 votes and retained control of the Senate with the Vice President’s tie-breaking vote, the dye was already cast. In 1932 the Democrats gained an additional 12 seats in the US Senate and 97 more in the House. The liberal Farmer-Labor Party also gained four seats in the House of Representatives bringing the total losses for the GOP to 101.
FDR’s New Deal policies were made possible by this powerful public backlash against the inaction of the previous administration in the face of massive economic upheaval. Furthermore, those policies were both experimental and contrary to Roosevelt’s stated campaign promise to reduce America’s national debt. During the campaign of 1932, Roosevelt did not present himself as a man with a plan for everything so much as an alternative to a man who’s only stated plan was to do as little as possible.
That FDR didn’t articulate specific plans isn’t to say he didn’t offer the American people a real choice. Hoover was a conservative in every sense of the word and had no desire for the country to go anywhere other than back to 1928. FDR, on the other hand, knew change was already in the air and spent much of his time struggling to figure out what form that change might take so he could appear to lead it. The historian William E. Leuchtenburg writes, “FDR traveled around the country attacking Hoover and promising better days ahead, but often without referring to any specific programs or policies.” However, FDR did offer a different vision for the future even if he chose to keep that vision vague. Leuchtenburg continues, “FDR outlined the expansive role that the federal government should play in resuscitating the economy, in easing the burden of the suffering, and in insuring that all Americans had an opportunity to lead successful and rewarding lives.”
Today we aren’t experiencing a groundswell in support for one party over the other like 1930 and 1932. Indeed, both Sanders and Warren, arguably the two most ideological candidates in the Democratic primary, seem to be paying very little attention to building the kind of majority in Congress that would be necessary to produce the dramatic transformation they are advocating. Perhaps they realize that’s because that sort of Democratic majority simply isn’t in the cards right now. However, if that’s true they must also realize their promises are extremely unrealistic.
Unfortunately, Sanders and Warren aren’t the only Democratic candidates who appear willing to allow their presidential reach to exceed either its realistic or constitutional grasp. Senator Kamala Harris stated that if Congress didn’t act on gun control within her first 100 days as president she would do so by executive order. This should bother supporters of liberal democracy whether they think Senator Harris’ ideas regarding gun control have merit or not.
The US Constitution does not treat the president like either a prime minister or a monarch. In the Westminster parliamentary model, a prime minister effectively acts as the leader of both the executive and legislative branches of government, especially if his or her party is in the majority. Presidents of the United States, on the other hand, must deal with a co-equal legislative branch, and it is often the case that branch is wholly or partly dominated by the opposition party. As the leader of a separate branch of government the president is in no position to whip votes and enforce party discipline the way a prime minister can. Indeed, in the United States even legislative party leaders are only marginally better positioned to do so than the president.
We have already endured nearly three years of a presidency increasingly dismissive of the legislative branch. Many of the Trump administration’s allies have no qualms about making the argument that the president can do literally anything he wants without consequence. This includes declaring national emergencies to bypass a Congress unwilling to finance his priorities and turning US foreign policy into a tool for advancing the president’s political and financial interests. This view of presidential power stops just short of claiming the president has dictatorial powers.
While a President Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris would undoubtedly use the presidency to advance far more coherent, humane and progressive policies than the current occupant of the White House, I can’t help but worry about their de facto promotion of an imperial presidency that consistently promises the public it can deliver far more than the Constitution allows. Though it may seem counter-intuitive to say so, progressives might be more likely to get the kind of transformation they seek by supporting candidates who are far humbler and far less ideological.
Presidents aren’t saviors, saints, or knights on white horses that ride in at the last minute to save us from disaster. For both presidents and citizens alike, the best plans are flexible; the best values are firm. What we really require from our next president is humility, compassion, curiosity, intelligence, and a healthy respect for law. If we consistently seek leaders with those qualities the change we need will likely follow.