America in 2015 is all about smartphones and clickbait, a degeneratively autistic culture. The promiscuous fascination with novelty has reached the political sphere. The political primaries, overweighting the political nerds as they do, were supposed to be an exemption from this!
I am told that this is about authenticity, the raw realism of angry old men cutting through the focus group tested mush in a world of dozens of public relations spinners for every real journalist. They are leading some real, populist anger, I am told. Well. There is no such thing as a populist leader. The populist rides the wave of faction, he or she doesn’t lead it. Take Bernie Sanders. He is popular because he says “No one should work full time for starvation wages. Everyone should make at least 15 bucks an hour.” Where to start? How about “why stop at $15?” But this isn’t exactly a policy discussion of nuance. The “bucks” is a key part of that appeal. A leader would take the time to explain all the harm done, and the little to no benefit gained, from a more than doubling of the minimum wage. On the other side, our Utah delegation makes some populist statements sometimes: calling for the elimination of the department of energy or for Congress to stop delegating energy and environmental policy. But does anyone think we don’t need expert bureaucrats to handle nuclear waste issues or that how many parts per billion of mercury we allow in the drinking water should be determined by congressional legislation?
Leadership is about an elite individual going against, or at least shaping and adjusting, popular will. It is found in Kennedy’s ‘Profiles in Courage’, not Nixon’s silent majority. The loudest, most interesting, or most eloquent speaker of what everyone else thinks is not a leader. Leadership is Nixon going to China, Clinton reforming welfare, or Reagan talking disarmament in Iceland. If you aren’t changing how people think, how they behave, then you aren’t leading.
So forget presidents and presidential candidates, congressmen and senators. What about the courts? Unfortunately, the state of American law is akin to a tomato having gone through a cheese grader. Presidents choose umpires based on their compassion with certain batters and we call it law. Scalia, at least, has a quasi-coherent set of principles, but his ‘Trump in robes’ behavior persuades no one.
So let’s go back in time. The three greatest Presidents, by long consensus, were Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Washington. Until 2007-09, Roosevelt’s legacy was that was never supposed to happen again, because brilliant economic regulations had control of the commanding heights. FDR, 70 years dead, has had a bad decade.
Let’s go even further back, to the Founding Fathers. Generalizations about the Founding Fathers are dicey: they were not just plural but legion, of diverse views, they argued a lot, and more than 50% of what the Founding Fathers are claimed to have believed is, in my experience, wrong. Nonetheless, indulge me one: the Founding Fathers designed America to not be led. They worried about what always destroys self-government, namely Caesar. Neither Washington nor Lincoln wanted this country to risk another leader being in such a powerful position again. And we always have to remember, the Marxist criticism was right (as Marxist criticisms if not solutions usually are) this system was designed not to work.
Is this system disappointing to anyone who loves politics? Sure. A maximum of 8-10% of congressional seats are competitive every other year. Incumbents worry only about getting outflanked in a primary and raising money. In my experience, the annoyingly ideological politicians are immovable–they don’t think but they also don’t get bought. The thoughtful moderates are more likely to be corruptible and cynically political.
I do not believe the system makes our politicians a certain way, but rather certain politicians are right for the system. If that means Lindsay Graham on Meet the Press every week and Jason Chaffetz on Fox News talking his cot every day, so be it.
Trust in leaders and institutions is distinctly low these days. Whether it began with Vietnam or Lewinsky or somewhere else, we have seen, in the last century, our political and religious leadership start with broad consensus, on ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ or ‘Defense of Marriage’, and flush that completely down the toilet. Exposes on the NSA or Scientology are in, Atticus Fitch and Pope Benedict are out.
What does this mean politically? It seems to me that most hard core politicals would rather debate the evolving legacy of FDR or Reagan than explain how they distinguish John Kasich from Marco Rubio or Martin O’Malley from Lincoln Chaffee. Maybe it is too early for that.
And for this, my 2016 prediction. The Republican Party has long been an alliance of three forces: the military hawks, the social conservatives, and the economic realists. The first two are as out as out can be right now, and the last, an alliance with economic cold hard facts, has never been popular with voters. I will take Scott Walker, then, to win the nomination and lose the general election.