Monday, June 30, 2008

America doesn't need leadership

Writing for Britain's The Independent, John Rentoul notes that Barack Obama is running for president less on policy than on a forceful, leader-like presence. "[W]hat matters is Obama's personality." Obama himself vows to "take us in a fundamentally new direction."

Likewise, John McCain has long touted his leadership skills over specific views on what the government ought or ought not be doing, and constantly links himself to a one-time White House strongman, saying, "I am a Teddy Roosevelt Republican."

And just as McCain's camp challenges Obama's ability to lead by trying to link him to the hapless Jimmy Carter, Obama supporters question McCain's leaderly credential, with Wesley Clark rolled out to cast doubts on the Arizona senator's "command experience."

Both major presidential candidates have made it quite clear that -- policy differences aside -- they're running to be national leader and they want to be assessed on their readiness to take the nation's helm.

That's a shame, because if there's anything this country does not need, it's a leader.

In fact, the whole idea of national leadership in a republic of free, self-governing people was intensely distasteful to the founders. In his book, The Cult of the Presidency, Gene Healy points out:
Indeed, the term "leader," which appears repeatedly in Madison, Hamilton, and Jay's essays in defense of the Constitution, is nearly always used negatively, save for one positive reference to the leaders of the American Revolution. The Federalist is bookended by warnings about the perils of popular leadership: the first essay warns that "of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants." The last essay raises the specter of disunion and civil war, ending with the "military despotism of a victorious demagogue." For the Framers, the ability to "move the masses" wasn't a desirable quality in a president -- it was a threat.
Free countries don't need leaders because their citizens lead themselves. The inhabitants of free countries are disparate individuals with varying values and preferences, all wanting to go in a multitude of different directions. The role of the government in a free country is to protect the borders and prevent the citizens from getting too rough with one another, and otherwise let people find their own way as best they can.

Leaders are for tribes where young upstarts challenge old warriors to duels to determine who gets to plan the next chicken-and-bride raid on a neighboring village. National leaders are for sad, dusty realms where peeling posters featuring the faces of politicians pasted on steelworkers' bodies stare down from every corner.

Of course, we already have a "national leader." George W. Bush and his "unitary executive" theory didn't even originate the idea of an all-powerful, inspirational presidency -- that particular abomination goes back rather further -- at least to McCain's beloved Teddy Roosevelt. The impression of the president as sort of a combination warlord and spiritual savior is already well-entrenched, putting the next holder of the office well along the path to turning the presidency into something resembling the Roman consulship under Augustus Caesar.

And most Americans seem perfectly happy with this development, with the public apparently eager for an intimidating and inspirational president. True, Barack Obama has the better-developed cult of personality of the two candidates, but there's no evidence that any lack of popular enthusiasm will restrain John McCain's views of the powers of the presidency.

Personally, I plan to lead myself whichever way I choose to go, no matter who wins this November's election. But I suspect that those of us who choose that course will be odd men out in a country hungry for a tribal chieftain.



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