J.R. Dunn discusses the incompatibility between a republican form of government and the left’s yearning for messianic leadership.
Republics are governed with limited powers by men making no pretensions to divine mandate or mystical empowerment. The left, on the other hand, is intrinsically an anti-republican party made up of political primitives, always awaiting the arrival of a god-king with transformative powers, capable of working miracles. With a single decree, the left’s magical leader can abolish economic scarcity, for example, giving free and abundant health care to everyone. Numberless liberal commentators have predicted that Obama by virtue of his racially mixed ancestry will miraculously cause America’s foreign adversaries to change into admirers.
When liberals refer to “leaders”, they’re not talking about the same thing as everybody else. One of the first acts of national leadership carried out by George Washington was to reject a crown. He was motivated by his personal sense of noblesse oblige, his awareness that he was setting an example of republican virtue. And the gesture was accepted in exactly that sense. Rather than imitate any of the rotten political systems of Europe, the U.S. would create its own, with a totally new interpretation of the role of the national leader.
A “leader” in the American sense is someone chosen to act as chief executive to handle a particular task for a particular period. He is a member of the team – the chief member, perhaps, but still a teammate. The fact that he is president is no different, except in scale, from someone running a charity drive, a company, or the army. The individual does the job, is suitably rewarded, and goes home. This system has its complexities (much of the structure of our government is in place to defeat the tendencies toward tyranny that afflicted every previous democracy on record without exception) and its drawbacks, but it has served this country well for over two centuries.
One of its major benefits is that it does away with much of the baggage surrounding the concept of “leader” as it’s understood in most of the world – the mystical, semi-divine nonsense that makes it so easy for “leader” to slide into “despot”. People will invade their neighbors, slaughter minorities, and march themselves right off the historical cliff on behalf of a duce, fÃ¼hrer, or caudillo. They generally won’t for a chief executive.
It somehow comes as no surprise that American liberals have been trying to undo this innovation for much of the past century. To a convinced liberal, a leader is in no way limited to anything as mundane as running a country. A leader is a transcendent being, someone more than human, someone with a touch of the divine. Leaders don’t handle tasks, they lead movements, they embody the spirit of the age. They transfor. Leaders, to put it simply, are fÃ¼hrers.
This explains why liberals are so attracted to tyrants on the international scene. Stalin is the classic historical example (for a dose of political hagiography at its most nauseating, see the film Mission to Moscow) though we’ve witnessed the same type of thing more recently involving Castro and Hugo Chavez. The search for this precise type of idol explains the visits to Chavez by the Sean Penns and Naomi Campbells. The fact that they’ve settled for Chavez, who on his best day reminds me of nothing more than a crazier Manuel Noriega, shows how pathological this urge can be.
The first American example of the new messianism was FDR. (Woodrow Wilson might have seen himself in the role, but certainly nobody else did.) It’s doubtful that Roosevelt, down-to-earth as he was, took it very seriously, much as he might have enjoyed it. He took advantage of what was useful in the role and dismissed the more outrÃ© aspects. Whatever his faults, FDR was no monster. American Augustus he might have been, but he left no trail of Neros or Caligulas to follow him.
Then we come to JFK, who set the image in concrete. Again, Kennedy did not seek the role – it was thrust on him, in large part retroactively, thanks to his assassination. But ever since, liberals have been searching for another example, for a JFK reborn to lead them to… well, lead them somewhere.