Perhaps our political abuse at the hands of two consecutive failed presidents has inspired us to adopt their two great mottos—“Bring ’em on” in Bush’s case and, in Obama’s, “Everybody was welcome into the club of disaffection.”
Or perhaps the answer lies far in the depths of our human psychology. Only an account that profound would explain, for instance, why New York Times columnist David Brooks—a man surely aware of the research that shows we want more powerful government the worse government gets—has just proclaimed that our only hope is to “strengthen the presidency.” Oh, he’s just a dead-tree Op-Ed writer? Look around you. It is a truth written on the free bumper stickers and endless prognostication peddled from sea to shining sea: When it comes to the cult of the presidency, we are all David Brooks now.
All of us, that is, except Gene Healy, who wrote the book on our executive-branch cult. In his latest column, Healy raises the obvious point that “Brooks is describing the regime we already have: one in which the president reshapes the law by unilateral diktat. Has that made federal policy any more predictable or rational?”
Indeed it hasn’t. But Healy leaves unanswered the nagging question of why so many of us believe it will, if only we hand colossal power to the right person. Fortunately, we’re not the only ones to wrestle with this question. Some of the greatest political writers in the English language have done it.
Hark, for example, unto young 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln’s diagnosis of the problem. He, too, sought an answer deep in our crazed human nature. Plenty of decent people, Lincoln told the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, would seek little more than time well spent in public service. But here, in the land of equality, where a well-placed guy with a genius for ambition is virtually guaranteed to get ahead, “it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”
Generally intelligent? That’s right. And not STEM-smart, either. In the age of the Revolution, Lincoln warned, the sheer stature of the Founders made them “the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.” Without common sense, “sound morality,” and “a reverence for the constitution and its laws,” Lincoln concluded, our debased mentality would throw us at the feet of a master.
But Lincoln was outdone in his lectern psychology by Thomas Hobbes, whose masterwork Leviathan made, cover to cover, the best case ever for why human nature demanded for us one awesomely powerful overlord. Despite Hobbes’s towering erudition, his thesis is simple enough: Our equality is so fundamental that we will fight to the death in the grip of envy over even the slightest advantage in security and status. Some especially well-bred people among us might be noble enough in spirit and possessions to abstain from this temptation. But they cannot keep a society together—and, indeed, their towering pride is the ultimate obstacle to the rule of the Leviathan that can.
And there we are, hundreds upon hundreds of years after Hobbes told us so. As Tocqueville put it during Lincoln’s time, we Americans like liberty, but we love equality. We want to feel a pride bigger than even the most privileged aristocrat’s, and we want relief from the gnawing envy that has us always casting that side-eye at our neighbors.
For both those desires, nothing delivers quite like national greatness personified in an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful executive.
That’s why, for Brooks and those like him, it doesn’t matter much that Congress is to blame for delegating away its legislative power, or that the Supreme Court, regardless of ideology, continuously approves the vast, independent regulatory state that results. Brooks sees an inefficient, squabbling, venal government reflecting—let’s face it—an inefficient, squabbling, venal populace. “There’s all this effort,” he groans, “but no result.” And America wants results!
Scandalously, as the West’s best political theorists long ago revealed, the “result” that’s our secret wish is a mighty ruler. Some seek that gratification in servitude before God. For others, it can ultimately be found only in the state. And for so many of us normal people, not talented or ambitious enough to become friends with the president, POTUS must be a figure who’s larger than life. Because otherwise, life will have its way with us.
It’s not that we want the next president to save us. It’s that we want to love our master unconditionally—and when he screws up, that makes it harder.
But only when we shed our fear that fate must rule our lives will we shed our secret longing for the kind of presidency that everyone once used to call tyrannical.