July 22nd, 2016 // 2:49 am @ Oliver DeMille
Loyalties and Addictions
Many nations, and the global market as a whole, are moving from the Loyal Economy to an On-Demand Economy. (See Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, 2016, 72) This is just what it sounds like. Our societal focus is increasingly on what we want–not what we need, should want, or have already agreed to.
This shift is impacting work, business, management, leadership, professions, and even families, churches and communities in massive ways. It has already taken a significant toll on relationships in our modern society. Indeed, almost no part of human life has remained untouched by this momentous change.
Just think of all the ways damage can be caused by a shift away from loyalty, and changed to whatever someone wants instead, and you’ve got a pretty good indication of the problem. For example, as a society we have historically been known for being loyal customers—we either love or hate the Yankees, Cowboys, Lakers, etc., and many people have traditionally been very passionate about Ford or Chevy, West Coast or East Coast, City or Farm, New York Times or Wall Street Journal, Prada or Gucci, and so on.
As for Republican and Democrat, these attachments were often multi-generational, and as zealously maintained as one’s religion. For a number of people, these labels (GOP or Democrat) defined “who they really were as people” more than any other feature.
But in the Digital Age we’re losing many of these connections. A lot of people now switch allegiance to sports team based on how the best clubs are playing this season, and we change “favorite” recording artists or television shows almost as often as we change our socks nowadays. We press “Like” one day, and don’t press it the next. Just follow the Twittersphere—changing loyalties is new a national hobby. Or addiction.
With the endless options of the Internet constantly streaming in front of us, it’s not surprising that many customers—most customers in fact—consistently try out new options. Why not? Maybe the next one will be better.
The same is true of many companies. It used to be that good employees were given numbered pins each year or decade—to show how long they’d been at the company. The ideal was once to work your whole life with one organization, move up the ranks a little or a lot, and retire in the same company and town where you started your first job. The whole company threw a party, and you were presented with a gold watch, an engraved silver pen, or another memento of your long-term loyalty.
Today few companies exhibit such loyalty. Some, in fact, routinely purge upper-level management in order to replace more expensive employees with cheaper, younger models who are decades from earning a pension. The laws have made it much easier to carry your retirement savings with you from company to company, and a lot of people are constantly on the lookout for a better job elsewhere. There are popular apps dedicated to this habit.
Given today’s technology, and the nimbleness big organizations must somehow try to exhibit in order to remain relevant, such changes aren’t surprising. In fact, they may simply be the new way of things, the new normal. The old is always being replaced with the new. This week. In fact, in the news cycle Monday’s “crises” and “tragedies” often go unmentioned by Thursday.
Thus it isn’t shocking that our political leanings are going through an era of upheaval as well. During modern periods of economic and cultural stability, a majority of voters stick with the parties. Whether you like this approach or not, it’s usually the reality. Such majorities may be “silent” most of the time, but on election day they vote like the experts knew they would. They toe the party line.
Parties or Menus
We have seen this kind of stability erode a great deal since 2006. The iconic memory of 9/11, followed by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or win the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan easily and quickly, threw the electorate for a loop, and the Great Recession that followed moved us decisively away from political stability—at least for a while. China, Russia, the Middle East, North Korea, fluctuating prices, an economy that never seems to recover, and so many other things contribute to a growing sense of chaos, and of things getting worse.
Indeed, elections seem to get crazier and crazier. Predictions by the top experts, and the masses of talking heads, are now routinely wrong.
This isn’t driven by a cycle, however, meaning that we can’t chalk it all up to “a phase” the nation is going through before it reverts back to its traditional, normal behaviors. Cycles and trends do sometimes explain things that happen, but this time something more is going on. The rise of nearly-ubiquitious digital mobility is still in its infancy, and it is quickly restructuring politics (along with marriage, family, community, education, career, business, the economy, etc.).
Voters are less and less likely to be Loyalty Voters, emotionally attached to one party that stands for their culture, their beliefs, their family traditions. Indeed, in a world where more and more people are routinely questioning their birth culture and family traditions, they’re not likely to let loyalties based on these things get in the way of change.
Specifically, we are entering a Pragmatic Era in politics, where people want on-demand government. They want a menu of options to choose from, not a political party and its bureaucracy. They don’t really want to choose between candidates. They want a little of what one candidate has, but without the rest of his ideas. They want some of what another candidate promotes, minus his personal views, or his stand on [fill in the blank…]. They like what they hear from one candidate on one day, but disagree with what she says the next.
It’s not so much a targeted electorate where the candidates try to win over the biggest special interests—like it has been for the past two decades. What’s emerging now is, to repeat, a growing clamor for on-demand politics. Voters want to unbundle government. They want to be able to select “yes” items and “no” items from every candidate running for high office.
In other words, they want Washington to live in the Digital Age. They want to directly email—or, better still, text—presidential candidates and have an on-going dialogue with them, and then continue the dialogue after the president is elected.
“I liked your speech yesterday at Georgetown, except for the part on naval upgrading. What actually needs to happen is…”
Moreover, they want the President to answer their email.
“Thanks, Amy. I see your point. I’m meeting with the Joint Chiefs later today and I’m going to tell them your recommendation—and order them to do it. They really need it. Good thing you’re on our side and sent me that email.”
Today’s voters want the government to respond the way Amazon does. Immediately. In fact, they want to be able to sign up for the President’s Prime service—free answers within the hour, and nearly-immediate government implementation of whatever you tell the Oval Office to do.
“Get your policy implemented by Tuesday at 8 p.m., if you order it in the next 8 hours and 41 minutes. To get it by Monday at 8 p.m., pay an extra $3.99 and click here…”
As a result of this shift in voter expectations from their government (and the fact that government is still stuck in the 60s–or maybe the 70s–ways of doing things), hardly anyone is truly happy with any election anymore. Presidents Bush and Obama may well be the last loyalty-backed presidents. Indeed, barring a major military threat that unites the nation against a common enemy and brings back a loyalistic approach, most future presidents may well be one-termers.
That’s worth repeating. We may be entering an epoch of one-term presidencies. We’ve already seen the voters moving this way with their seeming schizophrenia in presidential versus Congressional elections. They routinely put one party’s candidate in the White House and simultaneously fill the Congress with the opposing party.
Again, what the voters really want is a truly on-demand system, where they can elect national leaders and direct their actions issue by issue, “no” on this, “yes” on that—preferably with a click of their computer—er, smartphone. This is leading in the direction of more democracy, specifically a more democratic system built around online voting. And, honestly, most modern Americans see this idea as excellent, obvious, and overdue.
In response, I have two words:
If you have studied them in depth, you know exactly what I mean.
But most people haven’t.
And that means we’re in for a wild political ride just ahead. It might contain a series of one-termer presidents (the nation swinging pendulum-like to and fro, then back again, over and over), a serious party shakeup with a new dominant national political party (or two), or it might be something even more surprising.
Whatever is coming, there is a widespread sense that it’s big. And we don’t even have Steve Jobs to walk out on a black stage in his black t-shirt and announce the future. If he were still around, he’d tell us to hold on to our hats, because this flight into the Era of populism, globalism, voter pragmatism, and digital-age on-demand revolution is just beginning. And the only thing we know for sure is that it’s going to get bumpy.
(Solution: It’s more important than ever for regular people to deeply study the core principles of freedom! The politicians and “experts” aren’t going to fix this for us—they’re the ones piloting the current chaos. For a beginning reading list of core freedom principles—and audios to go with each— join Black Belt in Freedom)
July 6th, 2016 // 7:46 am @ Oliver DeMille
They expected Hillary Clinton’s success, but the rise of both Trump and Sanders has astonished them.
Result: they’re writing and talking a great deal about “populism,” and the “dangers” it brings to our nation.
By the way, these tend to be the same journalists and media professionals who consistently tout the United States as a “democracy,” not a “republic” or “democratic republic.”
They promote “democracy, democracy, democracy” as the greatest governmental system ever, and then act shocked and worried when populism shows up to an election.
The irony is that populism is simply what happens when more voters than usual get actively involved in the process. In other words, America engages in populism during the years it acts the most democratic. Why are the elites concerned?
Answer: They like the kind of “democracy” where the masses are consistently swayed by the media—where expert elites tell the populace what to believe, and the electorate votes accordingly. This is what most members of the elite class actually mean when they use the word democracy.
Personally, I like Francis Fukuyama’s definition. He said:
“‘Populism’ is the label that political elites attach to policies supported by regular citizens that they don’t like.”
Funny how that sentence is written. Does is mean the political elites don’t like the policies? Or that they don’t like the regular citizens? I think it means the latter. But maybe not. Perhaps it means both the policies and the regular citizens.
Fukuyama notes that populist voters sometimes choose poorly, but “elites don’t always choose correctly either.” Very true. And in our current historical context, the worst-case scenario would be another elitist choice for president. Elites have increased in power far too much in the past three decades, and it’s time for the pendulum to swing back to the power of the people.
I. 3 Positive Developments
Here’s the “good news,” so to speak, about the current rise of populism:
As Fukuyama also pointed out, this wave of populism is weakening both of the major political parties. The Democrats are losing large segments of their working class base and moving even more to the party of “a bunch of special interest groups,” while Republicans are almost violently split between the “big business crowd” and working class voters. Indeed, working class populists from both parties are now behaving like a formidable force.
On a structural note, the framers of the U.S. Constitution didn’t want the president to be elected by mass vote. This is why they established the Electoral College—which originally worked with each state sending its representatives, rather than the people voting in a mass presidential election at all.
Fortunately, the people usually sense it when things are out of kilter. The framers put the people in charge of electing the House of Representatives in large part because the House controlled the nation’s money. But since the House seldom uses its power of the purse anymore like it should, and the White House now has the de facto say over money, the people are using their power to choose a president—like they once would have selected members of the House.
This structural shift if ironic: The masses, divided by congressional district (which is exactly how they oversaw the purse strings under the original Constitution), will select the president and largely determine the future spending of our nation. In other words, if the House shirks its job, the people switch their populism to the branch of government they think will do their will.
The elites see it happening, and they can’t stand it.
Maybe that’s the best thing about this election. Regardless of what you think of Sanders or Trump, both candidates have thrown a serious wrench into the way elites view the world. They are reeling. They aren’t in charge of this election like they assumed they would be—not so far, at least.
Make no mistake, they’ll get their bearings again and get back to their agenda—to grow government and increase the power, wealth, and influence of the elite class. They always do. This won’t keep them down for long.
But populism seems to be growing. Sanders and Trump didn’t create this momentum, they just benefited from it. Populist elections changed the power of Congress in 2010 and again in 2014. In 2016 we’ll find out if populism makes it to the White House as well. Again, however you feel about the specific candidates, the rise of populism is a positive in a nation where elites control far too much.
2: A DEEPER LOOK AT THE CONSTITUTIONAL STRUCTURE (THEN VS. NOW)
To see just how populism is important, let’s delve a bit deeper into the structural change to our governmental system. The framers established the following three branches and six entities to participate in the federal level:
This entire arrangement was carefully thought out by the framers. They knew that the key to lasting freedom was to ensure that the States didn’t lose their power to the federal/national government, so they put in four protections against this (listed above). All were wiped out by the poor decision to adopt the 17th Amendment in 1913. (Ironically, this was ratified during an era of populism.)
Our oversized and overblown national government and corresponding loss of freedoms since that time are the natural result. The best solution would be to repeal the 17th Amendment and restore the proper balance of State and Federal powers.
The following chart shows how the government currently operates. Note that it is very different than the original constitutional arrangement:
THE STRUCTURE TODAY
(Items underlined are changes from the original Constitution
that are destructive to freedom.)
Look at how this has changed our governmental structure of representation:
Did you notice in all this that at the time of the American founding the primary entities of federal/national government were the House and the Senate, while the Court and Presidency were secondary? Compare that to now: the Presidency and Court act like primary branches of government, while the House and Senate act like secondary levels of government.
What the founders called “legislative primacy,” meaning that the people’s elected representatives in Congress had the final say on things through the purse strings, has been replaced by appointed officials in the Court and a huge Executive bureaucracy exerting the final say on most things.
Huge changes. All bad!
For The People
Now, if you’ve followed this article this far, congratulations! Here is the main point, the thesis, the reason for reading this and thinking about it:
Populism is attempting to correct the course of the American ship. Specifically, the populist elections of 2010 and 2014 both attempted to put the House and Senate back on track representing the people—not the political parties.
And the populist uprising of 2016 (among both Democrats and Republicans) is also arguing for the presidency to represent the people again, not the political parties. It’s not as good or as effective as repealing the 17th Amendment—not by a long shot—but at least the electorate is trying.
The voters (some knowingly, and most of them just by following their gut) are attempting to swing things back in the direction of government “by, of, and for” the people—instead of government “by, for, and of” the economic and power elites and their political party establishments.
Populism probably can’t get the ship all the way safely into port, but right now the people are at least trying to get things going in the right direction. If the voters keep at it, and don’t give up—and if they keep winning major elections—this new beginning can eventually be turned in the direction of a real and lasting solution.
June 8th, 2016 // 12:08 am @ Oliver DeMille
Washington’s “Grin and Bear It” Message About an Economy that’s Still Struggling
The Need/Desire Question
In a 1927 issue of Harvard Business Review Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers wrote the following prescription for the nation: “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture.” How? “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” (Cited in The Happiness Equation by Neil Pasricha, p. 78.)
What a thing to say! And it has happened, just as Mazur recommended. But in the process, something else happened as well. Not only were people convinced to want more and newer things, but government got caught up in the same quest. And people began desiring many more and new things from government as well. This changed our entire culture.
More recently, President Obama has assured the nation that a slow growth economy is the new normal. But is this good news? Or very bad news masked by a smile? Truth: it’s certainly not good news. (See the new report: “The World is Flat: Surviving Slow Growth” in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs)
But before we address this, let’s take a little quiz. Just for fun.
Messages and Meanings
The following quote is about what nation?
(1) “_____________ will not be able to grow its economy…without…privatizing state-owned companies, [and] loosening regulations…”
Or consider this:
(2) “It may have…an undervalued currency, a debt-to-GDP ratio of 250 percent, and an average annual GDP growth rate over the last decade of less than 1 percent…. [but] Life expectancy is among the highest in the world; crime rates are among the lowest. The…people enjoy excellent health care and education.”
(3) “Middle-class wages stopped rising more than 30 years ago, but…low interest rates…and easy credit obscured the problem, allowing people to bridge the gap between their stagnant incomes and their spending.” How? By going into massive debt.
What is most interesting to me about all three of these quotes is how applicable they are to the United States today. Just re-read item 1 above. It could be a very realistic (and important) “To Do” list for Washington in 2016. Yet it was written about today’s Russia under Putin. (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016, p. 20)
Still, Washington does need to heed its message:
- privatize state-owned companies that are a drain on taxpayers and gum up the free market
- loosen regulations that are killing small business and sending investment capital to other nations
Item 2 above could also seem to be about the United States, but in fact it describes today’s Japan: “It may have…an undervalued currency, a debt-to-GDP ratio of 250 percent, and an average annual GDP growth rate over the last decade of less than 1 percent…. [but] Life expectancy is among the highest in the world; crime rates are among the lowest. The…people enjoy excellent health care and education.” (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2016, p. 50)
The intended message here is clear: “If the people have good health care, education, and a stable economy, everything is good. A growth economy isn’t necessary.”
Starts and Stops
In fact, in the United States, “Middle-class wages stopped rising more than 30 years ago, but…low interest rates…and easy credit obscured the problem, allowing people to bridge the gap between their stagnant incomes and their spending.” (Ibid., pp. 50-51)
But how have Americans masked falling wages? The answer is illuminating:
- By going into massive mortgage debt (eventually leading to the housing bubble crash and the Great Recession).
- By using credit cards, car loans, student loans and building up major consumer debt. The average U.S. household has over 97 thousand dollars of debt and growing. (The Motley Fool, January 2015)
- By more than doubling the amount of work they do, with both parents typically now in the full-time workforce, instead of just one breadwinner.
- By working longer hours. The average workweek in the United States is now 46.7 hours, not the 1950s model of 40 hours and a crisp 9-5 workday. (USA Today: Modern Woman, Fall/Winter 2015) Over the course of a month, that’s an extra 29 hours—almost an extra workday every week compared to American workers of the 1950s.
- By depending on increasing amounts of government support, including “free” public school education, “free” health care for those who qualify, and a number of even more direct government programs and assistance.
In all this, according to Gallup, less than 20 percent of U.S. workers love their job. Around 80 percent are in jobs they hate, dislike, or feel less than passionate about. Moreover, most Americans don’t believe that their current job will ever get them ahead financially. They’re just barely paying the bills—if that.
Still, the current message from Washington and labor experts is that things are fine, that the economy has improved under president Obama’s leadership, and that we should be grateful. Most people won’t see financial increases anytime soon, “but don’t sweat it.” Like people in Japan, we are assured that we should just be happy for general stability and get used to a stagnant economy.
Fewer jobs, more college-grads who are unemployed or (underemployed) and living with their parents, more three-generation households, falling home values, rising costs of food and necessities—these are the new normal. “And it’s okay,” Washington assures us. “If things get really bad, there are more government programs than ever to help you make ends meet.”
Don’t worry, be happy.
Regulations or Solutions
“Don’t desire so much anymore,” we’re told. “Make do with less. Except when it comes to big government. We’ll give you more of that!”
But how does this message from today’s Washington jive with the reality? Truth: “An economy that grows at one percent doubles its average income approximately every 70 years, whereas an economy that grows at three percent doubles its average income about every 23 years—which, over time, makes a big difference in people’s lives.” (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2016, p. 42)
Factor inflation into these numbers—on the basics like food, housing, education, and transportation—and one percent growth means the average household falls further behind each and every month. At three to four percent growth, in contrast, like the overall average from 1945-2005 in the United States, families can improve their standard of living over time—and even help their kids do better than themselves.
Right now this level of growth is found mostly in Asia, certainly not in North America or Europe. Thus the increasing American realization that our children and grandchildren are likely to be worse off than we are, while their Chinese counterparts will probably experience upgraded lifestyles and standards of living in the decades ahead.
But this isn’t a static reality. It is based on the current policies and agendas of Washington. These can be changed. For starters, just adopt the suggestions Westerners often give to Russia, as outlined above:
- reduce/remove numerous government regulations that are killing small businesses and driving investment capital and high-growth corporations—and jobs—to other nations
- stop federal overspending in so many government agencies by simply cutting their budgets—significantly—to spark increased investment and business growth
Just these two changes would significantly reboot the U.S. economy.
Americans can become a more frugal and a resilient people once again, no doubt. But they would rather be a more innovative and entrepreneurial people—and they have proven that they are incredibly good at it—if government will just cut away the red tape and let free enterprise thrive again.
May 19th, 2016 // 8:19 am @ Oliver DeMille
We need to start.
First, it is clear to almost everyone that the Drone Revolution has drastically changed the world—probably in ways that we can’t really undo. Whatever other functions they’ll eventually fulfill, drones are the ultimate war machine. They can be programmed to do things unimagined in earlier wars, like search out specific people from certain races, religions, viewpoints, business or educational backgrounds, etc.
They can be programmed to target a specific person. And all his/her friends. Everyone he/she loves. Those who agree with him/her on political issues. Governments can use drones on their own people, as well as in battle.
Very few people are taking this very seriously. On the one hand, it’s so potentially monstrous that we don’t like to think about it. Imagine drone technology in the hands of a Stalin, a Hitler, a Nero, Caligula or Mao, Saddam Hussein or an ISIS sympathizer in your neighborhood. If history has taught us anything, it’s that bad guys do sometimes rise to great power.
It will happen again, and drone tech combined with computing power is a recipe for disaster.
On the other hand, if we did want to stop it, what would we do? Most people believe it’s a fait accompli. No chance of turning it around. They’re probably right.
Second, the Crowdsourcing Revolution isn’t over—it’s just beginning. It has largely put the newspaper industry on the ropes, and the book industry is also now under the gun as Amazon grows. In fact, many brick and mortar malls are increasingly empty as Internet sales on many types of products and services soar. Education at all levels is facing serious competition from free online learning sources, and big swaths of the health care sector are being crowdsourced as well.
The good side of crowdsourcing makes a lot of things less expensive, easier to find, and quicker to obtain (or learn). The downside is that the large companies that control the data have algorithms that can influence us in ways we never imagined. For example, a man texts his wife to find out where a certain kind of cereal is in the pantry, and within minutes his smartphone chimes and offers him a coupon for the same cereal—from the supermarket closest to his home. Or if he texted from the office, it lists the grocery store nearest to his work.
This kind of data-mine-marketing is becoming a commonplace experience for those who use certain apps, and while it might feel a bit creepy at first, over time people get used to it—and even grow to expect it. Very Minority Report. How much governments and private organizations are using this kind of tech is unclear, but it’s growing. Add personal location tracking technology to the mix, and we really are living in a surveillance state.
Third, there’s a new buzzword floating around in economic circles: “Crowd-Based Capitalism.” The idea is that in the emerging 21st Century economy we’re evolving a whole new economic model. Not socialism. Not capitalism. Certainly not free enterprise. A new approach. As one book from MIT put it, we’re moving into a “Sharing Economy,” where “the end of employment” is being replaced with “the rise of crowd-based capitalism.”
The idea that employment as we’ve known it for the last six decades is increasingly outdated. For example, in the May 2016 issue of The Atlantic an article showed how one couple used up their entire life and retirement savings—and the entire life savings of the husband’s elderly parents—to put their two daughters through college. The idea of college training being essential is now being taken to incredible levels: The savings of two couples wiped out, just so their offspring could graduate with a degree—in an economy that doesn’t value degrees like it used to. (See “My Secret Shame,” The Atlantic, May 2016)
A truly new economy is emerging, but most people haven’t realized it yet. They’re still caught in the old—and paying for it in tragic ways.
Another example: When 2016 presidential candidate Ted Cruz said the following, “The less government, the more freedom. The fewer bureaucrats, the more prosperity. And there are bureaucrats in Washington right now who are killing jobs…”, the response was immediate. Two professors, one from Yale and the other from Berkeley, replied that the opposite is true: The bigger the government, the more freedom, and the bigger the bureaucracy, the more prosperity. (“Making America Great Again,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016)
A lot of people actually believe them.
But reality is still reality. Crowd-based capitalism means more government, and this isn’t the path to a great economy. The thing that is actually rising to replace the 1945-2008 era of employment it is a reboot of entrepreneurship and small business ventures.
The new economy can go in one of two directions:
- Government reduces the amount of anti-business and job-stifling regulations, and spurs a major entrepreneurial boom. This will create a lot more jobs, opportunities, and incentives for increased global investment in the U.S. economy.
- Government keeps increasing business-stifling regulations and takes the profits from businesses (big and small) to create a “sharing economy.” This will create a much higher rate of dependency on government welfare and state programs, reduce the number of people fully employed (making enough to live in the middle or upper class), and drive investment to other nations.
How the so-called “sharing economy” differs from socialism is actually academic. Yes, on paper it has a somewhat different structure than Marxian socialism. But for the regular people it’s going to feel pretty much the same. A few wealthy and powerful elites at the top, a small middle class of managers and professionals who work mostly for the elites, and a burgeoning underclass living largely off government programs.
Two books* on this topic are: (1) The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism by Arun Sundrarajan, and (2) Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert Reich.
For the other side of the argument—why freedom and free enterprise are the real answer—see my latest book, entitled Freedom Matters.
Middle America is still experiencing a serious economic struggle. Things are getting worse, not better. As one report on the heartland put it: “On every sign, in every window, read the vague and anxious urgings…Remember the Unborn; …Don’t Text; Don’t Litter; Buy My Tomatoes (Local!); Let Us Filter Your Water; We Can Help With Your Bankruptcy. Then bigger gas stations sprawled on crossroad corners, unoccupied storefronts…another consignment store.” (“The Country Will Bring Us No Peace,” Esquire, May 2016)
As an ad for Shinola products reminds us: “There’s a funny thing that happens when you build factories in this country. It’s called jobs.” We haven’t seen very many factories built here for a long time. Crowd-based capitalism isn’t a solution.
Together, these three changes in our world are a very big deal:
- The Drone Revolution
- The Crowd-Sourcing Revolution
- The Post-Employment Economy
If you have more ideas on these important developments, share them. If not, learn more about them.
The future can be determined by a few elites who think about such things, or by all of us. The more regular people engage such important topics, the more influence we’re likely to have.
The truth is, we’ve forgotten Watergate and Kent State. (See “The Cold Open,” Esquire, May 2016) We’ve forgotten Nixon and that the 2000 presidential election was decided by the intervention of the Supreme Court. (Ibid.) We’ve forgotten a lot of things.
As one report put it: “We’ve forgotten how easily we can be lied to.” (Ibid.) If we let them, Washington and the media will just tell us what the elites want us to know—and think.
April 25th, 2016 // 5:40 am @ Oliver DeMille
Then and Now
Over a century ago the British historian James Bryce travelled the United States to discover what had changed since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America. One of the most interesting topics he wrote about was, “Why Great Men Aren’t Elected President in the United States.” (James Bryce, The American Commonwealth.)
Bryce noted that during the founding era, the greatest men in the nation rose to the presidency—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, etc. But as time passed, this tradition changed. (see ibid.)
“Why?” Bryce wondered. His answer is instructive today: the greatest leaders in the nation don’t even try to become president. (Ibid.) They don’t want the job. It is true that Washington didn’t seek the position, but after John Quincy Adams—with the exception of Lincoln—the greatest leaders actively shied away.
At the time Bryce described this phenomenon, it could be explained by showing that the presidency wasn’t the real seat of power. (Ibid.) This reality dominated for a long time after Bryce, in fact. Congress wielded great influence during the long progressive era (from 1890 to 1970), and the Court increased its power as well—a major frustration for Wilson and FDR. William Howard Taft, for example, who served in Congress, as president, and on the Court, had less influence in the White House than the other positions.
In the post World War II era, however, the executive branch greatly increased its power—both literally (with huge additional powers in foreign relations and budgetary influence) and relatively (largely because Congress stopped effectively or frequently using the purse strings as a serious check or balance). If lack of power is the reason the greatest leaders didn’t aim for the Oval Office a century ago, what is the reason now? The power of the presidency is immense. It is often referred to—and seen by the populace—as the most powerful job in the world.
Why don’t the very best leaders want it? Is it because the party system has become so strident that anyone elected will spend as much or more time fighting partisan battles and attacks as governing? Is it because the perks of the office are so much less than the soaring benefits of corporate or business leadership? Is it because the headaches and problems are worse than other fields of leadership? Is it because the election process itself has become such a torturous ordeal? Or is there some other reason?
At this point I intended to list the names of a number of excellent leaders—from different walks of life and from both sides of the political aisle—who might put the current crop of candidates to shame in terms of leadership. But as I made the list it became clear that in the current political climate all of these men and women would quickly be turned into caricatures by the party system and the media. Just picturing them in politics somehow changes how we see them.
This is a central part of the problem. Here’s what I think it means: The system has become bigger than a candidate can ever hope to be. The job is simply so big (because the federal government is doing so many things never intended by the Constitution) that it has become…too big. It is too much for any one man or woman. The leaders with the most acumen and wisdom know this.
Those who don’t realize that this is the situation aren’t the best leaders because they don’t even understand the reality, and those who realize it but–want the job anyway–may not have the purest of intentions, in some cases. If Washington were pruned back to its literal Constitutional authority, the job would once again become manageable. But just like Washington is out of control, the position of president isn’t structurally up to the task.
The media has attempted to cope with this reality in two major ways: with humor or tragedy. Shakespeare took the same approach in dealing with European monarchies that had also become too big for one person—trying to run the executive, legislative, judicial, national and local all at once. His plots pit the character—man or woman—against the impossibility of the role. The result is either comedy or tragedy.
Icons and Candidates
In America, we tend toward tragedy. As Christopher Orr has pointed out (The Atlantic, March 2015, 56-59), America’s modern image of what our president should be was largely created by Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: A noble hero taking on a corrupt system. Though Stewart’s character was a Senator, the icon has been repeated in many popular American movies, television dramas, and books about the executive branch (e.g. Dave, The American President, West Wing, Air Force One, The Candidate, The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Madam Secretary, etc.).
These “tragedies” are more hopeful than their British counterparts, but the noble heroes never do truly change the system. They fight a noble fight, but the system ultimately prevails. Other recent American comedies or dramas about Washington (e.g. Veep, Scandal, House of Cards, State of Affairs, The Bourne Ultimatum, Political Animals, etc.) portray less-than-noble leaders who are simply part of the broken system. (see ibid.)
In contrast, Orr notes that many British portrayals of their prime minister emphasize humor or, in the case of the British version of House of Cards, the opposite of the American model: a prime minister who is truly conniving and dishonest working his schemes and plots in a government made up of basically well-meaning people (ibid., 57). But in America, “the one honest man” motif still dominates (ibid., 58).
In the real world, this icon has become part of the 2016 election in both major parties. Ted Cruz frequently invokes “the Washington Cartel” as the corrupt system and pits himself as the lone voice fighting its many nefarious agendas, while Bernie Sanders attacks the establishment as the great roadblock to American progress and happiness. Both promise to change Washington in drastic ways.
Donald Trump makes the same case, albeit in very different words: to make America great again, a true outsider with proven big business leadership is needed (because only such a background prepares one to manage the behemoth of a job, to fully understand the global economy and to lead the kind of “non-politician” projects and negotiations that will reboot our economy for real). A number of candidates have made similar outsider arguments (the noble hero rides Quixote-like to reform Washington), from Ben Carson and Rand Paul to Carly Fiorina and John Kasich.
Only Hillary Clinton isn’t closely aligned with this theme. Her message (which seems to vacillate between “it’s my turn” and “vote for experience”) is the opposite of “the one honest woman” icon. As a number of political experts have pointed out, Americans don’t tend to elect two consecutive presidents from the same party. When they do (i.e. Bush I, Johnson, Truman) it typically occurs after an exceptionally popular president (Reagan, Kennedy, FDR).
The New World?
Is Obama such a president? And can Secretary Clinton capture the nation’s attention and support? Such questions remain to be answered. But the biggest question of all—for America and the world—also remains to be seen. Will the next president turn out to be a great leader?
In a world with incredibly high-stakes challenges (including big power conflict between the U.S., China, Russia, Europe, etc.; the chaotic rise of new powers in the world including Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil, North Korea, Iran, and a half dozen others; getting a real solution for terrorism—just to name three), this is a serious issue indeed. And effectively rebooting our flagging economy is enough of a challenge for any leader ahead, and drastically needed.
But what if James Bryce is still right and in 2016, despite the serious need for real change, we don’t elect a great leader…?
Not a happy thought. As the primary season continues, the election itself is becoming an increasing anxiety for many Americans. A hard truth is presenting itself: It may just be that Washington isn’t going to have the answers after the next election, and that its dysfunction will actually increase. If that happens, the people of United States are going to need to find another way to fix things.