Gene Healy, a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of “The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power” wrote in the 28 August 2008 Christian Science Monitor that in the nation this year we are electing A President, Not a Savior. Healy notes that the U.S. Constitution’s Article II aimed at curtailing the imperial aspirations of presidents, whereas in recent years both political parties endow the presidency with more real and symbolic powers than the founding fathers would have ever imagined or been comfortable with. “… as presidential scholar Jeffrey K. Tulis explains, unlike ‘polities that attempt to shape the souls of their citizenry and foster certain excellences or moral qualities by penetrating deeply into the “private” sphere, the founders wanted their government to be limited to establishing and securing such a sphere.'” If Tullis is correct, it was not the vision of the founding fathers that the state would create the aspirations and morality of its citizens and then impose it on them, but rather the state would only insure that conditions were such that the citizenry could debate and work out these issues. In this thinking the president doesn’t set the moral agenda and aspirations of the nation’s citizenry, but works to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution” so that the citizens can go about their business of exercising their consciences in a democracy.
The image of the President as the most powerful man in the world has been fed by the media making presidents and candidates into the equivalents of superstars, television stars, movie stars and rock stars. And the media professionals who run the presidential campaigns have taken full advantage of this pushing the meteoritic rise of candidates to stardom. And the rocking, screaming masses at every political rally continue to feed the transformation of elections into personality cults and that of candidates and presidents into Herculean semi-gods as well as demagogues. It is true presidentolatry.
As Healy describes it:
But there’s a reason candidates talk the way they do. Their rhetoric faithfully reflects the public’s outsized expectations for the office: Grow the economy. Give us better, cheaper healthcare. Protect us from hurricanes. Stop global warming. Bring peace to the Middle East. Lead us. Inspire us. We crave a spiritual superhero, not just someone who will “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.”
Healy says that what has emerged in U.S. presidential politics is “the notion of president-as-spiritual-warrior” which has resulted in presidents as seeing everything they do as a spiritual crusade. “That helps explain why Washington doesn’t just attempt to solve problems; it launches wars – on drugs, poverty, terror, disease.” This has resulted in such anomalies as the U.S. having more people in their prisons than China, a not so democratic regime with almost four times more citizens than the U.S. But presidents and presidential candidates are only responding to a demand by voters that government, especially the president do more – “when terror strikes, hurricanes ravage, homes foreclose, the stock market drops, and food prices rise, we inevitably blame one person: the president.”
Healy writes, “The week after 9/11, Bush announced that we would not only answer the attacks, we would also ‘rid the world of evil.'” A major undertaking indeed even for a president, but in his bravado he only imitated the claim of some Roman emperors before him, and perhaps some of the gods of ancient pantheons. (see my Can Evil be Killed?) Hercules, according to Wikipedia, “was renowned as having ‘made the world safe for mankind’ by destroying many dangerous monsters” – certainly a claim that our modern presidents love to make for themselves. Hercules of course is mythical son of the gods – it is harder to understand why presidents claim to have his same power.
When voters come back down to earth, and realize the president is a mere mortal human, then perhaps they will put the election back into a proper perspective – we are electing a president, not a savior.