The Man on the White Horse is a hoary staple of the political imagination. The hero, with integrity, ideals, and vision, the leader who will put things right. We all fall for it, at different times. And then wind up disillusioned.
Exhibit A is, of course, Barack Obama. I didn’t vote for him (my 2008 evaluation seems prescient now) yet grasped what his election meant to so many – who hoped he’d be a transformational leader. He is not that; not even an effective one.
But this is not just about Obama, it’s larger than him. The hopes we put in political leaders seem systemically doomed to disillusionment.
I was prompted here by reading about Indonesia’s still fairly new president, Joko Widodo. Seemed a really good guy, decent, honest, able. It was hugely encouraging that he beat a military blowhard cut from a mold that’s proven awful elsewhere. Alas Widodo so far seems a lackluster president and disillusionment is fast setting in.
I’ve written of Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, who also raised great hopes and started strongly. His administration is now floundering. And of a wonderful election in Sri Lanka unexpectedly throwing out an autocrat; but the new administration is floundering there as well.
And I wrote of Narendra Modi, with potential to lift India from its daft economic policies. But he seems to be operating on the theory that just being Modi will energize India’s economy, without his actually doing much; certainly not anything politically hard.
Now many U.S. voters are bedazzled by some truly ridiculous candidates (Trump, Carson, Sanders – yes, anyone labeling himself “socialist” today is ridiculous), imagining they could somehow march in and set the country right. How very silly.
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The syndrome does appear systemic. Francis Fukuyama’s recent book, Political Order and Political Decay (see my commentary) sheds some light.
In past epochs leaders had scope to be more radical and achieve big things. But modern states do not allow for Napoleons or Bismarcks.
There are two big factors. The first is political structure. Some see today a concentration of political power, undermining democracy (the false notion of “buying elections”). But the greater truth is exactly the opposite. Advanced modern democracies disperse power so widely that nobody can get very much of it, including presidents. Proliferating opportunities for some interests to block others produce what Fukuyama called a “vetocracy.” So a president does not run the government, he’s merely an administrator. Obamacare was really just a modest tweak of our healthcare system, not a fundamental overhaul.
And voters may profess anger at the status quo but actually vote very conservatively to lock it in, timorous toward any real change, lacking imagination, and suckered by tired old formulas. Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Juncker famously said, “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected once we’ve done it.” So Brazilian voters last year confirmed a dysfunctional statist model, rejecting a classically liberal alternative, and the nation’s rot predictably deepens.
The second factor is the nature of government itself in advanced modern states, its sheer hugeness and complexity, forming a political interest and power center in its own right which is also, by nature, highly resistant to any reform or change.
The combination of these two factors makes any major policy effort like trying to turn around the Titanic. (Worse – the Titanic’s captain could change its course, slowly.) Already six decades ago, Truman said, “Poor Ike. He’ll sit there and say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ and nothing will happen. It won’t be a bit like the army.”
Government has a role in a modern society. We cannot get rid of it. Yet it is a fundamental mistake to look to government for solutions to societal problems today. Once that was reasonable, but no longer. We need ways of addressing issues that bypass government. Unfortunately, those are far from obvious.