The Great Man Theory

My friend, the history professor Mark Byrnes, is doing the country a great service.

Mark has always had a passion for politics. When we were undergraduates at Lafayette together, Mark and I had a weekly show on the student radio station that we used to poke fun at Ronald Reagan, Ted Kennedy, and other national political figures of the early 1980s.

He's devoted his adult life to mastering the 240 year sweep of US history.

And as I've said before, Mark is bypassing traditional media to improve the quality of public discourse. Propelled by the innate pleasure of following politics for its inherent theatrical drama, Mark is applying a disciplined knowledge of the nation's past to assess the historical veracity of what today's politicians say. If you put down your paper (analog or virtual), read Mark's blog, and then pick up the paper again, you not only feel better informed, you know you have a deeper appreciation of context, of the resonance of historical allusions, than the very journalists doing the paper's reporting. No surprise, but journalists are figuring this out about Mark, too; several prominent columnists are now citing and referencing his work in their own reporting on the current political scene.

Mark ran a fascinating piece this week about President Obama, President Lincoln, Henry Clay, and the virtues and limitations of "compromise" as a leadership style.

Mark ends the piece by calling on the current President to take the right lesson from Lincoln and to know when compromise is the wrong card to play. Again, Mark's piece is fascinating, though in this case his upshot is in line with a pretty conventional critique of Obama. It comes down to this: if only the President could ascend to something approximating the height of character and greatness achieved by Washington, Lincoln or the Roosevelts, we could be led out of the abyss.

Armour coverI'm a sucker for the great man theory. And I'm fascinated by the stories of US Presidents and the saga of their successions. My favorite book as a child was a book of about the US Presidents by Richard Armour, written in light verse.

But I'm coming to think that our problems are structural. I'm beginning to wonder whether the dysfunction of the federal government is not a reflection of the lack of greatness or character of the men and women on the current political scene, as much as of an indication that the particular form of federalism established by the US Constitution has outlived its usefulness.

Dividing the executive branch from the legislative may have been an absolutely appropriate inefficiency to introduce into the federal scheme during the first century-plus of the nation's history, a kind of necessary break on how violently the nation could swing during a period of unprecedented expansion and industrialization.

And even into the 1900s, unquestionably the American Century, "great men" were able to make the federal system work to achieve great ends within the span of one or two terms of office.

But the world moves today in real time. Man-made cataclysm can strike without notice. It is not okay for the government of a great nation to be incapable of changing policy and executing on that policy in light of market dynamics, foreign wars, global upheavals.

I believe in American Exceptionalism, and that's why I think we shouldn't shirk from considering that one lesson of the debt crisis may be that we need a new federalism. We need to make it impossible for our national leaders, great, venal, or merely mediocre, to abdicate responsibility for governing. It may be folly to think we can afford to keep a lumbering 19th Century system of internal checks and balances in a world that moves as quickly as the 21st.

I happen to think the President should not have compromised with Eric Cantor. He could have used the 14th Amendment. An even more powerful tool would have been to call an election. But he didn't have that leverage. We should be talking about changing the Constitution to equip the American government to be functional and competent on the world stage in the 21st Century.

And just as an aside: I wouldn't be thinking this way were it not for reading I am doing about the Founders and their respective attitudes about the federal government established by the Constitution. It's fascinating to realize that few of them would ever have presupposed that the structure they put in place would not have been re-visited by now.


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