America’s Personality Problem

There is no doubt that American politics, like the politics of other nations, has been susceptible to the cult of personality. Andrew Jackson was the man of the democratic masses. Theodore Roosevelt was a popular hero who eventually touted Progressive politics as a means of earthly deliverance. There was Teddy’s cousin, Franklin; John F. Kennedy and “Camelot”; and, of course, the current White House occupant, who claimed that his nomination would mark the moment when “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” And millions believed him.

My friend Charles C.W. Cooke, writing at National Review Online, discusses the up-and-coming “Hillarycult,” likely to develop if the former FLOTUS decides to run for the presidency in 2016. While he naturally focuses on the specific merits (and demerits) of Mrs. Clinton, Charlie raises the crucial question of the place of personality in a constitutional republic (which is what America is, however much we have fetishized democracy).

Devoted personality cults are, of course, most often the province of dictatorships and banana republics. No one wore shirts with George H.W. Bush’s mug on them—but good luck wandering a college campus without seeing a bevy of Che Guevaras.

The personality cult is a surefire way of amassing power, but it is a dangerous development for a nation of laws. When political responsibility and personality are conflated, opponents of policy are cast as opponents of the person. Open political debate is hamstrung, and laws are subordinated to the preferences of the leader.

That has reached its apogee in North Korea, and such a scheme has admirers in Venezuela, Cuba, and Putin’s Russia. But it is no stretch to say that something similar is happening here. Consider, as an example of the vilification of opponents, Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who in 2011 claimed that those who opposed raising the debt ceiling were doing so because the president was black. As for the subordination of law to executive whim, consider the White House’s decision to “selectively enforce” provisions of the Affordable Care Act (aka. Obamacare).

Charlie writes, “If ever there was a time for a Silent Cal or a William Howard Taft, it is now.” Indeed. We have had enough saviors for a while.