There’s a passage from a 2005 essay by Umberto Eco that I’ve frequently quoted, as it neatly defines several elements of the mindset of our age in just a few carefully thought out sentences:
G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: “When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He believes in anything.” Whoever said it – he was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity.
Indeed. While it’s a cliche that ours is a cynical era, it really is just the opposite, as Eco noted. While college kids are instructed by their professors to “fight the power” and “speak truth to power” and to generally not trust that power (because it corrupts absolutely), all of that hard-bitten cynicism goes flying out the lefthand window at warp speed come election time. Jim Geraghty has a round-up of worshipful photos and illustrations of Obama that make him out, in quite hysterically literal fashion–to be the second coming; and in a post about Gene Healy’s new book, The Cult of the Presidency, Betsy Newmark explains one of the reasons why we–and particularly the left, which often views government as a substitute religion–put our presidential candidates on such a pedestal:
With the Progressive Era and New Deal, our vision of what we asked of the federal government changed forever. Add in World War II, the Cold War, Great Society, and the War on Terror and it’s clear that we’re never going to return to a limited federal government or presidency. Liberals and libertarians will complain about the executive authority that George W. Bush has used in fighting against terrorism, but think of all that the Obama campaign is promising for their candidate. Some people have less concern for a presidential usurpation of power in order to defend us against terrorists and some people prefer to look to the president to use that power to fix our broken souls as Michelle Obama has promised that her husband, if elected president, could do for all of us.
“We have lost the understanding that in a democracy, we have a mutual obligation to one another — that we cannot measure the greatness of our society by the strongest and richest of us, but we have to measure our greatness by the least of these. That we have to compromise and sacrifice for one another in order to get things done. That is why I am here, because Barack Obama is the only person in this who understands that. That before we can work on the problems, we have to fix our souls. Our souls are broken in this nation.”
Whether we’re looking for a president to keep us safe or fix our souls, we’re certainly conceiving of a very different president than James Madison or even Alexander Hamilton ever envisioned. And we look to the federal government to have power encompass all of this. We’re never going to be able to turn back the clock to an 18th or 19th century understanding of the presidency or the federal government. And perhaps there are few who would want to. When disaster strikes, whether it’s a terrorist attack or a powerful hurricane, Americans will expect a president who can act with power and dispatch. If you think that George W. Bush is unique in his expansion of presidential powers, then you just haven’t studied enough of our country’s history. And there is not going to be some great return to an earlier understanding of what a president can or should be able to do whether we elect McCain or Obama.
Today’s “presidentialists of all parties”—a phrase that describes the overwhelming majority of American voters—suffer from a similar delusion. Our system, with its unhealthy, unconstitutional concentration of power, feeds on the atavistic tendency to see the chief magistrate as our national father or mother, responsible for our economic well-being, our physical safety, and even our sense of belonging. Relimiting the presidency depends on freeing ourselves from a mind-set one century in the making.
I’m afraid there may be far too much carbonized bunkum built up in our brains from those 100 years for that to be possible.