The Leader Principle and the Messianic Impulse in Democratic-Republican Politics

The authoritarian tendencies of the Democratic-Republican Party, the duopoly system of government and the two-party state are perhaps nowhere more clear than in the cult of the executive that views all political antagonism and struggle through the prism of presidential politics. The fantasy of the "great leader" capable of resolving irreducible conflicts by means of charisma and force of will is as at home in the Republican church of Ronald Reagan as it is in the Democratic myth of Camelot. The nostalgia for a golden age that never existed is the flip-side of the utopian desire for that which will never come. And these people call themselves pragmatists!

This messianic impulse also conditions the conception of the potential for third party and independent politics among those who have yet to fully liberate themselves from the ideology that sustains the two-party state. At The Whig, Septimus excerpts an article by Mort Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call and cable news talking head, in Real Clear Politics entitled, "Economy is Weak, Voters are Angry – Time for a Third Party?" Yet, when Kondracke says "third party" what he means is "a candidate for president who is neither a Democrat nor a Republican." He writes:
with Republicans and Democrats fighting all the time and improving nothing, there's an opening for a third-party challenge as strong as Ross Perot's in 1992 . . . The likeliest figure to seize upon this opening is populist demagogue (and self-styled "Mr. Independent") Lou Dobbs, formerly of CNN, so let's hope a better alternative appears - or the direction of the country improves.
The very way in which Kondracke substantiates his argument reveals his capitulation to the authority of the executive. The bulk of the piece relays the social-political analysis of his "favorite economic guru, David Smick":
Smick agrees that the moment is ripe for a third-party candidate - "a problem-solving, no-nonsense leader who can come to Washington to clean out the swamp created by both political parties." . . . He's not talking about Lou Dobbs here. Or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R). And unfortunately, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and Gen. David Petraeus don't seem to be running. But there is an opening. Help wanted.
Given that Glenn Beck has just announced his "100 year plan," Kondracke might also have added this talk show host to his list as well. Nonetheless, the false premise underlying this speculative line of argument is perfectly clear, namely, that this is within the power of the President of the United States. The United States does not need more leaders it needs fewer followers. The only people who can "clean out the swamp" in Washington DC are the people of the United States, who would need only to cease voting for the stooges of the Democratic and Republican Parties election after election to achieve such a remarkable result.

However, for those who have not yet fully liberated themselves from the straitjacket of duopoly ideology, the latter appears possible only on the basis of a mass movement subsumed under the leader principle. The paradox here is readily apparent: the devolution of power is conceived as contingent upon its gross consolidation. This bias reveals one of the more insidious aspects of the Democrat-Republican two-party state. The point of the separation of powers, constitutive of the United States, is to diffuse power. Insofar as the Republican and Democratic Parties represent, and aim for, nothing more than the accumulation and concentration of power, the two-party system is antithetical to constitutional government.


Samuel Wilson said...

This is an old story, and tied to the history of parties. The Democratic Party as we know it today began as the personal vehicle of Andrew Jackson's charisma. With him, it seems, came the concept of the President as the representative of the entire American people. It was out of fear of Jackson's use of executive power that the Whig party formed, but in order to win the Presidency, they had to recruit their own war hero and build a kind of personality cult around him. The raison d'etre of a national party has always been to win the Presidency. Our system has "evolved" to the point that many people think that a strong "independent" leader is the only possible check on partisan misrule, but history shows that "leadership" is usually a Trojan Horse for more partisanship. Of course, if what these people want now is something more along the lines of a leader who can bypass partisanship by ruling through executive orders, that's another story altogether, and not an American one.

Ross Levin said...

Hey, d.eris, are you going to do a post for the Green Change blog action day tomorrow? The subject is local action - which is meant to include local candidates, if that's what interests you.

d.eris said...

Ross, actually, I hadn't even heard about it, and now it's closed. Maybe next year.

d.eris said...

Sam, that's a good point about the national party's reason for being, and there's obviously no lack of evidence. The obsession with the presidency, dissatisfaction with the Congress as a whole, but contentment with one's own representatives, are all part of the same problem.

Ross Levin said...

What do you mean, now it's closed? If you want to do a post for it tomorrow, you still can. And I'm very happy that you'll be writing for IPR.

Ross Levin said...

More relevant to this post, Sam I think you're right. National parties exist to elect national leaders. Parties like the Vermont Progressives have a better idea than parties like the Greens - start locally, where wins are more realistic, and where there is a more substantial purpose for the party.

d.eris said...

heh, I totally misread the description of it I'd found. Maybe I will then. There's still time!

On IPR, thanks, that just sort of happened suddenly in the comments section. Weird. I'm looking forward to it.