If Democrats keep searching for a messiah to lead them to the political promised land, they’ll be perpetually disappointed.
A major piece working its way around the liberal blogosphere as of late is Doug Henwood’s plea to “Stop Hillary” recently published by Harper’s. It’s pretty much what you’d expect based on the title, that is, a plea for liberals to reject Hillary Clinton due to her incompetence, closet centrism, and corruption. Unfortunately it’s pay walled, but Scott Lemieux wrote a great response pointing out some of the major factual and conceptual errors that Henwood commits.
Regardless of what you think about the current front runner for the 2016 Democratic nomination for the presidency, arguments constructed like this piece are pretty common in liberal circles. Call it the liberal messiah complex: the idea that what liberals really need to enact the social and political change they want is simply to elect the right person president.
Sometimes these arguments are made in favor of recruiting a new messiah, even if it seems that they aren’t really interested in the role. Other times it’s about denouncing the one-time messiah once the horrible truth is revealed that they are yes, just another sinner … I mean politician. Either way, these sorts of arguments rest on the view that the most important thing, indeed the only thing, in American politics is who happens to sit in the White House, and that the best way to influence politics in America is to find the right person to sit there.
Unfortunately for liberals this whole idea is both profoundly wrong and profoundly limiting when it comes to thinking about politics.
Yes, the president is the most important individual in our political system, but the common idea that presidents become some sort of elected king upon being sworn in is profoundly wrong. The president is not a superhero with magical powers, rather the president is an individual at the heart of a political institution which is the de facto headquarters of a much larger institution, which is just a tiny piece of one branch of our system of government that shares power with two others. Which is a long way of saying that the presidency is actually pretty weak.
Furthermore, this messiah complex is also profoundly limiting when it comes to thinking about how to enact political and social change in our society. Our democracy has tens, if not hundreds of thousands of elected officials in state and local government, all of whom wield power and influence policy to some degree. And while these folks might not get the media coverage that presidents get, they can still be incredibly important. As events in Ferguson showed us recently, who your county attorney and mayor are can have a huge impact on your life and the things you care about, while the president can sometimes not be able to do much at all.
What would a political alternative to the liberal messiah complex look like? Well it would involve a lot less criticism of the powerful and a lot more doing the sort of difficult and boring stuff that influences politics. Matt Yglesias made a helpful list of these sorts of things a few years ago:
That means that every time there’s an election you’re eligible to vote in—be it a primary election or a general election—you look at which are the two candidates most likely to win and you vote for the better one. And you encourage your friends and coworkers to do the same. You should donate money to the PACs of politicians who you like. You should volunteer in person to do election work near where you live. And you should donate money to organizations that you like. When there are issues being debated, you should write to your elected representatives. You should consider running for local office, and you should urge good people you might know to consider running. If you have local elected officials who you like, you should encourage them to run for higher office.
Hillary Clinton will probably be the Democratic nominee in 2016 and she might very well win. But if liberals think that will lead to a new golden age of liberalism, or some new Dark Ages of quasi-Republican governance, they are in for a major disappointment. After all she, like Barack Obama, is basically a centrist Democrat, and she’ll face all the same institutional barriers to enacting major changes in policy that he has. Indeed she might even not get to work with a Democratic Congress at all.
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