Having inherited a society that thrives from information democracy and bottom-up control mechanisms, Millenials have an understandable dislike for authority. They pray less. They admire inventors more than CEOs. And yet they share their predecessors’ tendency to worship presidents.
We watch ESPN to see what the president’s March Madness bracket looks like. We eagerly await his thoughts on court cases of any importance. We seek his comfort and consoling after every tragedy.
T-shirts with the president’s face are worn by hundreds of thousands of twenty-somethings. Before that, conservative Millenials had posters of the previous president in a flight jacket on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Turns out, the young kids do have quite a bit to learn.
This is hero worship, and no matter the president (Bush, Obama, Rubio/Clinton, etc.) it is ill-suited for citizens of a republic. It has dangerous implications for the maintenance of self-governance and is an abrogation of personal responsibility. Also, it’s just plain silly.
Presidents are men, and they do not possess the technical competence and moral strength that we assign to them. The electoral process used to select presidents doesn’t screen for intelligence, policy know-how, or truthfulness. The grueling series of nomination contests and subsequent general electioneering instead test candidates’ abilities to provide witty sound bites, craft nice-sounding but hollow speeches, and have undying faith in their own abilities.
Once elected, presidents find themselves in an office with very little constitutional power relative to the other branches. Keep in mind the Founding Fathers lived under a tyrannical king. They strove to create an office that could effectively execute the laws of the land, and that was about it. Presidents command the military but cannot declare war; they can veto legislation but not write it; they appoint Supreme Court justices but have no say in the cases they decide.
Americans, though, don’t much like politics and love the concept of one person being in control. (If you don’t believe me, Google “the year of the quarterback”.) So rather than studying the structure of government and understanding how the thousands of lawmakers, judges, lobbyists, and bureaucrats interact, they look for one answer on all issues: the president.
Thus, presidents are confronted with our unrealistic expectations for them and a paucity of actual power to solve them. Hence Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit”: presidents use the massive attention of the office to try and pontificate problems away.
Millenials shouldn’t fall for this. They are by nature skeptical of power and are extremely comfortable accessing an astoundingly deep information infrastructure.
They shouldn’t care what President Obama thinks of Trayvon Martin. They should laugh when President Bush asks them to risk life and limb fighting in Iraq. They should dismiss out of hand any president’s labeling of something as a “national emergency”.
The president, whoever he or she is, deserves no more admiration than any government employee. They are a civil servant, designed to implement laws and oversee bureaucracies. They cannot cleanse a nation of its sins or serve as its collective conscience. Their opinion should be worth no more to you than anyone else’s.
As Cato’s Gene Healy notes: “A truly heroic president is one who appreciates the virtue of restraint…And we won’t get that kind of presidency until we demand it.”
Editor’s note: This post was based largely on Healy’s “Cult of the Presidency”, one of the most entertainingly informative books I’ve ever read.