Why do awesome people – like us – have such inadequate leaders?
Summary: Each campaign season brings complaints about the quality of the candidates. Why such a poor selection, unlike what we see at Best Buy? Read this for an answer, proven by history. I tweaked this, as comments suggested that the inital version was unclear.
“Have you ever stopped to consider that there is a difference between ideals and the methods of attaining them?”
— Letter from FDR to a friend
I recommend ”A Quantum Theory of Mitt Romney” in the March 31 New York Times. David Javerbaum proves that candidate Romney is — something bad (he provides more mockery than analysis). Perhaps a duplicitous fool. Clearly unworthy of our votes. Such articles appear every campaign season, complaints that we inexplicably choose from a slate of politicians that fail to match our awesomeness. The even lie to us! We are forced to elect them again and gain.
Like all social science questions, amateurs can only guess at the causes of this phenomenon. Here’s mine.
Let’s do a virtual experiment (Gedankenexperiment in German). Running for high office, you face an evil and incompetent opponent. You must win for the sake of America. Today you address a key audience, whose support you need for victory. An unusually intelligent audience, as dogs go. In fact, they are dogs. What do you say? Do you discuss the perils facing the Second Republic? The delicate macroeconomic crisis? The complex process of globalization which America must master to prosper in the 21 century?
Only a fool would do so. A winner would promise free bones every night, slow cats and cars to chase, and an immediate halt to involuntary castrations. Anything more would confuse them, perhaps even anger them. An aroused pack of hounds can become dangerous.
So it goes for candidates in America. They often face opponents who will certainly damage America. They must gain support of voters who want impossible and contradictory things. Freedom and liberty. Low taxes, a balanced budget, and massive government spending. Tight regulation of competitors and vendors, light regulation of themselves. Low food prices for consumers; high food prices for family farmers. A peaceful world with no foreign entanglements.
What do our finest statesmen do? They lie to us. Let’s look at one of our greatest Presidents, masterful in both war and peace: FDR. He lied to us for our own good, as clearly proven by history (see the details below). There are many other examples.
We can learn from this history. Let’s find great citizens for our high public offices. Reward those who tell us the truth, even harsh news violating our beliefs. Vote against those who tell us pleasing lies and glittering generalities. That would help make us a great people, and put us on the path to prosperity in the 21st century.
And, last, have some sympathy for Romney. In the primaries he strives to gain the support of an aroused GOP membership dominated by ignorant and often vile people — motivated by hatred of people of different color and religion, consumed by bloodlust (applauding torture and assassination, with lots of “collateral damage” to uninvolved women and children). His faces only ugly choices.
(1) The 1932 election: FDR advocates a strong US dollar and a balanced budget
After the election FDR saved us by devaluing the dollar and running large deficits. These measures, combined with a plethora of other — contradictory — policies, sparked a partial recovery that carried us through the 1930s. No long depression (like France), no Hitler (even so, extremist parties flourished during the 1930s — the American equivalent of the NAZI party had 20,000 people at its 1939 convention in NYC).
Campaign Speech by FDR in Atlanta on 24 October 1932
I should like to take this opportunity to say, loud enough to be heard in Washington, that even in hard times it is possible to have a balanced budget, and Governor Russell has done it, and I want to say further that Governor Russell has done this by cutting expenditures rather than by loading the people with more taxation. And I want to say that loud enough to be heard in Washington, too. And I want to say also, loud enough to be heard in that section of Washington in which the White House and the treasury are located, that Governor Russell did not wait for a political campaign to start considering how to get within his income.
We believe that a party platform is a covenant with the people to have [sic] faithfully kept by the party when entrusted with power, and that the people are entitled to know in plain words the terms of the contract to which they are asked to subscribe. We hereby declare this to be the platform of the Democratic Party:
The Democratic Party solemnly promises by appropriate action to put into effect the principles, policies, and reforms herein advocated, and to eradicate the policies, methods, and practices herein condemned. We advocate an immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus, and eliminating extravagance to accomplish a saving of not less than twenty-five per cent in the cost of the Federal Government. And we call upon the Democratic Party in the states to make a zealous effort to achieve a proportionate result.
We favor maintenance of the national credit by a federal budget annually balanced on the basis of accurate executive estimates within revenues, raised by a system of taxation levied on the principle of ability to pay.
We advocate a sound currency to be preserved at all hazards …
… The removal of government from all fields of private enterprise except where necessary to develop public works and natural resources in the common interest.
The 1940 Campaign: keeping us out of the war
FDR ran on a platform of neutrality in the 1940 election, but was actively helping the Allied Powers. I agree with that, but the regret the necessity to lie – and the precedent it set. He did what he had to do.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat #14, 3 September 1939:
Let no man or woman thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields. At this moment there is being prepared a proclamation of American neutrality. This would have been done even if there had been no neutrality statute on the books, for this proclamation is in accordance with international law and in accordance with American policy. This will be followed by a Proclamation required by the existing Neutrality Act. And I trust that in the days to come our neutrality can be made a true neutrality.
… I hope the United States will keep out of this war. I believe that it will. And I give you assurance(s) and reassurance that every effort of your Government will be directed toward that end. As long as it remains within my power to prevent, there will be no blackout of peace in the United States.
On 2 October 1939 the Act of Panama established a 300-mile wide neutrality zone off the coasts of the Americas (excluding Canada), enforced by`the eight US Navy groups of the Neutrality Patrol. We alerted the Royal Navy of any U-boats sighted. On 11 March 1040 we began Lend-Lease, in effect direct aid to the foes of the Axis Powers. As the election grew closer and the war heated up, some of FDR’s speeches grew more equivical, vaguer, about our role in the world. See his speech Democratic National Convention on July 1940. At this point we were on the knife-edge of active participation. Sometimes he outright lied, as in this speech at Brooklyn on 1 November 1940:
I am fighting to keep this Nation prosperous and at peace. I am fighting to keep our people out of foreign wars, and to keep foreign conceptions of Government out of our own United States.
Our aid rapidly became more explicit after the election. The Western Hemisphere Security Zone extended the “neutrality zone” to 26 W longitude on 10 April 1941. On 11 April 1941 the US destroyer Niblack on dropped 3 depth charges on a German U-boat, beginning a undeclared naval war against Germany. In response, on 21 June 1941 Hitler ordered NAZI forces to avoid any possible contact with US naval forces. Admiral Dönitz wrote in his Memoirs:
“… meant that the U-boats could no longer attack their most dangerous enemies, the destroyers, frigates and corvettes, whether British or of any other nationality. With this intermingling of British and American naval forces the U-boats found themselves in a situation which was unique in the history of war. All the British employed on anti-submarine duties pursued the U-boats with every means they possessed, while the latter had passively to suffer all their attacks without trying to defend themselves or strike a counter-blow.”
On 7 July 1941 US Marines replaced the British on Iceland, a key post protecting British convoys — freeing-up UK forces. On 4 September 1941 USS Greer (DD-145) pursued a U-boat, facilitating British attacks. The U-boat attacked in reply; the Greer responded. FDR declared that the U-boat attack on the Greer was “piracy”, the U.S. Navy to “shoot-on-sight”. After Pearl Harbor, Hitler unwisely decided that outright war with the US would work better for Germany than the current pretend peace.
For more information
For more about these matters see the FM Reference page Politics in America.
About American politics:
- The USA *after* this financial crisis – part I, about politics, 13 October 2008
- America’s elites reluctantly impose a client-patron system, 5 November 2008
- Lilliput or America – who has a better way to choose its leaders?, 19 November 2008
- About campaigns for high office in America – we always expect a better result from the same process, 17 June 2009
- More about the tottering structure of the American political regime, 17 August 2009
- Please put on every milk carton: America’s political class is MIA, 17 November 2009
- The breakdown of the American political system, pointing to a new and better future, 2 February 2010
- Programs to reshape the American mind, run by the left and right, 2 August 2010
- Which political party will best protect our liberties?, 10 September 2010
- Our leaders have made a discovery of the sort that changes the destiny of nations, 1 September 2010
- Polarization and hot rhetoric conceal two similar political parties. Will we ever notice?, 29 October 2010
- We have the leaders we deserve. Visit McDonald’s to learn why., 30 October 2010
- The winners and losers from this election, hidden amidst the noise, 3 November 2010
- In America, both Left and Right love the long war, 30 March 2011
- The good news: America’s politics are neither polarized nor dysfunctional. That’s also the bad news., 16 November 2011
- The hidden dynamics of the 2012 campaign, and what it’s doing to America, 9 March 2012