Pop Goes the Ego


[T]he U.S. presidency is an ego-inflating machine. The president moves in a vast imperial cocoon, unsurpassed in grandeur since the pharaohs. It would take a level of humility incompatible with running for public office in the first place for a president not to think, "Hey, I'm a pretty cool guy." Every time George W. Bush hears "Hail to the Chief," the odds go up that some unsuspecting country is going to find itself getting violently democratized.

Truer words were never spoken, and only rarely written. I think we on the left have a tendency to underestimate the importance of a culture of dissent. When the right makes speech into a political football and punts it so hard they emblazon "traitor" onto the pigskin, we run it back on general principle. How dare they? But fashioning a culture that expects criticism of its leaders is more important than the amorphous ideals we appeal to when fighting for it, our leaders need regular lashings just to be kept human.

It's a funny paradox that Americans so often allow their leaders to be halo'd and tucked away for safekeeping. Every four years, voters enter the ballot box determined to elect the guy who looks the down-homiest, as if somewhere along the way we mistook presidential elections for a high school "most likely to be found on a hay bale" contest. And then they spend the interim listening to rightwing pundits explain why presidents should be saran-wrapped and kept in vegetable crispers far, far away from any news that might upset or criticisms that might offend. Unless, of course, they're Democrats (but they rarely are). But somehow, the American urge to pick a president whom you might accidentally punch in a bar somewhere doesn't conflict with the impulse to let him ascend to some realm above criticism.

Leaders need to be attacked simply so they don't forget that they, and their decisions, are vulnerable. I've given up on them remaining in touch with the heartland, I just don't want them floating up above their species. Because give them too free an ego and they run off to destroy Social Security and knock down unsuspecting Arab countries -- they lose the ability to perceive their limits. And that's the functional utility of a culture of dissent -- leaders who know they're under the microscope, accountable to a somewhat merciless public and thus careful not to make rash decisions that'll unleash the electorate's nasty side.

Republicans, having divorced the idea of limited government and kept the Christian Right in the custody agreement, have forgotten that Messianic movements generally make criminals and maniacs out of their leaders. And now they're working overtime to do the same to our presidents. Democrats should take it as our sacred duty to make sure they don't succeed. Not because the ideals of Jefferson demand it, but because no one likes a big head.

* By the way, I've taken Kinsley radically out of context here. His column is really a rather sweet and wise meditation on Charles and Camilla, and you should read it rather than rely on my self-serving excerpting.