With a new president in the White House and having just observed Presidents Day, it’s a good time to reflect on presidential leadership.
All presidents were men of reputation and accomplishment in their own time, but many have since been forgotten. Historians don’t speak of the Millard Fillmore Era, the Franklin Pierce Epoch or the Age of Martin Van Buren (unless you’re a member of a certain street gang on "Seinfeld").
Some presidents, however, fundamentally changed the political system and established lasting legacies. Historians refer to such presidents as “transformative.”
Not counting George Washington, who obviously belongs to his own historical category, most historians would agree that Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were transformative presidents (many also would include Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and perhaps even Lyndon Johnson).
Is it still possible to elect transformative leaders who solve big problems and leave lasting legacies? Given our deep political divisions, it seems unlikely.
Political polarization is nothing new, and transformative presidents have emerged during times of extreme partisanship. During the presidential campaign of 1800, John Adams was called a hermaphroditic, monarchical tyrant, and Jefferson a hedonistic, godless, half-breed.
America has a long history of uncivil political discourse. What seems different today is that partisanship has infected our entire culture. Political battles spill over into popular culture, professional sports, art, literature and science. It’s nearly impossible to escape from politics.
When politics infuses nearly every aspect of life, political battles are no longer about policy ideas and how we govern the country. They’re a struggle for power based on self-identity and self-preservation. Political opponents aren’t just offering competing policy ideas, they’re out to destroy our way of life. Politics becomes an existential struggle between two diametrically opposed conceptions of reality.
In that type of political climate, each election is a zero-sum game where all that matters is power. It’s not about which candidate has the best solutions or long-term vision for the country. The focus is on ensuring the other side loses. That’s how we end up with deeply flawed and uninspired candidates like Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. They seem to be the best our broken system will allow.
The cesspool of our electoral process is unlikely to produce visionary leaders. Even if it does, they’re unlikely to achieve meaningful, lasting change. Deranged partisanship carries over from the campaign trail to the institutions of government, making bold solutions on big issues nearly impossible. When politics devolves into a tribal death struggle, nobody has an incentive to govern in a thoughtful way. The main priority is defeating the enemy and maintaining power.
A country stuck in a constant and all-consuming partisan battle will find it difficult to produce the type of quality leaders it has in the past and that the 21st century requires. As we are consumed by political warfare, the world is rapidly changing -- economically, technologically and geopolitically. America has long been a country that shapes events through bold leadership. Unless we extract ourselves from the hyperpolitical morass, we’re more likely to be shaped by coming events than to shape them ourselves.
While it’s unlikely our toxic political culture can produce a transformative leader, it’s not impossible. As politically divided as we are today, it has been worse. Partisan opposition to Lincoln’s election in 1860 was so great that seven Southern states seceded from the Union before he took the oath of office, and the nation was nearly torn apart. But Lincoln’s greatness was forged in the crucible of the Civil War. Let’s hope we don’t have to endure anything close to that before our next great leader emerges.
Tory Jackson is an attorney and writer. His legal practice involves real estate and business matters, with a particular focus on historic rehabilitation projects. He holds degrees from Bismarck State College, the University of Virginia and Harvard Law School. He lives in Bismarck, where he was born and raised.