Sunday, May 24, 2009

The cult of the Presidency: cultural leadership

Cross-posted to SwordsCrossed and FreedomDemocrats.

During the Presidential campaign, Gene Healy at Reason wrote up an article about the Cult of the Presidency -- describing the unreasonable faith that many Americans place in the Presidency and its occupant.* Despite the hypocritical right-wing hand-wringing over the implications of Obama's effectiveness in mass politics, Obama cannot take credit for inventing the Cult of the Presidency.

A number of recent events have vividly illustrated one long-standing aspect of the Presidential cult -- the idea that the President is the ultimate arbiter of cultural worth and the representative of a national consensus on cultural issues. These events showed that Americans expect the President to be the ultimate representative on issues as broad as military valor, piousness, and athletic accomplishment.

It is this last issue --condemnation of James Harrison for abstaining from the customary White House reception for the Superbowl victors-- that really shows the American people's obsession with the President's cultural leadership. Harrison was roundly condemned for bucking convention and the decision of his team (and his failure to provide a reasonable explanation for doing so). The more extreme commentary depicted his refusal not just as a foolishly missed opportunity, but as a snub against the entire American nation:
I find Harrison’s quote to be in the slap in the face you, me, the entire Pittsburgh Steelers organization, the NFL, the President or the United States, and our entire nation.
Other commentators examined what might pass as a good explanation for his behavior:
Some people say that he just doesn’t see a presidential visit as anything special, and that he’s just being a rugged individual. Harrison did, in fact, pass on a trip to the White House in 2006, when the Steelers won the Super Bowl and when George W. Bush was president.

But most people who exercise individualism usually have put some real thought into why they’re defying the status quo. They don’t just blurt out nonsense.
I would have loved for Harrison to say something like "I've received enough recognition from the league and our fans; the President has his own job to do and I don't think this is a good use of time for either of us." Unfortunately, he didn't give any such explanation, so we'll never know how American football fans would have responded to a direct criticism of the President's role as cultural leader.

On the issue of recognizing military valor, it is reasonable that the President would be involved. After all, he is the commander-in-chief of our armed forces. Likewise, it would be appropriate for the President to recognize outstanding contributions from any government employee.

I think that the President's role as military leader makes it easy for his office to experience a sort of mission creep in cultural areas. When he recognizes the sacrifices of soldiers under his command, he has to appeal to the values that led the soldier to make his sacrifice. This quickly brings us to religious issues, and other profound cultural statements.

Of course, this bumps right up against the notion of the US government as a secular institution. To those who would encase the Presidency in their own religious rhetoric, a good response comes from Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Allaince:
President Obama is not the Pastor-in-Chief of the nation and Shirley Dobson's Task Force is not the spiritual judge of the president's personal or official actions.
I also wonder how the religious-right reconcile their merger of religion and politics with Jesus' prohibition against public/political displays of piety.

In summary, we don't have to be die-hard libertarians to object to the idea that the President embodies a national cultural consensus. We don't even have to be fans of cultural pluralism -- we only have to believe in the separation of power and responsibility among various institutions in society: the President is in charge of running the government, not guiding our cultural life.

*Following the election, some progressives took a moment to reconsider their relationship with Obama now that he had won the election, but this did not obviate the need for a continued "Cult of the President Watch" at, reporting episodes of the volk fawning over Obama. The zealous adoration of President-elect Obama bothered me also, and I felt a bit nauseous when I heard that some cities had made special arrangements to name streets after Obama, not only while he is alive, but while he is still President. Getting elected to the Presidency is undoubtedly a great personal accomplishment, but the social accomplishment of electing a black man is not Obama's accomplishment -- it is the accomplishment of all those people who fought racism throughout American history.