During the summer of 2010, I was an intern (read coffee-fetcher) on New York Congresswoman Carolyn J. Maloney’s re-election bid. One of my most vivid memories of that time was an argument I had with a campaign staffer about the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, which repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, New Deal legislation that required banks to separate their commercial and investment operations. Maloney, along with many other Democrats, I pointed out, had voted for that bill, a culprit in the 2008 economic meltdown. My friend, a die-hard socialist who had previously inveighed against Wall Street, unstintingly defended his candidate. “It looked like the right thing to do... Everyone thought so,” he averred. I am a man of the left, and I wholeheartedly supported Maloney. But I didn’t venerate her, and certainly wasn’t going to allow her or any politician to dictate my opinions.
The sense of déjà vu was overwhelming during this fall’s elections, marked as they were by shameless leader worship and its attendant intellectual laziness and ideological rigidity. The tone of the Obama 2012 campaign was just a tad less salvational than Obama 2008 (which will forever be remembered for gems like “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” and “We are the change we seek”). Predictably, the liberal reaction was equally rapturous and uncritical. Here in Massachusetts, though, Obama’s Vulcan was eclipsed by Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren’s Venus. As reported in a New York Times profile of her, men passed her love notes and crowds jumped for joy at the sight of her. The New Republic said she had a cult following that came to her aid unconditionally.
This phenomenon of leader worship is bigger than this election, Barack Obama, or Elizabeth Warren. It looms over the whole political process. Twenty-five years after Ronald Reagan left the White House, the Republican faithful remain devoted to his message of low taxes, small government, and pro-business policies. To a lesser extent, Democrats still prostrate themselves at the altar of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
In canonizing the Gipper and Dr. New Deal, zealots have a penchant for misconstruing their patron saints’ views. Reagan raised taxes multiple times and exploded the deficit. Though he took drastic measures to advance his neo-liberal agenda, for example, by firing striking air-traffic controllers, it is doubtful that he would have threatened to pitch the country into recession to get his way, as conservatives did during last summer’s debt-ceiling imbroglio.
Neither was Roosevelt a dogmatist. He faced a set of unprecedented challenges, and was willing to try anything to ease the Depression. Preserving and expanding the social safety net he jury-rigged—and that Lyndon Johnson improved—is a worthy goal, but too many on the left reject tweaks of any kind, embracing the hide-bound thinking he abhorred. Intransigence has led to immobilism, and today that has brought us to a precipice, "the fiscal cliff."
It’s taken me a while to figure out why I most despise leader worship, and this is because it is a close cousin of the personality cult, fascism’s calling card. Now, I’m not calling Warren enthusiasts squadristi or Obama 2008 fanatics Brownshirts. Nonetheless, comparisons of Warren to a super-hero and characterizations of Obama as the Messiah—Oprah famously referred to him as The One—are eerily reminiscent of the fascist cult.
As Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, a professor at UC Berkeley, notes in her book Fascist Spectacle, Mussolini was, like Obama, seen as a savior, and as omnipotent and immortal. According to propaganda, he didn’t need sleep. He skied shirtless in the winter. He could tame lions and stop volcanic eruptions. He was, in Falasca-Zamponi’s words, “the new man” able to “establish with the “masses” a novel relationship founded on emotions and the power of myth,” deriving his authority to govern from charismatic legitimacy.
In the United States, leaders can form direct connections with their constituents. But no figure should be held as divine, divinely-ordained, or divinely-endowed. It’s bad for the mind, bad for the country, and bad for democracy, and something we should all resist.
Daniel J. Solomon ‘16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Matthews Hall.