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Monday, October 27, 2008

Against the Great Man Theory

posted by on October 27 at 11:00 AM

When friends and I talk about politics these days, the discussions often end at an expression of simple awe at what Barack Obama been able to accomplish over the course of this presidential race.

They end there, in part, because of a lack of words to describe what has happened. Because, when you step back and look at Obama’s achievements, and consider them in the context of not just the last eight years but also in the context of more than 230 years of American history, it can be hard to describe how big what’s occured, and what’s probably coming, feels.

The other day, during one of these awe-stopped conversations, I found myself wondering, when we ran out of words, whether this was simply because we were seeing the emergence of something none of us had experienced in our lifetimes, but had heard a lot about: the arrival of a Great Man.

All of us in the conversation were under 32. We belong to a generation that not only hasn’t experienced leadership by any Great Men (or Women), but is somewhat predisposed not to believe in the Great Man Theory of history anyway. We’re taught that the world is complicated, post-modern, maybe even sub-altern. That the locus of power is hard to find, and probably not singular. That the heroic journey of the individual and the master narrative are a bit old-fashioned.

But Obama is making all of that old stuff feel new, or at least newly relevant. Which is leading me these days to fall back on Great Man Theory in conversation, because how else to describe him, what he’s accomplished, and what he seems poised to do for the Democratic party and this country?

If all of this sounds a bit starry-eyed, perhaps even “in the tank” or straight up wrong-headed, here’s an alternate take. Over at the American Prospect, Ezra Klein gets out in front of me and my friends and our conversations, and attempts to shoot down the idea that Great Men, even if they do exist, matter all that much when it comes to Big Change:

The “great man” theory of the presidency is not convenient when it comes to actually creating change. Again and again, presidents disappoint. They fail to pass health-care reform or Social Security privatization. They don’t ease partisanship or break through gridlock. They prove impotent in the face of immediate crises and leave long-term challenges to fester. And so we tire of them, resolving to replace them with more presidents. Better presidents. Presidents of the other party, or of the same party, or of no party at all. Businessmen like Mike Bloomberg, insurgents like Ralph Nader, charismatic leaders like Barack Obama, self-professed mavericks like John McCain.

Executive leadership is important, of course, but the continual failure of our presidents should be lesson enough that it is not sufficient. The executive is but one actor in a sprawling drama.

Read the whole, theory-puncturing piece here.

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I would extend that age 32 to at least age 40-45. I barely fall under the youth vote, so I know that it feels the same for me.

Posted by Deacon Seattle | October 27, 2008 11:10 AM

Your use of the word "sub-altern" is confusing me. In what sense is the world sub-altern? What's it subordinate to... the past?

Posted by Uncle Vinny | October 27, 2008 11:12 AM

I was just thinking this morning that with the election a week out and the feeling of a colossal sea change coming, that it was about the time for Democrats to start handwringing about whether they *really* have or deserve the mandate to do anything they want, even though they may end up with a huge portion of the vote and a filibuster-proof majority in Congress.

Posted by Just Kidding | October 27, 2008 11:15 AM

Great man, my ass. Fatuous, gullible starfuckers, the lot of you.

Fuck charisma and fuck heroism. Obama hasn't even been elected yet, and he damn sure isn't making any claims like that for himself.

No "knight on horseback" is going to change this country for the better. Electing people who we *think* might change it for the better, and watching them like hawks to see that they *do* change it for the better, just *might* change it for the better.

That's my job, and it's your job. None of us are "great men," least of all me. We're just the working stiffs of America -- the only ones who have effected positive change in this country -- and given a fighting chance, we'll do it again.

Posted by ivan | October 27, 2008 11:18 AM

I've always assumed that historical "Great Men" were leaders did the right thing when forced to by circumstances beyond their control. And that the mantle of "Great Man" was necessarily bestowed posthumously.

I consider its corollary to be the Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times."

Posted by flamingbanjo | October 27, 2008 11:21 AM

I haven't read the whole thing - because I'm post-modern and sub-altern and therefore have the attention span of a gnat - but I'd argue that Obama is the focal point for the hopes and desires of a vast number of people. His greatness, if you want to say he has any, is his brilliant articulation of a yawning need in our culture. He reflects us back to us so artfully that we become beautiful and capable of great things that we never before thought possible.

It's the clichéd counterargument: great men are only great when they rise up in a time of crisis to reflect the collective conscience of a people. Americans are so focused on our individuality that we fail to recognize that, even in that very expression of individuality, we are members of larger culture that has molded us profoundly. We have been prepared for this moment by the four hundred years of history on this continent that preceded us, and we are preparing future generations for Whatever Will Come, be it the human race's first post-racial society or a re-invigoration of democracy itself.

I am personally more invested in the implications this candidacy has for democratic principles. This 8-year reign of Bush has shown a very disturbing movement toward honest-to-God fascism, and time and again has reminded me of the consolidation of power under Augustus in Rome. I truly believe that now is the deciding time for democracy itself. Either we push back against the corporatist shift made under the Bush administration, or we become Rome: a dictatorship (or an oligarchy) operating under the thinnest patina of representative government to appease the masses. The Roman senate lived on some 700 years after Augustus effectively ended the Republic. That could be us.

Now - this very moment - is when we decide if we are going to move democracy itself to the next level. Obama is a man, yes, but he is also the focal point by which we can push back against the corporatists themselves. If we do not push back then our experiment will fail even more spectacularly than Rome's did.

A great man? Maybe. What matters more is if we're a great enough people to direct and support him.

Posted by TVDinner | October 27, 2008 11:28 AM

Here's where my generation gets stopped in its tracks, once we start pondering Obama's lofty rise. It goes to the Klein piece too. Obama reminds us how we yearn for the Great Man; Klein reminds us of the constraints legitimate institutions place on Great Man action. Meanwhile, the destruction of public education has left the electorate prone to emotionalism. If the economy isn't back on the cheery upswing by the time Obama's term is up, we may be swayed by a Great Man who comes along and promises to overthrow all those tempering institutions, and who does. We'll get not the Roosevelt who created the New Deal, but the Roosevelt who put 110,000 Americans into concentration camps.

Posted by tomasyalba | October 27, 2008 11:29 AM

I think there is solid evidence that Obama has the potential to be a "Great Man" -- temperament, intelligence, decision-making ability, surrounding himself with smart people and actually listening to them. I'm also inclined to think that he will do what’s right as opposed to what personally benefits himself or his supporters.

But, I don't think you can say he's a "Great Man" based on what he's done to date. When he's in office, we'll be better able to judge, based on how he handles the various clusterfucks we are currently facing (and any future clusterfucks).

Posted by Julie in Chicago | October 27, 2008 11:32 AM

All of us in the conversation were under 32.

Kids are stupid.

Posted by Olo | October 27, 2008 11:32 AM

Great man or not, what will determine right off the bat whether or not he will be a good president is what he does with the added powers Bush gave himself. His first act as president should be a revocation of all signing statements made by Bush and returning all additional powers.

Posted by zephsright | October 27, 2008 11:47 AM


Please stop your fantasies and realize (a) he hasn't done anything yet and (b) when and if he does it will be because millions and millions just like yourslf decide you're not going to demobilize after the election and you're NOT going to believe in the GREAT MAN THEORY you're going to realize it's fucking up to you and all you friends to stay mobilzied active organized and you're going to have to keep at it the rest of your lives, ok?

Election day is the start of an 8-year struggle to get all this shit passed.

Oh you didn't realize that? You thought electing a GREAT MAN makes change happen?

No, it doesn't. YOU have to keep making change happen.

Pls. make a note of it.

Posted by PC | October 27, 2008 11:48 AM

@1 for the win.

We really haven't had any since somewhere around '63, and it's a crying shame.

Posted by Will in Seattle | October 27, 2008 11:49 AM

someone up there wrote 'great man action'...heh...get it?...

i think this 'great man' business is utter nonesense. obama is, without a doubt, a historical figure, simply on the basis of what he represents. and fortunately for him and us he's also an extraordinarily talented politician. thus making him the right guy at the right time for the right job. all the factors are there for a huge change to occur, and i believe a huge change will occur from a cultural standpoint. but it won't be overnight and it most likely won't be as a direct result of anything obama does, so much as it will gradually evolve out of what an obama presidency means. it's quite likely that from a pragmatic perspective obama will be a disappointment, not due to his own failings necessarily but more due to unrealistic expectations, ie, 'great man' theories.

ultimately it's difficult to wrap my head around, being on the threshold of something as potentially world changing as what we could see in a week.

Posted by douglas | October 27, 2008 11:55 AM

I don't think Eli's post explicitly states that Obama *is* a Great Man, just that there exists a palpable sense he *could* or *will* be one, something that his (and my) generation have never felt. And that is damned exciting.

Posted by laterite | October 27, 2008 12:15 PM

My personal view is that the Great Man theory is half right. I think it is a conflagration of events in combination with a charismatic leader. The two go together. A charismatic man cannot achieve Great Man status in the absence of world changing events. And world changing events live on in history by being tied to the identity of a Great Man.

Some of us are frustrated by centuries of racism. Some of us are frustrated by this war. Some of us are frustrated by the corruption, stupidity, and hubris of the neo-cons. Some of us are frustrated by the religious right trying to force their beliefs on the rest of us who don't share their beliefs. Some of us are frustrated the Republicans ignoring the environment and global warming, and science in general. Some of us are frustrated about the imploding economy and the Republican's pandering to corporations and the wealthy.

Many of these frustrations were present 4 years ago (to a lesser degree perhaps), but they amounted to nothing. Kerry was the democrat's spokesman, but he lacked any charisma, and was not a Great Man, and so whatever potential existed for any sort of movement fizzled.

Now these frustrations have just continued to build for the last 4 years, and now we have a highly charismatic man leading the charge. Many people's frustrations and hopes for change have coalesced into how we identify Barack Obama. His identity is now being tied to this movement. He has the potential to become a Great Man, if this movement actually results in a real progressive change in this country.

He isn't a Great Man yet. But he may very well become one.

Posted by Reverse Polarity | October 27, 2008 12:20 PM

Tolstoy in War and Peace was clearly on the side of the rising tide of events carrying a person into the role of the "great man." It carried Napoleon into the role of invincible genius and then destroyed him, as the events turned proving that he did not really direct anything.

Posted by vooodooo84 | October 27, 2008 12:45 PM

Based on observation, not emotion: JFK was smart but made macho mistakes that could have been (nuclear war-)deadly. Obama will be the next FDR.

Posted by Amelia | October 27, 2008 11:49 PM

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