Claiming that our political elites are no longer fit to serve us has practically become a trite statement with very little meaning.
Of course we know it is true, but recognizing the fact does not make the situation any better. We know that Hillary Clinton, the virtual epitome of a political elite, cannot be fully trusted.
Whether it was her critiques of President Obama’s immigration policies after she had once supported them, or her almost complete reversal on Obama’s trade deal after she had publicly sung its praises numerous times, it seems that suspicions that she will basically say or do anything to get elected are mostly confirmed.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, is not a part of the political elite to be sure, but the operative standard-bearer of the Republican Party nonetheless has patently demonstrated countless times throughout his campaign that he is unfit to be president. I need not waste any more ink on this point as I have repeatedly denounced Trump in these pages before: although, I have no problem doing so again.
We may sense, then, (rather uneasily as the political scientist Carson Holloway recently remarked in an essay for The Public Discourse) that our democracy is in dire need of the types of figures who did lead our nation out of great trouble — George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln and so on.
We certainly do need better political leaders. As Charles Kesler wisely noted at a recent panel called “2016 and the Future of Conservatism” at the University of Notre Dame, Trump’s victory in the primary speaks as much to the weakness of the other 16 candidates as it does to Trump’s alleged strength.
Moreover, we have already mentioned that Clinton exhibits troubling fickleness and that she is unlikely to stop this pattern even if she is elected.
So the question consequently becomes, how do we go about getting those great political leaders who will guide us through this turbulent moment in history?
Holloway rightly concludes that “true greatness cannot be created on command in politics any more than in any other field of human endeavor.”
Yet his argument for what the American public should do to help create an environment in which these types of great political leaders may flourish has two key deficiencies.
The first is that Holloway relies too much on history, although his attention to it is admirable.
His argument revolves around the idea that Americans must first appreciate what true greatness is before they can be able to recognize it. It would be difficult, Holloway reasons, for anyone to aspire to political greatness in a culture that “denies it or distorts its character.”
He supports this claim by employing the example of the alliance that Washington formed with Hamilton.
At the time, no man enjoyed a more positive reputation among the people than Washington. His continual displays of prudent and steady-handed leadership combined with that impeccable reputation truly made him the best man for the job as president.
But our new nation required more than just these two qualities. The government’s credit needed to be restored following the war, and a plan, therefore, needed to be designed to start paying America’s debts.
This was where Hamilton came in. Hamilton was by all measures, the country’s financial founding father, and he, more than anyone, is responsible for charting the economic course that safeguarded the financial perpetuity of the Union.
While he definitely receives enough praise right now due to his near rock-star status from the success of his eponymous musical, it is nonetheless true that it was only with Hamilton’s integral help that Washington, a paragon of the statesmanship that all politicians should strive for, could function as an effective political leader.
Holloway gathers from this example that all political leaders are not, as we might be tempted to believe, “islands” and require the assistance of those around them in order to succeed. He also surmises that Hamilton and Washington’s alliance was crucial in shaping our nation (which it surely was) and that we will need similar alliances in the world today.
Putting aside that he does not state directly nor imply who would be involved in these alliances, Holloway’s claim that recognizing the greatness of our founding fathers will enable us to best pick our political leaders today does not make much sense.
Even if every American were to be fully aware of and truly appreciate the importance of Hamilton and Washington’s alliance, it is unclear how voters could apply that knowledge in a contemporary context.
Isn’t it concerning that Holloway must go back so far to find an adequate example of what he deems collaborative greatness?
The situation we are in today with Clinton and Trump is obviously nothing like the one in which Washington and Hamilton were involved. Any attempt to learn from them in a completely direct way, then, is a futile exercise.
Holloway contends that the best way for political greats like Washington and Hamilton to emerge is for us to genuinely appreciate our history.
That is undoubtedly true, but he would do better to prescribe a more engaged role for American citizens than just simply learning the history of the Washington Administration. The people must not simply admire an environment where fine statesmanship can thrive; rather, they must actively create it themselves.
In this sense, political leaders are made by the people. By showing politicians what they value — whether it be through voting, community events, petitions and the like — American citizens can best hope to forge an environment where political greatness can prosper and endure for years to come.