Of Étienne de La Boétie we remember, at most, two things. First, he was the friend of Michel de la Montaigne. When La Boétie died, Montaigne wrote “if you ask me why I loved him, all I can say is, because it was him, because it was I.” La Boétie is less well known for his principal work, a rambling essay on political allegiance entitled Discours de la servitude volontaire, ou le Contr’un: the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, or the Anti-One. The “One” was the King, tyrant or dictator who ruled the many, and why the many permitted that to happen was the puzzle La Boétie set out to answer, in a foundational if neglected work of political theory
What La Boétie wanted to know was why people agree to be oppressed by their rulers. “I should like merely to understand,” he wrote:
how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him.
How is it, he wondered, that people will stand up to an invading barbarian army but cower before a “single little man,” often the “most cowardly and effeminate in the nation.”
Economists, political philosophers, and political scientists each offer a different answer to the puzzle. Economists tell us that people might resent their ruler but obey him because it’s too costly for them to unite to oppose him. Political philosophers ask whether people ought to obey the ruler because they have a moral duty to comply with the law. It is the third set of questions, however, posed by the political scientist, which I find most interesting. People do feel that they owe allegiance to the ruler, as a matter of fact. How then to account for why we submit to authority?
The political scientist Max Weber sought to answer the third question in a lecture entitled “The Profession and Vocation of Politics.” The lecture was addressed not to La Boétie’s submissive subjects but to future rulers. You’re going to govern people, Weber told his audience. Learn therefore why they might obey you. What is it which legitimizes a ruler and gives him a presumptive right to our submission? What is the source of the “inner justification” of a ruler’s authority, which subjects feel without being instructed in obedience or threatened with sanctions for disobedience? That’s the glue needed to hold a political state together.
Weber offered three possible sources of political obligation: custom, charisma, and constitutional governance. Those who draft a constitution also must ask whether people will accept it as binding, and at their Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 the Framers considered the same three sources. They rejected the first, feared the second, and in their place offered the third, with a constitution which they hoped would appeal to Americans because of its intrinsic excellence.
Weber’s custom or tradition was the authority of the “eternal past.” We owe a debt of allegiance to those who came before us, and as we reverence them we inherit their legal obligations. That might help to explain legal authority in a traditional society, in Britain or Weber’s Wilhelmine Germany. It was not, however, something upon which the Framers could rely, after breaking America’s bonds with the old country. The Framers had lived under a very traditional constitution, that of the British Empire, and that is just what they wanted to extinguish. Those most disposed to Weber’s eternal past, the Royal Governors, the Anglican divines, the Loyalists, were forced to flee after the Revolution, and those who remained had very different ideas about the source of political authority.
Weber’s second source of political authority was the charismatic leader who inspires personal trust and loyalty in his followers. The Framers had just such a leader in George Washington, but that wasn’t the kind of government they had in mind. They knew that Washington wouldn’t abuse his powers, but they didn’t know who would come after him. What alarmed them was the possibility of a demagogue who would pander to an easily led populace, as state politicians had done during the period of the Articles of Confederation. Too often, said James Madison, people became “the dupe of a favorite leader, veiling his selfish views under the professions of public good, and varnishing his sophistical arguments with the glowing colors of popular eloquence.”
This is why the Framers spent so much of their time debating how the president would be chosen. They took more than thirty votes on the subject and only came up with their solution, Article II of the Constitution, on day 105 of a 116-day Convention. Amongst the Framers, nationalists such as James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris wanted an elected president, one who would be chosen directly by the people and who would thus possess the legitimacy to resist encroachments by the states against the national government. The states’ rights delegates wanted none of this, and sought to limit the president’s powers by having him chosen indirectly, through the medium of the states, rather than by direct election. The president would be appointed by electors who were expected to possess an independent judgment and who would choose whomever they thought the best candidate. The electors themselves would be chosen by a method determined by state legislatures, most of which simply appointed the electors at first. Finally, most of the Framers thought that, after George Washington, presidential candidates would lack national appeal. They wouldn’t get a majority of the electoral votes, in which case the election would be thrown to the House of Representatives, with each state given one vote.
Most of the Framers were opposed to a strong central government, and they didn’t care for democracy; they thought that when you put the two together, in the form of a popularly elected president, you got what Edmund Randolph called the fetus of monarchy. George Mason went him one better, saying that such a government would be “a more dangerous monarchy, an elective one,” its president Weber’s charismatic leader.
In place of the charismatic leader, the Framers designed a government which they believed would rest on Weber’s third explanation for political authority, that of legality or constitutional governance. One might follow a rule because one thinks it valid in the sense that it was enacted or adopted by legal procedures which themselves are acknowledged to be valid. I do not have to know that a rule is benign to have a reason to follow it if I know that it was properly enacted by a legislature whose legitimacy I recognize because it is founded upon and ruled according to principles of which I approve. That was the constitution the Framers wished to give us, and that was the one which, until recently, was the principal icon of American identity.
“The American Constitution is unlike any other,” said the historian Hans Kohn. “It represents the lifeblood of the American nation, its supreme symbol and manifestation.” Other countries had their common cultures or religions. What America had was an idea. Robert Penn Warren wrote, “To be American is not . . . a matter of blood; it is a matter of an idea.” And just what was the idea? Not simply liberty or liberty under law, for those were also English ideas. The special American contribution, which defined the nation itself, is the idea of a written constitution and the individual rights it recognizes.
The Framers’ constitution is not our constitution, however. In time, presidents were popularly elected, as nationalists such as James Wilson had wanted. The electors came to be elected by the people themselves, and lost any independent discretion they might have had. Candidates with national appeal emerged, and the last time an election was thrown to the House was 1824 (though we came close in 2000). As this happened, the presidency became a symbol of American identity. The White House and the pomp of an inauguration are for Americans what Buckingham Palace and a coronation are for Britons.
The Framers would have found this troubling. They didn’t want a popularly elected president and would have worried that a powerful president would become Weber’s charismatic hero and supplant the Constitution as the source of political authority. This indeed is how we are to understand the political divide in America today. The conservative who objects to Obamacare as unconstitutional doesn’t want bureaucrats deciding what kind of health care he will get. That is a matter of politics. But behind the political disagreement with progressives is a deeper disagreement about the kind of country we live in, about whether the Constitution continues to serve as the foundational touchstone of American identity or whether it has been replaced by the charismatic president. When Nancy Pelosi said “Are you kidding?” to a reporter who asked about Obamacare’s constitutionality, what she really meant was “You’re so 1787!”
Just what would Weber’s charismatic leader look like? He must first be seen to possess more-than-human qualities and offer a transformation, long on emotion and short on facts, that transcends everyday policy questions. He is above politics, above legal constraints, above mundane budgets, above even reasoned discourse. That’s a fair description of Obama, of course. The man who told us that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” was not speaking the language of politics. The man who, announcing his immanence, told us that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” was campaigning for something more lofty than political office. Ordinary politicians don’t talk that way, at least American politicians haven’t in the past.
Second, the charismatic leader cannot brook rivals. There can only be The One. Every other source of authority is suspect, both people and institutions. His charisma trumps them all, Congress, courts, and church. Once again, that describes Obama’s reaction to the inconvenient institutions which oppose his will. Sadly, Congress has been given a role of some kind under the Constitution. “What’s frustrating people,” Obama complained, “is that I haven’t been able to force Congress to implement every aspect of what I said in 2008.” Happily, Obama has now found a dodge around inconvenient laws, such as the Immigration Act: he simply doesn’t enforce them, even when their constitutionality is not in question. That, one expects, is what charismatic presidents will do in the future, rather than veto a bill. Why risk an override in Congress, when a president can refuse to uphold the law?
There’s also the Supreme Court, whose Citizens United decision Obama regularly attacks, remarkably to their faces in his 2010 State of the Union speech. Then there’s the Church, which perversely worships a rival charismatic leader. If it provides social services, schools, hospitals, and adoption agencies, it is simply doing what Obama himself should be doing, and often with a dangerously illiberal agenda.
When the charismatic leader’s promise of transformational change falls short, as it inevitably does, he turns bitterly against his opponents, against anything which would fetter his unbounded will. They are heretics who resist a divine grace and are cut off from decent citizens. The president’s unwillingness to tolerate criticism has not made him easy to work with. “It’s almost as if someone cannot have another opinion that is different from his,” recalled Eric Cantor, admittedly not an unbiased observer. “He becomes visibly agitated. . . . He does not like to be challenged on policy grounds.” His mean streak was painfully on view in a 2008 debate with Hillary Clinton, who had been asked about her lack of “likability.” Clinton conceded that Obama is very likable and then said “I don’t think I’m that bad.” At which point, Obama smirked and said, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”
The third and crucial attribute of a charismatic leader is his ability to make his supporters identify with him. He presents himself to his people and asks “Are you in?” Are you part of his mystical body? Will you give me your wedding, your birthday presents? The attraction must be mutual, for he draws his magical powers from the crowd’s adulation. Whatever difficulties the country might face, the answer is always a speech which reaffirms the special bond between The One and the many. Don’t look for substance. The speech is the substance. In truth, the country’s problems are of little interest. What matters is only the relation between the One and his people, the communion between them. Who but a Weberian charismatic leader would have said, when a spectator collapsed at an Obama rally, “Looks like somebody might’ve fainted up here. . . . Don’t worry about it: Folks do this all the time in my meetings.”
That raises La Boétie’s question in the Contr’un: Why would people voluntarily serve The One? Why wouldn’t they find the self-absorption stomach-turning? This suggests a second-order disorder, one not hitherto seen in this country. We’ve had self-absorbed and apparently narcissistic presidents before (that would be you, Bill Clinton), but that didn’t seem to be a sufficient reason to vote for him. This time it’s different. What is new is that narcissism now seems to attract American voters. Think of the mock Roman temple which served as a backdrop at the 2008 Denver Democratic Convention, when Obama accepted his party’s nomination. Everyone raved about it, even Republicans. But the Framers would have found this shocking.
Faoud Ajami first noticed this phenomenon, shortly before the 2008 election, in the Wall Street Journal. He observed the crowds who attended Obama rallies, and was reminded of Third World crowds he had seen at the feet of the redeemer, the Awaited One. He explains:
There is something odd—and dare I say novel in American politics about the crowds that have been greeting Barack Obama on his campaign trail. Hitherto, crowds have not been a prominent feature of American politics. We associate them with the temper of Third World societies. We think of places like Argentina and Egypt and Iran, of multitudes brought together by their zeal for a Peron or a Nasser or a Khomeini. In these kinds of societies, the crowd comes forth to affirm its faith in a redeemer: a man who would set the world right.
Something has changed in America. Obama is not the first charismatic president. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and FDR had charisma in spades. Obama is, however, the first president who ran on nothing but charisma. The others had an accomplishment or two. What Obama brought to the White House was just himself, unless you count his two (highly fictionalized) autobiographies (what else would you have expected him to write about?). Nor had previous American leaders ever displayed Obama’s preening self-importance. There have always been such people, but in the past they never emerged as leaders, for they did not survive the winnowing process of American politics. What is interesting is not Obama, then. It’s what has happened to Americans, to permit them to elect an Obama.
The grandiosity which would have repelled voters in the past has now become more acceptable, and even welcomed. The crowd gazes at Obama, as if into a well, and sees itself reflected back. We don’t vote the Democratic ticket so much as identify with a leader we are asked to think of as “My Obama.” For some reason, one didn’t hear about “My Truman” in 1948. I don’t say that voters back then were pillars of republican virtue, but I do think they would have found the 2008 Obama icons—the Obama logo, the Hope picture—more than a little creepy. If we don’t feel that way today, it’s because we live in a different country.
At the same time, the Constitution is not the same icon of American identity that it was fifty years ago, when Hans Kohn and Robert Penn Warren wrote. That’s not surprising, given the way in which our schools and universities have denigrated the sense of an American identity tied to constitutional norms and to shared values. Our children have been taught that the Constitution is a flawed document, that it unjustly empowered an illegitimate hierarchy, that it lacked a sense of empathy for the oppressed. The morally troublesome Founders have been displaced by a new set of heroes, with more progressive views, among whom no one is greater than Obama.
Patriotism feeds on symbols, and as constitutional symbols weaken, their place is taken by other symbols, of which membership in Obama Nation and identification with the president as a Weberian charismatic leader is perhaps the most important. We are shown an Obama-shaped hole in our hearts, to be filled by the leader we yearn for, the one who taketh away the sins of the world, our Obama. The issue before us is which set of symbols, the Constitution or the charismatic leader, will come to define who Americans are.
One might think it ironic that a former constitutional law teacher bids to displace the Constitution as a symbol of American identity. It’s not. For a generation, Obama and other proponents of a “living constitution” have sought to erase the border between the Constitution and politics, with the goal of prescribing the narrow policy outcomes they favor as constitutionally mandated. That, however, is a mug’s game. While a constitution might be loved by all Americans, politics are by definition divisive and unlovely. One can’t take the place of the other. Matthew Arnold said that there are some things which cannot be known unless we know they are beautiful. So too, there are some things we cannot understand unless we understand they are loved.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 1 , on page 13
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