Most Americans take pride in living in a free society. As a kid, my peers and I used to say, “it’s a free country.” Meaning, “we can do what we want.” Yet despite our lip service to freedom, many Americans do not act like they want to live in a free society.
One of the clearest examples of this is the treatment of political leaders (or celebrities) as feudal lords. Some have called this a medieval mindset. In truth, the desire to rally around a strongman is much older and perhaps comes from some innate, evolutionary part of our brains. But feudalism (Game-of-Thrones-style or actual historical feudalism) serves as a useful analogy.
For my entire life, we have treated presidents as avatars in the culture war. Clinton, Bush, Obama, and especially Trump. During this time, the role of the federal government in our lives has also grown. Likewise, the power of the executive branch, at the expense of the legislative branch. Congress has delegated more and more power to the president, and to the administrative state. Furthermore, every president since perhaps Ford has taken unconstitutional actions (typically unchallenged).
For these reasons, Americans have become very invested in their presidents, and in presidential elections. Every four years we hear that, “this is the most important election in our lifetimes!” Many Americans stake their hopes and dreams on the president. When Trump and Bush won, people cried. When Biden won, others were convinced abortion rates would triple overnight.
Celebrity-worship also plays into the medieval mindset. When Donald Trump combined celebrity with presidential power, he created a real, psychological cult of personality. Trump is by no means the only example of this phenomenon (it occurs on right and left), but he is the most obvious and most salient. He demanded loyalty he did not reciprocate. His advisers became sycophants, and even ordinary voters fawned on him. A large cohort of Americans now base all their political opinions on Trump. When he changes his mind, they follow suit.
With Trump, and with Obama before him, ordinary citizens were asked in effect to pledge fealty. Like serfs kneeling before a duke, we make a commitment to follow our political heroes. We virtue-signal our solidarity with sitting politicians and candidates. At every turn, we are asked, “Do you support the president?” or “Do you stand with him?” or “Are you with her?” Donation letters tell us that a candidate “needs” us. In one egregious recent example, elderly Trump voters received mail threatening to actually tell Trump if any individual voter opted out of recurring donations.
This extends in the opposite direction, too. Negative polarization matters more than partisan affinity. If the president is your “enemy” (meaning from the other party), you have to oppose him at every turn. If you praise him for anything, you are “enabling” him, “apologizing” for him, and “giving him cover.” Even when the president does something you like, you must disagree with him.
Social media turns this up a notch. Everyone on Twitter must take a stand on the latest issue of the day. They have to prove that they disagree with every new policy put forth by members of the opposing party.
This means that every issue becomes a proxy for partisan antipathy. Even issues that should have no political bearing (i.e., scientific ones) are treated with a partisan lens. “If Trump is for it, I am against it.” Or vice versa. We saw this in 2020. Hydroxychloroquine. Masks. The lab leak theory. And now, sadly, vaccines. Vaccines and masks should not be badges of partisan affiliation.
Deference to authority is natural (albeit one of many competing human traits). It’s easier to follow a leader than to think for yourself. For most of history, people were governed by kings, warlords, tyrants, dictators, and emperors. Democracy is an anomaly.
This natural tendency still runs deep. Despite some claims, medieval mindset occurs equally on left and right. Trump has a cult of personality, but so did Obama (to a lesser degree). Some people on the right worship the ghost of Reagan. But during the pandemic we saw both worship of and sexualization of Andrew Cuomo and Anthony Fauci (a non-political figure who has been politicized against his will).
Fascination with Trump, or AOC, or anyone, is unhealthy for our democracy. As members of a free society, and not serfs of a feudal fiefdom, we should not worship any person (political figure, celebrity, or scientist). Moreover, our actions should demonstrate our ability to act and speak as free-thinking individuals. If you can think for yourself, you can be independent of any politician. If the president (of any party) takes action you support, you can praise him (or her). If the president turns around and enacts policy you oppose, you can denounce it (even if you voted for him or her). You do not have to “stand with” your politician, your political party, or your culture war avatar. It might be better if you did not.
In fact, it is more important to speak up when the president (or party) you voted for takes action you dislike. Each side is best suited to hold its own to account. Criticizing your own side demonstrates more ability to think freely than does criticizing the other side.
The only way to decrease partisanship is to start holding our own sides to account. This does not mean registering as an Independent. Partisan identification does not matter. You can think independently without registering as an Independent. In fact, many “Independents” vote more staunchly with one side or the other than do many registered Republicans and Democrats. If you want to register as an Independent, you can. What matters is avoiding celebrity-worship and holding politicians you admire to account.
In a healthy democracy, presidents should not matter to the day-to-day life of most average Americans. The best thing about President Joe Biden is that we can go a whole week without thinking about him.
Thanks to Ben for another great post! To read more posts from Ben Connelly in the future, follow our blog and visit our home page www.mitm4america.com. You can connect with Ben on LinkedIn (click here) where he has more great articles and posts, including ‘The Lone Runner Series’. Thank you for reading and share these links with your friends!
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