The Past and Future Presidency

Wildavsky, Aaron. "The Past and Future Presidency." Public Interest, Fall 1975

In the third volume of The American Commonwealth, Lord Bryce wrote, “Perhaps no form of Government needs great leaders so much as democracy.” Why, then, is it so difficult to find them? The faults of leadership are the everyday staple of conversation. All of us have become aware of what Bryce had in mind in his chapter on “True Faults of American Democracy,” when he alluded to “a certain commonness of mind and tone, a want of dignity and elevation in and about the conduct of public affairs, an insensibility to the nobler aspects and finer responsibilities of national life.” If leaders have let us down, they have been helped, as Bryce foresaw, by the cynical “apathy among the luxurious classes and fastidious minds, who find themselves of no more account than the ordinary voter, and are disgusted by the superficial vulgarities of public life.” But Bryce did not confuse condemnation with criticism. He thought that “the problem of conducting a stable executive in a democratic country is indeed so immensely difficult that anything short of failure deserves to be called a success…“ Explaining “Why Great Men Are Not Chosen,” in the first volume of his classic, Bryce located the defect not only in party politics but in popular passions: “The ordinary American voter does not object to mediocrity.”

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