Power worship still alive and well

The United States Presidency Centre of the Institute for the Study of the Americas (part of the University of London's School of Advanced Study) has just published the results of a survey of 47 UK academics who specialise in the study of American history and politics. They were asked to evaluate the performance of every president since the Founding in five categories:

  • vision/agenda-setting
  • domestic leadership
  • foreign policy leadership
  • moral authority
  • positive historical significance of their legacy.

The results were both striking and depressing. Generally speaking, presidents from the early years of the republic did well while those from the periods both before and after the Civil War did badly. The twentieth century got a mixed response, with some presidents ranked very highly (as we shall see) but others graded very poorly.  However what is striking about the results is the kinds of president who attracted high, favourable ratings from the academics once the chronological biases have been allowed for. These show the influence of hidden assumptions about what it is that matters in history and what should count as admirable or important. The top eight in order were; Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan. Lyndon Johnson came in at number eleven, Andrew Jackson at number thirteen.

Some of these results are questionable to say the least. Lyndon Johnson was by most standards a disastrous president, responsible for a foreign war that was, to say the least, morally dubious, and a failed domestic policy that contributed mightily to the economic problems faced by the US and the wider world during the 1970s and early 1980s. All of the figures in the top ten (apart perhaps from Washington) were highly controversial figures who attracted fierce criticism. Are we to believe that all of that criticism (as for example of Lincoln’s suppression of civil liberties during the Civil War or FDR’s economic policy during the 1930s) is simply to be discounted? The point is that the top ranked Presidents are not only ranked highly relative to others, they are given high scores on the five criteria in absolute terms.

One response, which has been made to the very similar results of polls like this in the US is that these evaluations reflect the leftish sympathies of academics who favour presidents such as FDR who pursued conventionally left leaning policies. However in that case it is hard to explain the high placings of people such as Jefferson, Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Jackson. The real reason is more profound. The high marks are given to presidents who firstly, played a significant part in the founding, sustaining, and developing of the modern state and secondly, had occasion to make use of executive power. Presidents who generally chose not to use the powers they had and adhered to constitutional limits such as Grover Cleveland, James Tyler, and Martin Van Buren get mediocre rankings at best (21st, 37th and 27th respectively). Underlying the exercise and the categories employed is a narrative in which the central element is the growth and use of political power and a particular nation state (in this case the US). Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute has suggested different criteria such as respect for constitutional order, observance of civil liberties, and promotion of peace. By these Cleveland comes top and only Washington survives from the list here.

What this survey shows is that the worship of power by intellectuals is as strong as ever, along with the related propensity to admire, apologise for, and generally suck up to those who have it and enjoy exercising it. This is not a good state of affairs.

I remember Roy Jenkins saying something like Lord Liverpool was very boring or unremarkable prime minister. It seems to me, especially given the liberalisation that was going on at the time of his long prime ministership, that being boring and unremarkable is a pretty good qualification for greatness. Certainly it is better than vanity and the arbitrary exercise of unrestrained power. In the magazine Reason, the authors were once giving their preferences for the US presidency. One author said: "I always vote for the guy who has fewest ideas." Of course, this reasoning only holds if you start from a liberal position - if illiberalism needs to be rolled back you might need a bit more character.
I think Grover Cleveland is easily the most under-rated US president yet. It is interesting that he was a contemporary of Gladstone's, and yet most Brits who have heard of him tend to remember Gladstone with some fondness even if they would have found him politically disagreeable; whereas Cleveland seems pretty much to have sunk without trace. Philip: I think we must be remembering different Lords Liverpool. The one I remember passed the Corn Laws, suspended habeas corpus and restricted free speech after British troops violently suppressed a protest at St Peter's Fields in Manchester. Liberalisation is not the word I would use.
Philip - your points are very valid. It was a long pm-ship in difficult circumstances and it was one in which some of the foundations for free trade were laid (and he was very reluctant to ascent to the Corn Laws). I certainly over-egged that pudding but I think he did lay some of the foundations on which others were able to build.

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