In the News… The Burden of Office

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In the News… The Burden of Office

The orderly functioning of society seems to require that certain powers are ceded to some individuals, on the implicit if not explicit understanding that those given such powers are meant to use them for the common good. This obligation is felt strongly by some, more mildly by others, and not at all by some...

The orderly functioning of society seems to require that certain powers are ceded to some individuals, on the implicit if not explicit understanding that those given such powers are meant to use them for the common good. This obligation is felt strongly by some, more mildly by others, and not at all by some...

The orderly functioning of society seems to require that certain powers are ceded to some individuals, on the implicit if not explicit understanding that those given such powers are meant to use them for the common good. This obligation is felt strongly by some, more mildly by others, and not at all by some. In the United States, for the last four years, we have witnessed the most extraordinary conjunction of power with utter absence of any sense of the responsibilities of office. Enormous power is given to an American President – some say it is the most powerful position in the world – and that implies an equally immense moral duty to serve the interests of the people he or she represents. The American presidency is not a licence for serving one’s own interests; it comes instead with a moral burden to serve the public interest. The result of Donald Trump’s abuse of his power has been severe, perhaps irreparable, damage to the idea of American democracy.

More than that, it has raised questions about the viability of democracy itself. Almost two hundred years ago Alexis de Tocqueville, in his great work Democracy in America, warned about the problematic nature of voting to select our leaders:

I take it as proven that those who consider universal suffrage as a guarantee of the excellence of the resulting choice suffer under a complete delusion. Universal suffrage has other advantages, but not that one.

Most of us who support the idea of democracy probably hold some similar notion – that elections may produce flawed leaders, but the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. But that was before Trump. Now what are we to think? What are we to recommend to other countries struggling with conflicting ideas about how to govern themselves? The American model?

Somehow, electoral events in the United States conspired to produce not the best person for their powerful position, and not just a mediocrity of the sort Tocqueville imagined, but quite possibly the most self-serving person that could have been found by any means.

The next few years will show if Americans can correct this situation. Joe Biden is a huge step forward – an apparently decent man genuinely concerned about the public good. But what if relatively few votes in swing states had gone the other way? What about 2024?

How did we get here? I think Ayn Rand and her glorification of selfishness has something to do with it. Warped ideas about personal freedom, stoked by Trump, are partly to blame. And a still astonishingly high level of racism provides Trump with a deluded and fanatical base. And then there is the evangelical lobby that will gladly consort with the devil if they can win on the abortion issue.

This is truly an unholy alliance. What can we do about it? As Canadians, probably not much besides keeping a lid on the extremists in our own country. As for Americans, maybe they should reinstitute the civics classes that were dropped from their school curriculum 50 years ago. Or something. ♦