Is Greatness Gone?

December 18, 2014 Topic: HistoryDomestic Politics Region: United States

Is Greatness Gone?

Aaron David Miller argues not only that greatness is gone in America’s presidential politics, but also that we should all rejoice in its passing. 

More curious is Miller’s argument that major crises demanding truly strong leadership are probably now a thing of the past. He talks about the “changing nature of America’s crises and challenges” and suggests that “the older a nation becomes, the fewer the foundational trials.” He elaborates:

Contemporary leaders aspiring for unparalleled, unprecedented achievement also face a “been there, done that” problem. Nations, like individuals, pass through foundational trials and existential threats and crises early in their histories. The nations and polities that survive likely never pass that way again, largely because they had the right leaders at the right time to guide them through these challenges. As nations mature, the need and opportunity for heroic action to preempt or deal with these existential challenges diminishes, along with tropes and narratives that define both the myth and reality required for great achievement.

Miller is saying here that the country has passed through the phases of its history when it faced the kinds of existential threats and challenges that called for a Washington, Lincoln or Roosevelt. Washington faced the need to set the fledgling nation upon a course that could prove durable and lasting at a time when all kinds of pressures and forces were militating against such an outcome. Lincoln faced the threat of the nation being torn asunder and the ultimate incompatibility of slavery with the country’s fundamental credo. Roosevelt confronted the economic havoc of the Great Depression, the societal instability it was generating and the crisis of the European order falling apart. But, writes Miller, such crises are largely intrinsic to a nation’s early experience and aren’t likely to emerge now that we are a mature country.


I WOULD like to offer an alternative view, not as a rebuttal but in the spirit of discourse established by Miller’s exploratory tone. History teaches us that crisis, like the poor, will always be with us. And, while Miller is correct in saying the country hasn’t experienced challenges of the magnitude that called forth Washington, Lincoln and FDR, that doesn’t mean that such challenges are now gone forever. One can argue that the country—indeed, the world—is heading toward a crisis of profound proportions.

Miller somewhat jocularly quotes from a scene in the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm in which a conservative posits what he calls “the theory of the 77”—meaning a great president emerges every seventy-seven years. First Washington, then Lincoln, then Roosevelt and then . . . George W. Bush. “We’re turning the whole damn world around,” the conservative declares. No doubt the liberal producers of Curb Your Enthusiasm intended to induce chuckles of wry amusement at the thought that anyone would equate the presidency of George W. Bush with the presidencies of those three giants of the American past. (Miller himself takes a dim view of the Bush presidency, a view I share.) He points out that these were not seventy-seven-year cycles, but rather cycles of sixty-four years, sixty-eight years and (from FDR’s death to our own time) sixty-nine years. Beyond that, he dismisses “the theory of the 77” as merely a kind of presidential trivia that is “alternately fun, silly, and driven as much by coincidence, luck, and serendipity as by anything serious.”

He is probably right. On the other hand, serious historians have explored American history through delineated cyclical patterns. Arthur Schlesinger Sr., the noted Harvard scholar, pioneered a way of looking at his country’s history based on political cycles “between public purpose and private interest,” as his son, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., described it in a 1986 book, The Cycles of American History—a process of determinism in which each new phase flows out of the conditions and contradictions of the phase before it. And usually the transitional period is characterized by a significant degree of societal and political disruption, or crisis.

Without succumbing to any rigid determinism in the matter, it is worth noting that historians such as Schlesinger Sr. didn’t believe that a nation’s maturation process could unfold in such a way as to interrupt normal historical cycles and thus preclude serious crises. History is a product of human nature, and human nature doesn’t change.

Perhaps it might be more pertinent to compare the global situation today to the circumstances that were present when America last faced a crisis of such magnitude as to call forth the leadership of a Franklin Roosevelt. In those years, the world faced what Schlesinger Jr. called “The Crisis of the Old Order,” an order based on Europe’s global preeminence, British naval superiority and financial dominance, and a balance of military force on the European continent. This set of arrangements was destroyed with World War I, and for a generation no new structure of stability emerged to replace it. The result was a period of flux that led directly to the Great Depression and World War II. Those events, and the leadership they yielded (particularly Roosevelt), produced a new order based on America’s global military reach, the strength of the dollar, and a balance of power between the U.S.-led West and an expansionist Soviet Union positioned in the ashes of war to threaten Western Europe.

Miller is correct in identifying Franklin Roosevelt as one of the greatest leaders ever produced by America. He essentially remade the American political structure, and then he remade the world. The result was a new order of relative stability, Western prosperity and global development. It has been called the Pax Americana, and it has lasted for roughly seventy years.

That structure now is under severe strain, as the editors of The National Interest wrote in the magazine’s special issue of May/June 2012, entitled “Crisis of the Old Order: The Crumbling Status Quo at Home and Abroad.” The issue laid out the ominous signs of impending crisis:

Roosevelt’s concentration of power in Washington has yielded over time a collection of elites that has restrained the body politic in tethers of favoritism and self-serving maneuver. Wall Street has captured the government’s levers of financial decision making. Public-employee unions utilize their power to capture greater and greater shares of the public fisc. Corporations foster tax-code provisions that allow them to game the system. “Crony capitalism” is endemic. Members of Congress tilt the political system to favor incumbency. A national-debt burden threatens the country’s financial health. And American citizens have become increasingly frustrated and angry.

Perhaps these developments haven’t congealed into the magnitude of crisis that Miller sees as leading to FDR-like figures—that is, “foundational emergencies” and “calamities that are hot, combustible, and inescapable.” But they are driving events in a direction that isn’t sustainable. The Occupy Wall Street movement of a few years ago and the political significance of the Tea Party testify to the reality that the political status quo in America is showing cracks and fissures. A new order will have to replace the crumbling old order, just as Roosevelt crafted a new order in his day, and history tells us that such transitional epochs breed substantial disruption—in other words, crisis.


BUT IT isn’t simply the old order of U.S. domestic politics that is under powerful stress. The postwar global system also is in progressive erosion. America remains the world’s preeminent power and will maintain that status for a considerable time. But the era when the world generally accepted American dominance is coming to an end. Challenges to U.S. preeminence are emerging from a host of quarters, and they will gather force in the coming years and decades. The rise of China, the regional ambitions of Russia in Europe, the chaos of the Middle East, the intermittent structural crises of the European Union, America’s persistent global meddling—all these undermine the stability of a fading postwar era. And that doesn’t include the possibility that the global economic order could implode at any time as well. China is sitting on a real-estate bubble that could burst tomorrow. Europe faces the prospect of a descent into the ravages of deflation. The U.S. Federal Reserve has fostered a frothy market surge that many consider artificial, and its expansive monetary policies also have placed serious strains upon the dollar as the global reserve currency. Meanwhile, the global debt burden is huge, growing and probably unsustainable.

Perhaps America and the world will slide smoothly out of the old political and economic order just in time to avoid a major crisis and make their way to a sturdy new system without disruption, chaos or bloodshed. But history doesn’t offer much hope on that score. More likely, the crisis of the old order will fester until it breeds a period of serious instability. Only then, perhaps, can a new order of stability be designed and crafted.

But no new one will emerge without major figures of the kind who appeared on the world stage in the first half of the twentieth century. For, just as great leaders can’t emerge absent great crises, great crises can’t give way to a new dawn of stability without great leadership. So long as it takes for such leadership to materialize, so long a crisis will linger—and probably deepen. Two cases in point, as noted by Miller, were the presidencies of James Buchanan in the nineteenth century and Herbert Hoover in the twentieth. The crisis each faced certainly fostered opportunities for great leadership and new directions, but neither proved capable of leveraging the crisis sufficiently to lead the country out of it. It took Lincoln (following Buchanan) and Roosevelt (following Hoover) to do that.