There’s this thing that Patriarchy does to us and it’s worth identifying it when we see it and calling it out. I think of it as the “Great Man of History” Fallacy. It’s this notion that we can elect “transformational” leaders (somehow, always men) who will — simply by the force of their personality, machismo, dedication — “change the culture.” In politics, this is often discussed as “changing the culture of Washington.”
But this need to believe in some Great Man who will save us is problematic. You saw the phenomenon during the 2008 election when Barack Obama first ran for president. At that point, Mr. Obama was, in fact, a fairly inexperienced legislator with few actual accomplishments, aside from some inspirational speeches, to his name. He had little experience with the “culture of Washington,” but he was a young, cool, guy, someone onto whom people could project their desires for Hope and Change. And despite what he actually said — that he was not a member of the “anti-war left,” that his political hero was Ronald Reagan, that his actual positions were those of a 1950s/1960s moderate Republican — people longed to believe that he was truly progressive and better than Hillary Clinton who had “voted for the war.” I think that he, himself, having broken a number of barriers in his life, really believed that he could, as he said, “change the culture of Washington” and get things done. I think that he believed himself to be “transformational.”
And we all know how that worked out. For at least the first six years or so of his Presidency, the Republicans ate his lunch on a regular basis. The culture of Washington has, if anything, become more bitter, more partisan, more winner-take-all and one result is about to be that Mr. Obama won’t get to select the next Supreme Court Justice as, by all rights, he should.
You saw it, too, with George W. Bush’s supporters who believed, all evidence to the contrary, that he’d like to have a beer with them, that he would “keep us safe,” that he was a “godly man” who would “make America great.” Even after four years of daily evidence that he was in way over his head, many Americans showed up to vote for him a second time. He was their Great Man of History and it was too painful to admit that he was a flawed human being.
And now we see the same phenomena being played out around Senator Bernie Sanders. This time around, this one-issue senator from a small, culturally homogenous state, is being touted as “revolutionary.” He’s our hero, the next Great Man of History who will be a “transformational” leader. Senator Sanders will, apparently simply by the sheer force of his belief in change, come to DC and get the Congress (the one that deliberately worked to defeat and humiliate President Obama at every turn, the one that impeached Bill Clinton over a blow job, the one that Senator Sanders been unable to move as a Senator) to adopt a Democratic Socialist agenda. If you express any doubt, even if you’re Nobel-Prize winning Paul Krugman and you say that the numbers just don’t add up, then you’re just a nay-sayer who must not want real change. You’re a shrill for the establishment. A humorless feminist. Because anyone who doubts the transformational powers of this Great Man of History must be evil. He can be failed, but he can never fail.
One of the problems with this desire for a hero who will make us feel good is that it causes us to ignore politicians with actual experience and real track records. They’ve probably compromised somewhere along the way with someone we don’t like and they have some dings on their bumpers. They talk about what can actually be accomplished rather than engaging our emotions and inspiring hero-worship.
Another problem is that it’s sexist. Heroes, after all, are men. If you’re holding out for a hero, a transformational leader, a Great Man of History, you’re going to ignore the grandmother in tennis shoes who actually managed to pass the wetlands bill that, despite not being perfect, does, in fact, save an endangered species. Incremental change is never as exciting as the glorious revolution that THIS Great Man is going to lead us to THIS time. (OK, Obama was a disappointment, but CAN YOU FEEL THE BERN? This time, it will work.) Given that we’re swimming in Patriarchy, the cool, young guy with no experience, the wild old man who waves his arms around, the sexist bro who gives good Tweet is almost always going to look more “transformational” than some woman, trying desperately to strike the impossible balance between being too aggressive and too weak.
When she met with Black Lives Matter activists, Hillary Clinton said that politicians may not change people’s “hearts and minds.” She doesn’t really see that as her job.
I don’t believe you change hearts,” Clinton told Julius Jones in an candid moment backstage after a campaign event. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not. But at the end of the day, we can do a whole lot to change some hearts, and change some systems, and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them.”
As The Atlantic explained:
Clinton had little interest in the touchy-feeling notion of hearts and minds—“lip service,” she called it at one point—and instead wanted to get down to brass tacks: What is it that you want to achieve? Give me a policy agenda to “sell.” In the language of a politician, she wanted to hear their “ask”—a specific, tangible request that is made hundreds of times a day in meetings between officials and advocates on Capitol Hill or Cabinet department offices. Clinton has spoken in detail about enacting criminal-justice reform, but that platform did not get discussed in the video. The response seemed to reveal Clinton’s inner wonk, a preference for the nitty-gritty bottom line of policy changes over soaring political rhetoric. . . .
You can keep your heroes. I’m not six years old and I’m not a video star who wants to end up kneeling before, and prepared to fellate, the cowboy. It’s going to take all of us working hard, all the time, to make change. Voting once every 4 or 8 years for some “transformational” leader isn’t going to cut it, no matter how nice that would be or how good it might make us feel before the disenchantment sets in.
When you meet the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha. We, not some Great Man, are the ones we’ve been waiting for.