Elizabeth Warren will cancel your student loans. Donald Trump will drain the swamp. Kamala Harris will fix the gun problem. These are promises made by presidential candidates who wish to unilaterally dictate policy, if only we elect them to do so. This bipartisan trend toward authoritarianism is troubling, especially on the part of the Republican party—it makes one wonder if they’ve abandoned their limited government principles entirely. But most alarming of all is the increasingly messianistic complex of the American electorate—they are looking for a Messiah.
Traditionalists and conservatives often lament that religion is on the decline in America. But this is only partially true. Formalized worship, church-going and the practice of religious traditions are decreasing, but religious behavior is still prevalent. The exodus from organized religions has not created an irreligious people, but a society of new idols, christs and gods.
The cult of celebrity is a good example of contemporary religious idolatry. Followers are living within the image of a perfect person, except that instead of Jesus Christ, it’s Beyoncé Knowles. The danger of this tendency is especially obvious when such religiosity interacts with politics.
An electorate that deifies a politician grants him infallibility and omnipotence, cornerstones of authoritarianism. Yet, the American electorate seems thoroughly convinced by promises of salvation. Some candidates are more canny about this than others. In his announcement of his bid for the presidency, Joe Biden framed his candidacy as a rescue mission: “We are in a battle for the soul of the nation.” Many people don’t want a mere president—they want a Messiah.
This messianism produces voters desperate for a new omnipotent president to swoop down from the heavens and rescue them every four to eight years. Such a complex promotes a cycle of alternating tyrants, each concentrating more power than the last and expanding the office. Authoritarian executives are hardly new, but this attitude on the part of voters certainly is.
The American electorate has fallen into a disquieting habit of considering only the ends of an administration—not the means.The content of policy making has become what’s important, no matter the manner in which it was achieved. But this is the siren song of the “benevolent” authoritarian, and it’s a patently un-American sentiment that leaves factions primed to impose their political will upon others.
This kind of corrosive factionalism worried James Madison, who understood it as groups “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens.” He was optimistic, however, about our capacity to prevent this: “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.” But our current system doesn’t break factionalism, it promotes it.
When the American people are convinced that the governance of the state rests on a single office, they perceive government as a zero-sum game—one side wins and the other loses. The voters then invest all their emotional and mental energy in their party’s presidential candidate, who, in modern America, is held up as a savior in the face of evil, or as Marianne Williamson warns, “a dark psychic force.” This apocalyptic catastrophization leads to increasingly extreme rhetoric and animosity between the camps.
We’ve become mired in a feedback loop where the government grows, raising the stakes of the presidential election, exacerbating the desire for a savior, and ending in the election of yet another proto-authoritarian who grows the government. This paradigm requires both a savior promising the world and voters granting him power. But in falling for this illusion, we run a dire risk. In the worst case scenario, bloated authoritarian government begets tyranny. But, at the very least, it means rights violations, over-regulation, inefficiency, waste and massive spending—which for us has led to about twenty-two trillion dollars of debt.
But how can we resist this trend and reverse the damage that’s already been done? There are two directions from which this vicious cycle could be broken, one from the side of the electorate and one from the side of the executive.
The solution on the electorate side is a tall order: a national religious revival. One of the driving forces of the desire for a messianic executive is the decline of religion. Through the reinstitution of traditional organized religions, the voters’ desire for a Messiah could be properly redirected. Religious thought and behavior is largely unavoidable, so if we want to keep it out of politics (or pop culture, for that matter), it should be exercised within a healthy, organized tradition. No one needs the president to be their savior when they have their savior to be their savior.
The potential solution on the executive side of the paradigm is more likely and already in the works. If we can restrict the power of the purse, we could finally limit the government’s capacity to expand beyond its means, which would certainly help curtail executive authority and the messianic allure that comes along with it. A recent movement based on Article V of the Constitution advocates convening a state convention to vote on new amendments that would impose fiscal and jurisdiction restraints and term limits on the federal government. This measure already has the support of almost half of the 34 states required to approve it, with more states set to sign on this year. Such restraints, though imposed on the federal government as a whole, would reduce the power of the presidency and help to break this vicious cycle.
We probably need a combination of structural and cultural reforms to properly attenuate the American electorate’s messianistic complex—its desire for a Messiah—and the increasingly authoritarian behavior of messianic presidents. In the wake of such a reformation, if the deification of politicians waned and the executive authority was thoroughly limited, political power would be returned to the people, and a more constitutional balance restored to government. We, the people, could fulfill our religious drive without the risk of tyrannizing our neighbors. And perhaps the office of the presidency would even seem dull, just that of another administrator with a job to do.
When the founders were crafting the presidency, John Adams pushed for the chief executive to be called “His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties.” Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and George Washington assumed the humble title of Mr President. Yet, regardless of title, the presidency is now exalted by an electorate enthralled with the supremacy of the office. By pining for a presidential savior to impose our will, we invite a divine kingship—but the election of a god and monarch does not a republic make.