During the early, more optimistic days of this republic it was assumed that each individual citizen could become (and should prepare to become) President. For democracy was considered not only a collectivity of individuals, as was defined by W.H. Auden, but a collectivity of politically astute citizens who, by virtue of our vaunted system of universal education and our freedom of opportunity, would be prepared to govern. As things turned out it was an unlikely possibility – but not entirely, as is attested by the recent examples of a peanut farmer and the motion-picture actor.
-Ralph Ellison introduction of the 1981 edition of Invisible Man
“Perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it”I thought this was an interesting idea – that the goal of any citizen is to be educated and informed enough to become president if called upon. It is a quaint idea, and as idealistic and unrealistic as the notion that we can all be racially colorblind or that we can simply accept each other’s deeply held religious and political beliefs. Of course, our founding father’s ideals only reached so far. When they said ‘citizens’, they really meant ‘white male landowners’.
- Albus Dumbledore, channeling Gandalf the Grey
It is hard not to make jokes that any random person plucked from the populace could have made better decisions than many recent presidents. Heck, monkeys making decisions using magic eight balls could probably have done better over the last 6 years. Still, I’m not ready to make the jump that any random citizen is qualified to govern. I suppose that makes me elitist, but know that I also think many actual presidents are not qualified to govern either.
But idealistic notions like this are useful, if only to measure ourselves against our unattainable goals. How would we improve education in this country if our goal was to make everyone ready to be president? How would we change our infotainment-like news, our violence-ridden entertainment, or our winner-take-most-all economic system? If we were one lottery dice throw away from placing a possible inner-city drug lord as President, we might take steps to reduce the number of drug lords available in the pool, ideally by eliminating the conditions under which they arise.