The Messianic Question

Ann Romney asked it of Mitt. (And Newt throws in his two cents).

Via Seacoastonline:

Romney’s wife, Ann, said she never thought her husband would run for president again after 2008. But about a year ago, she looked at him and knew what he had to do, she said.

“I said, ‘Mitt, can you save America?’ And his answer was ‘yes,'” she said.

I must confess, I detest this type of formulation and it ranks up there (or down there, as they case may be) with candidates who seek to “take back” America.

The notion that America needs “saving” is problematic in general, and it is specifically problematic that said salvation should come through the election of a specific person to the presidency.

First, to “save” has two key connotations here.  One is metaphysical, i.e., as in the saving of the soul.  In this context it assumes a certain reorientation of the country or the notion that we have gone so far astray that a renewal is needed and that it will take a new person in the White House to achieve that renewal.  The other is more physical:  that our present condition is so broken that we need a hero to deliver us from certain destruction.  Now, even at America’s worst, the notion that we need “saving” (as opposed to simply better policy in specific areas) strikes me as problematic.  We do not teeter on the edge waiting upon a savior to deliver us from ruin (indeed, historically when populations truly think that way, true disaster is just around the corner).  Rather, we stand poised to choose which chief executive will play one role amongst many in muddling through the process of governing for another fours years.

Second, and to build on the last two sentences:  even if the US needed “saving” the notion that electing one person to one office is a problematic process to achieve said salvation.  The presidency simply is not, despite the way we constantly elevate it, in the position to govern alone, nor is it powerful enough to singlehandedly institute major change.  The notion that simply electing a president will lead to massive policy change is simply incorrect.  And yet, we pretend like it is the case all the time.   Despite all the ongoing talk about fealty to the constitution, a lot of us seem to have a hard time grasping the significance and mechanics of separation of powers (not to mention the compounding complexities of bicameralism and federalism).

My fundamental objection can be boiled down to the following: 1) it is problematic from the point of view of free and democratic society that one person holds the key to saving us all, and 2) it is also a basic misunderstanding of the way American government works to state that one person can radically change the functioning of the government.

Mrs. Romney, by the way, isn’t the only one engaging in messianic rhetoric.  Here’s Newt:

“This is the most important election of our lifetime, because now that we fully understand who Barack Obama is, were he to get four more years, the impact of eight years of Obama would fundamentally and profoundly change this country. It is very clear that he is a Saul Alinsky radical.”

The Power of Obama is immense, to be sure.  Perhaps Newt can save us?  (And oh look, an Alinksy ref!).

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Hey Norm says:

    When you also consider that most of what the Romneys and the Gingriches say on the stump is false…fabricated from whole cloth….lies, if you will….the idea that they are Saviors sent here from on-high to rescue us from imaginary evils makes me giggle.
    The real problem we face as a nation is that there is a massive block of electorate out there…and for that matter commenters in here…who believe in this bunk.

  2. @Hey Norm: In fairness, this type of rhetoric is , over time, bipartisan.

  3. murray says:

    @Steven
    You mentioned the ubiquitous Alinsky reference. There is another favorite derogatory nickname this crowd loves to use and that is deliciously ironic in this context: “The Anointed One”.

  4. Hey Norm says:

    I know there is a persistent fantasy here at OTB that everything in politics goes both ways in equal degrees. But fantasies are called fantasies for a reason.

  5. @Hey Norm:

    Surely you are not forgetting the messianic nonsense surrounding the campaign of a certain Junior Senator from Illinois?

  6. @Hey Norm:

    I know there is a persistent fantasy here at OTB that everything in politics goes both ways in equal degrees. But fantasies are called fantasies for a reason.

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. I am responsible for what I write, not what anyone else here writes, and I think you will find that I try to avoid “both sides do it” arguments unless I actually think that both sides are actually doing it.

    2. The fact of the matter is, the party out of power often deploys this type of rhetoric. I think it is problematic regardless of who uses it for the reasons detailed.

  7. sam says:

    “It is very clear that he is a Saul Alinsky radical.”

    Squirrel !!!!

  8. Hey Norm says:

    @ SLT…
    Show me a quote from a Democrat portraying themselves as a Messiah…your word…sent from on-high to save the countries very soul…much less two battling over who is the Messiah.

  9. Hey Norm says:

    Nice try Doug…that crap was projected on the Jr. Senator from Illinois by his opposition.

  10. JamesonLewis3rd says:

    It’s problematic to use the word “problematic” 5 times in a 549 word article decrying the use of the word “save.”

  11. @Hey Norm: Because?

  12. Rob in CT says:

    The Obamamessiah thing was, as far as I’ve seen, trumped up by the Right. I followed the 2008 campaign and voted for Obama. I *never* heard an Obama supporter talk of him that way. Never. As usual, we shuffled off to vote for the lesser of two evils as best we could.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that this messiah stuff is typical RW projection. After all, it’s GOP candidates (and Presidents! Hi George!) who speak of God telling them to do things like run for President or enact a policy.

  13. Sorry, that last query was to @JamesonLewis3rd.

  14. MBunge says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “Surely you are not forgetting the messianic nonsense surrounding the campaign of a certain Junior Senator from Illinois?”

    Any such nonsense around Obama was fueled by…

    1. Being the first African-American with a chance to be President.

    2. The aftermath of an Administration that led America into two wars, one a near decade long slog with little to no sign of progress and the other one of the worst foreign policy mistakes in U.S. history, and into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

    If there’s ever been a moment when messianic hype was acceptable, 2008 would have to be one of those moments. What exactly is messianic talk in 2012 about?

    Mike

  15. John Peabody says:

    Boring comments. Write your own blogs. See how you like it.

  16. It wasn’t Obama’s opposition that was telling us that the day he won the election was the day he clinched the nomination in June 2008 that:

    “this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.”

    It wasn’t his opposition that was talking about tingles up their leg or comparing a man who had barely held elected office half a decade to some of America’s greatest Presidents.

    The image of Obama the Savior was clearly exploited by the campaign and the campaigns supporters. And it was silly and stupid.

  17. @MBunge:

    Messiah talk in 2012, which is stupid, may be prompted by the failed and non-existent Messiah of 2008, when it was equally as stupid

  18. Rob in CT says:

    Thinking about this some more…

    Consider what someone must believe about themselves if they run for POTUS. They have to get up, look in a mirror and say “I should be President.”

    It’s not far from that to something akin to a messiah complex, I guess.

  19. Hey Norm says:

    @ Doug…
    There is no equivilancy there. You’re rationalizing and projecting.
    Like I said…fantasies are called fantasies for a reason.

  20. ponce says:

    What a bad week for Romney.

    He came off as nasty, petty and slightly unhinged.

    Being a longtime reader of wingnut blogs, I can confirm that all the talk of Obama being “The One” was begun and sustained by Doug’s fringe right Twitter buddies and he’s being extremely disingenuous suggesting the Democrats started it.

  21. @Hey Norm:

    I get it. Democrats can do no wrong. I’ll try to remember that.

  22. @Hey Norm:

    Show me a quote from a Democrat portraying themselves as a Messiah…your word…

    Well, by that standard both the Romney and Gingrich quotes fail.

    Look, I am not defending any of this (indeed, quite the contrary), so casting me as attempting defend Republicans in this context by a “both sides do it” defense is simply wrong.

    There is, however, whether you want to accept it or not, a general tendency in every presidential campaign (at least that of a challenger or out of power party) to state, that they are the solution to the problems (all of them). We greatly inflate the importance of the presidency. This is the fundamental point.

    And yes, I find the right’s critique of “Obamessiah” and “The One” to be over the top and unfounded.

  23. Hey Norm says:

    @ SLT…
    We greatly inflate the importance of the Presidency…agreed.
    @ Rob…
    Yes…it must take an enourmous ego on some level.
    @ Doug…
    Nice sulk.

  24. And BTW: I consider Howard Dean’s “I want my country back” line (which I obliquely referenced in the post–not that he is the only person even to use such language) to fit into what I am talking about here.

    The line assume that a) the country has been “taken” by the other party” and b) the only way to save the country from this theft is to elect a member of the opposite party.

  25. ponce says:

    I believe Dean was calling for an end to partisanship in that speech, Steven.

    Not really a very good example, Google harder…

  26. @ponce: You are entitled to your opinion, of course.

    However, you aren’t making a case for your position nor are you refuting what I wrote.

    Regardless, this doesn’t sound like a call to end partisanship, it sound like a call to elect a Democrat instead of Republican (i.e., the way to “take our country back” was to replace one president with another–how this doesn’t fit my thesis is beyond me):

    We are not going to beat George Bush by voting with the President 85 percent of the time. The only way that we’re going to beat George Bush is to say what we mean, to stand up for who we are, to lift up a Democratic agenda against the Republican agenda because if you do that, the Democratic agenda wins every time.

    I want my country back! We want our country back!

    At a minimum, this is not a call to end partisanship, but rather a call to a particular partisan vision.

    (link to transcript)

  27. @ponce:

    Not really a very good example, Google harder…

    BTW, since I mention this specific formulation in the post (although I did not mention Dean–if anything because he isn’t the only one to use it), I am not sure how it is a bad example…

    I will say this about the specific speech in question: it does detail policy preferences.

  28. Stan says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I don’t regard Obama as a failure. Since you obviously do, could you name a few presidents who you regard as successes?

  29. ponce says:

    At a minimum, this is not a call to end partisanship, but rather a call to a particular partisan vision.

    Um, nice editing Steven.

    Why didn’t you include the very next lines of Dena’s speech?

    I am tired of being divided! I don’t want to listen to the fundamentalist preachers anymore! I want America to look like America, where we are all included, hand in hand. We have dream. We can only reach the dream if we are all together – black and white, gay and straight, man and woman. America! The Democratic Party! We are going to win in 2004! Thank you very much. Thank you very much. Stand up for America, Stand up for America, Stand up for America!!

  30. @ponce: I don’t see how that obviates my point: “The Democratic Party! We are going to win in 2004! ”

    As I said above:

    this doesn’t sound like a call to end partisanship, it sound like a call to elect a Democrat instead of Republican (i.e., the way to “take our country back” was to replace one president with another–how this doesn’t fit my thesis is beyond me):

    Indeed, you still haven’t actually made an argument.

  31. jan says:

    Speaking of a ‘Messiah’ reference to our current President. Here is one from E.J. Dionne, as posted on The Modern Voice site. It’s current too, 1/2/2012.

    Obama: Can a Messiah Win Twice?

  32. mattb says:

    @ponce… I don’t think that follow-up quote from Dean’s speech says what I think you think it says.

  33. ponce says:

    I don’t think that follow-up quote from Dean’s speech says what I think you think it says.

    I think it’s a perfectly average campaign speech, hardly an exemplar of a claim to godhood or a hostage negotiation.

  34. mattb says:

    On a slightly different tact, it seems to me that in the post-Watergate era, there have been a number of “Messianic” Presidents. The Beatification of Regan movement seems very much about casting his as a Messianic figure that saved the country from the malaise of Carter and the world from the threat of Communism.

    In fact, one could argue that the two non-messianic races led us to GHWB and GWB.

  35. mattb says:

    @ponce: I’d suggest going back and rereading Steven’s essays as everything in Dean’s words does fall into the categorization of Messianic that he is arguing for. (eg: Dean is arguing that America no longer looks like America due to the actions of “fundamentalists” and the Republican agenda. Heavily implied there is that the only way to save America — to turn the tide — is to vote Democratic.).

    Or alternately, argue a counter definition of the term. Show what’s wrong with Steven’s argument.

    The quote you produced however isn’t helping your case.

  36. PD Shaw says:

    For the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback. M. Obamma.

    Romney’s wife’s statement is certainly cringeworthy; but I think you have to give the spouses a bit of a break, as opposed to professional politicians like Newt.

  37. Hey Norm says:

    @ Jan..
    You are capable of understanding that the entire Dionne opinion piece is about what others projected on Obama…aren’t you?

    “…the biggest celebrity in the world,” as a John McCain ad accurately if mischievously described him…”

    You understand the meaning of that sentence…don’t you? Are you able to discern the difference between that and:

    “…“I said, ‘Mitt, can you save America?’ And his answer was ‘yes,’” she said…”

  38. For the record, I find Mrs. Romney’s formulation to be worse than Dean’s.

    As I said above (before any comments): “I must confess, I detest this type of formulation and it ranks up there (or down there, as they case may be) with candidates who seek to “take back” America.”

  39. Alex says:

    Rick Santorum is doing it too – from a campaign stop in Manchester, NH yesterday: “There will be no election in your lifetime that will be more important than this one. […] If Barack Obama is re-elected, then America as we know it will be gone.”

    Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RnP8ybXIEkA#!

  40. Moosebreath says:

    Doug,

    “I get it. Democrats can do no wrong. I’ll try to remember that.”

    I get it. You are entirely incapable of seeing the difference between “Doug makes stuff up to suit his purposes” and “The people Doug attacks can do no wrong”. Talk about a Messiah complex…

  41. ponce says:

    I’d suggest going back and rereading Steven’s essays as everything in Dean’s words does fall into the categorization of Messianic that he is arguing for.

    If it does, then every single speech ever given by an American politician that includes the line, “Vote for me, not the other guy” is a claim to being the Messiah.

  42. Rob in CT says:

    I’m with Steven on this one, Ponce. “I want my country back” is the same thing as “let’s take America back!”

    Either both are objectionable or neither is, though I would make some allowance for context (since I view Bush II as particularly bad, I’m more inclined to cut Dean slack. But in the end he’s saying the same thing your average Tea Partier is saying now. The question is whether it’s justified).

  43. fallibilist says:

    @Rob in CT:

    I followed the 2008 campaign and voted for Obama. I *never* heard an Obama supporter talk of him that way. Never.

    Well, then you need to listen harder.

  44. Rob in CT says:

    I guess so (I can’t view the video now, but I’ll assume it is a pro-Obama messiah thing).

    I must run in a different crowd, what can I say? All the Dems I spoke to were in “well, he’s the best choice available” mode, not “OMG, he’s so wonderfulicious!” mode.

  45. @ponce:

    If it does, then every single speech ever given by an American politician that includes the line, “Vote for me, not the other guy” is a claim to being the Messiah.

    Well, I never made that claim. I did, however, make the claim that there is a class of rhetoric that is widespread that does contain not just “I am the better candidate than the other guy” but contains some version of “vote for me and I will save America.”

    I will readily grant that I am not making a bold statement here.

    Really, I thought that the Romney and Gingrich quotes above were both pretty darn egregious examples of what I am talking about, and that inspired the post itself.

    My response above to Hey Norm was me trying to be honest in my assessment: I do think that particular rhetorical approach is practiced by candidates in both parties. I generally strive to be fair and empirically based in my assessments.

    I find the basic thesis, for example, of the Dean speech quoted above (both my excerpt and the one provided by ponce) to fit the general parameters of what I describe in the post.

    The issue that bothers me the most, by the way, isn’t based in partisan allegiances. Rather, i dislike the general misunderstanding about both democracy and our political institutions that this type of rhetoric exemplifies. But then again: I think I said that in the post.

  46. Hey Norm says:

    Rob mails it…

    “…The question is whether it’s justified…”

    Context is critical.
    Bush43 did in fact change America…institutionalizing torture is pretty extreme…as is outing covert operatives…and starting wars for no apparent reason without paying for them… squandering a budget surplus…and expanding entitlements. Take America back from that…yeah. F’ yeah.
    As I said in my opening comment…much of what Republicans want to save us from is imaginary…same sex marriage will destroy the country…Obama made the economy worse…Obama apologizes for the U.S…the PPACA is socialized medicine/government take-over of health-care. A fight for the soul of the Nation? Really? Over imaginary stuff? Does that mean the soul of the Nation is imaginary?

  47. Hey Norm says:

    @ fallibilist…
    I don’t get it? The woman says she won’t have to worry about buying gas or paying her mortgage…the impication being that afetr suffering through the Bush Contraction the economy would get better…which it has. So what’s your point?
    Also…what a supporter in a crowd says is not the same as what the candidate says…which is what is being discussed here. Do you really want to defend what every republican supporter says?

  48. Rob in CT says:

    Does that mean the soul of the Nation is imaginary?

    One soul for an entire country? Sounds collectivist to me!

    😉

    [non-believer here, so the whole idea is sorta silly from my PoV]

  49. anjin-san says:

    I get it. Democrats can do no wrong

    Yes. That is exactly what we are saying. You really shut us down with that one.

  50. PD Shaw says:

    “I want my country back” is the same thing as “let’s take America back!”

    Similar also to Kerry’s “Let America Be America Again” slogan.

    That one drove me crazy for an entirely different reason. Its lifted from a Langston Hughes poem, in which Hughes rebuts the phrase as shallow in terms of the African-American experience, for whom “America never was America to me.” “There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.'” I can just imagine the outrage if a Republican adopted that slogan.

  51. anjin-san says:

    I can just imagine the outrage if a Republican adopted that slogan.

    Did you miss the whole tea party “take our country back” thing?

  52. Rob in CT says:

    I can just imagine the outrage if a Republican adopted that slogan.

    It would be rather odd, given the background.

    Anyway, the point is that this rhetoric is indeed quite normal. None of us seem to like it much, but it’s hardly new.

  53. mantis says:

    Actually, Romney thought his wife asked, “Mitt, can you sell America?”

  54. anjin-san says:

    @fallibilist

    Well, then you need to listen harder.

    Is that supposed to be a gotcha? Let’s see, the woman was very excited about seeing Obama speak, and she thought the economy would improve under his leadership. Not sure how that equates to anything messianic. Obviously, she was a caught up in the moment and a bit over the top, but if that is the best you can do you just conceded the argument.

  55. A voice from another precinct says:

    If you consider “fealty to the Constitution” (as I do) as “when things happen the way I want them to go,” the cognitive dissonance you are feeling will go away.