In the constant groping by political commentators for an explanation of the rise of Donald Trump, many have fallen back on a 19th Century theory of history known as the “Great Man Theory.” Stated briefly, the theory holds that major societal changes are brought about through the actions of a few extraordinary individuals who rise above their environments and do things that change the world forever. Donald Trump, it is posited, is viewed by his supporters as one of these great men capable of “making America great again” and that’s why they support him.
This is no doubt true, but it is curious to apply the theory to the Republican electorate only. In fact, a belief in the power of great men to deliver salvation has been the cornerstone of presidential politics for as long as there have been presidents.
Democrats subscribe to what could more accurately be called the Great Men Theory, meaning that they put their trust not so much in individuals as in committees.
Take the Democratic convention, for example. The entire proceedings have been built upon reverent, near-worship of one woman, Hillary Clinton. From the slogan “I’m With Her” to the confusingly repeated claims that she is somehow the most qualified person to be president in history (really?), it is clear that some variety of Great (Wo)man theory is driving Democratic voters just as much as with Republicans.
Yet there is a crucial difference in the way Democrats process the Great Man Theory. While Republicans have always tended towards individualism, and therefore have no problem putting all their hopes on a single man, Democratic policies are rooted a more collectivist ideal, as evidenced by the competing slogan “We’re better together.” This does not mean that Democrats place less faith in the supposedly superhuman abilities of political leaders, quite the contrary. Instead, Democrats subscribe to what could more accurately be called the Great Men Theory, meaning that they put their trust not so much in individuals as in committees.
Rooted in early 20th Century progressivism, the overriding belief behind Democratic policies is that, if we can just elect the smartest people they will be able to make everything okay. They will be able to “solve” society, as if it were some kind of mathematical problem. This is most visible in the obsession with “data driven” policies. If we can just collect enough data points, they think, we can devise some kind of formula to improve education, health care, and other difficult society-wide problems.
We saw it with the election of Barack Obama. Remember how Democrats could not stop gushing about his IQ, about how smart he was? Surely, a smart guy like that, a Great Man, could fix the economy and the health care sector without even trying hard. They failed to learn the lesson of Woodrow Wilson, the only president to ever hold a doctoral degree, and arguably the worst menace to freedom this country has ever seen. In fact, the smart ones are always the most dangerous, precisely because they place too much faith in their own powers of intellect.
The truth is that Great Men do not and cannot organize society into a more efficient machine. While it is certainly true that extraordinary individuals can change the world, it’s impossible for any one person, or any committee, to have enough information, to have enough data, to coordinate the actions of hundreds of millions of individual actors, each making thousands of decisions a day.
Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek used the term “spontaneous order” to describe how these billions to decisions interact to create a functioning and efficient marketplace, not just for economic goods, but for social goods as well. Out of the apparent chaos of our separate decision making processes, arises a broad social order that is self-regulating and far more stable than anything that could ever be designed from the top down.
Democrats who believe that Hillary Clinton and her team of “experts” will be America’s salvation suffer from the same delusion as those who think Trump will make America great again. This country is not, and has never been about the Great Men at the top of the political ladder. What made America the envy of the world was the spontaneous order of free men and women working, innovating, loving, building, and creating without the guiding hand of overbearing government.
There may be some Great Men and Women out there, but putting our faith in them to govern us will always lead to misery, poverty, and tyranny.