After World War II anthropologists discovered that an unusual religion had developed among the islanders of the South Pacific. It was oriented around the concept of cargo which the islanders perceived as the source of the wealth and power of the Europeans and Americans. This religion, known as the Cargo Cult, held that if the proper ceremonies were performed shipments of riches would be sent from some heavenly place. It was all very logical to the islanders. The islanders saw that they worked hard but were poor whereas the Europeans and Americans did not work but instead wrote things down on paper and in due time a shipment of wonderful things would arrive.Six decades after the end of the war, most of the believers lost faith, although ceremonies persist in a few places. There's a lesson for people who might consider themselves more advanced than Pacific Islanders.
The Cargo Cult members built replicas of airports and airplanes out of twigs and branches and made the sounds associated with airplanes to try to activate the shipment of cargo.
Renowned physicist Richard Feynman coined the phrase “cargo cult science” based on such cults. The term draws a metaphor for research which is polluted by the mind’s tendency to cherry-pick evidence that supports the desired outcome. Though it is tempting to look down on these islanders for their misguided assumptions, they are simply an extreme example of this very human bias. For them it was easier to believe that the control towers, headsets, and runways were the cause of the cargo-carrying airplanes rather than an effect, so they closed their minds to alternative explanations.The Cult of the Presidency might be such an example in contemporary U. S. politics. A guest essay by Roger Berkowitz at Via Media pronounces a heresy, particularly in an Election Year.
What [author Jeffrey] Tulis forces us to confront is the possibility that the very kind of rhetorical leadership that makes Barack Obama and Paul Ryan such compelling politicians leads to a transformation of politics in which passions and fictive worlds replace the sober discussion of policy. As appealing and promising as such rhetorical leadership appears, it too frequently spends its power on populist slogans that translate poorly into real legislative transformation.Keeping in mind that the fields are about to be cleared for runways, and the torches placed alongside, and the bamboo airplanes and control towers to be built.
There is a strange disconnect between the rise of a rhetorical presidency and the common sense of an increasingly cynical public that thinks the choice of president seems to move the needle very little. While the papers and blogs are filled with assurances that now, with Paul Ryan, the election is serious (a necessary belief to sell papers and drive traffic), the citizens don’t always agree.
At a time of mediated and fragmented politics, the promise of bold political leadership is ever less likely. Given the apparent abdication of leadership throughout our politics, we must ask: Does the President Matter? This seems an absurd question as we confront what is imagined to be such a consequential election. And yet, as the country is about to elect a president, it is a pressing question.