Presidents were managers of a limited government that didn’t intrude into any intimate aspects of life, much less on the whole population. The governments these men headed had strict, meaningful, and practical limits on what they could do. They had no policy plans to speak of, because policy as we know it barely existed.Put another way, there is no cult of the presidency in the presence of proper enumerated and limited federal powers.
Leviathan as we know it had not been invented yet. That came later, in the 20th century. Whatever great ambitions of Gilded Age presidents, they couldn’t be realized through their official capacity. Therefore, the stakes of any one election were extremely low for the country at large. That's why these men’s names are barely known. Even back then, hardly anyone paid attention to the presidency as such. The president was a caretaker, holding an honorary position, of interest to only those directly affected.
As bad as the candidates are this year — as threatening as each of them is to someone’s rights and liberties — none would pose a threat if the power to act on ambition were still limited.
There is a sense, then, that when we talk about how grim the policies of a Trump or Sanders or Rubio or Hillary or whomever would be, we are not getting to the core of the problem. We should not have to worry about the character or ambitions of the person we elect. A good system of government is one that is protected against control by wicked people. It should even be protected against good people who want to use state power to realize noble ideals. Government should be impervious to the personal zeal of its temporary managers.It's so tempting, though, to suggest that Wise Experts can in fact Find Consensus and Fulfill the Promise. Until the wise experts discover that Ordering the People About is more fun.
Power once created will be used. That the special interests and then the masses clamor for it to be used on their behalf is the inevitable result.Perhaps, in a Democratic race that has degenerated into "No True Progressive" and a Republican race best summarized as "short fingers, short schlong" it might yet dawn on the electorate that the contentiousness will persist as long as the presidential cargo cult does.
With power also comes a divided population, people seething with hatred against those who stand in their way, interest groups consumed by loathing for anyone with a chance of using power to their own advantage.
The presence of power itself, not the people who seek to turn it to their advantage, is the source of conflict. And such a conflict threatens to destroy friendships and even the social fabric itself. Overweening government is the reason we all can’t get along.
Most of the people who created this mess are long dead, but they still rule us. They bequeathed us a monster that the present generation must contend with. There is really only one responsible way forward: dismantle Leviathan before it destroys us.