Rogue Leaders or Bad Institutions?

Steve Waldman — a “a fellow traveler of the Bush administration” and onetime Iraq War supporter — writes:1

I no longer trust my own government to be the provider of a civilized society. No government is perfect or without corruptions. But in 2007, I thought I lived in a remarkably well-governed nation that had gone off-kilter under a small and mean administration. In 2011, I view my government as the sharp edge of an entrenched kleptocracy, engaged in ever more expansive schemes of surveillance and arrogating powers of ever less restrained brutality.

At a visceral level, I dislike President Obama more than I have disliked any politician in my lifetime, not because he is objectively worse than most of the others — he is not — but because he disproved my hypothesis that we are a country with basically good institutions brought low by poor quality leadership. Whenever I hear the President speak and am impressed by the quality of his intellect, by his instinct towards diplomacy and finding common ground and rising above petty struggles, I despair more deeply. Not just because a leader of high quality failed to restore passably clean and beneficient government. It is worse than that. The kleptocracy has harnassed this man’s most admirable qualities and made them a powerful weapon for its own ends. He has rebranded as “moderate”, “adult”, “reasonable”, practices such as unaccountable assassination lists and Orwellian nonhostilities. He has demostrated that the way grown-ups get things done in Washington is by continually paying off thieves in suits.

Perhaps it is unfair to blame Barack Obama for all this. Maybe he has done the very best a person could do under our present institutions. But then it is not unfair to detest the institutions, to wish to see them clipped, contained, or starved.

Conor Friedersdorf blames bad leadership under Bush and Obama, and in Congress, rather than bad institutions:

Despite America’s institutional failings, my instinct is that were it not for the lawlessness and disregard for the Constitution of the last two administrations, the dysfunction in our institutions would be manageable and no worse than the problems every advanced democracy grapples with. And if I’m right, a realistic solution presents itself. Americans disillusioned by the actions of our presidents can be forgiven for thinking that neither the GOP nor the Democratic nominee is going to be a good choice in 2012. But maybe the answer is focusing on the Congress, and electing men and women who’ll do their utmost to challenge the executive branch, whoever is running it. On the Republican side, that means more Rand Pauls, and among Democrats, more Russ Feingolds. On the whole, it means taking advantage of a fix that is provided for by our Constitution, but that requires a citizenry who cares enough about the rule of law to bring it about.

I’m not convinced. The travesties of recent administrations are fresher in our memory, but I don’t think that what Bush and Obama have done is any more lawless — more “rogue” — than the Iran-Contra scandal, for instance. Furthermore, there are institutional reasons that it’s extremely unlikely that a critical mass of Rand Pauls and Russ Feingolds could ever be elected to Congress.

EDITED TO ADD: I posted the above and then took a shower, and in the shower I started thinking more about Iran-Contra. The Reagan administration experienced strong pushback on Iran-Contra, including hearings in Congress, after which Oliver North and John Poindexter were both indicted for various crimes. (The indictments were later overturned on a technicality.) Even if the pushback wasn’t as strong as it should have been, the Reaganites were nonetheless given a significant incentive to avoid blatantly lawless behavior.

In contrast, neither Bush nor Obama have faced any significant legal pushbacks for their lawless behavior.

So do we take that as a sign that it is a rogue leadership problem, and if Congress only had better leadership now — leadership as good as existed in the 1980s — then we’d be better off? Or do we take that as a sign that the problem is that our institutions, which were once able to respond meaningfully to rogue behavior by a presidential administration, are no longer able to?

  1. I’ve added paragraph breaks. []
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7 Responses to Rogue Leaders or Bad Institutions?

  1. 1
    VoiP says:

    Hold on here…this guy was a “fellow-traveler for the Bush administration,” he supported the war in Iraq, and now, now, gets all eloquent about “the kleptocracy” and “Orwellian nonhostilities,” surveillance, thieves in suits, and the like? I call shenanigans.

  2. 2
    Robert says:

    Rogue leaders, bad institutions, or an inexorable law of power?

    Governmental power, however accumulated, wherever aimed, by whomever led, always and everywhere will tend to be abused, misused, turned to evil, etc.

    Limited government means limited evil.

  3. Pingback: Late Night Post: a Rogue and/or Broken Nation « Sky Dancing

  4. 3
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I think it’s a rogue public. The public, the leaders, and the institutions have all been pushing in the direction of the idea that if you’re hurt and angry, the best thing to do is to strike back hard, and there’s no need to be too careful about the target.

  5. 4
    Grace Annam says:


    Governmental power, however accumulated, wherever aimed, by whomever led, always and everywhere will tend to be abused, misused, turned to evil, etc.

    Limited government means limited evil.

    This is all true of individual power, too, and corporate power, and … whoa, lookitthat, pretty much any kind of power.

    The best solution is probably to balance various powers, so that no one stakeholder or constituency has too much.


  6. 5
    Doug S. says:

    Well, the Senate has certainly become F—ed Up over the past few years, what with the “60 vote requirement” and all…

  7. 6
    Jay Generally says:

    That’s a good point re: the Iran-Contra scandal; it’s usually objectively referred to as a scandal. With trials and everything.

    Steve Waldman’s statement does feel a little flawed because of his equation of the US executive branch with the end all, be all of US political leadership, but I am more sympathetic to its implication of ‘bad institutions.’ I would personally suggest that our current institutions are being gamed by people who’ve dedicated themselves to self-gratification and that our foundation was fairly solid. We could just stand to roll-back the more recent string of legislative moves that keep empowering those that were already quite powerful playing that game as the rules stood. In summary: Less corporatocracy.