Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Historical and Psychological Facts

Historical facts, Marc Bloch said, are psychological facts, and it's very true that a great deal of what we study in history is actually about attitude and personality, even when it seems like it's about something else: social and political and intellectual (even economic) history are about the life of the mind and the heart. That said, some of the worst history ever written was deliberate attempts to apply psychological insights of the present to past historical figures or societies -- the aptly named "psychohistory" movement was short-lived and we learned a lot of valuable lessons from it, in spite of itself. We're more careful now.

So it is with cautious consideration that I pass on this interesting bit of psychohistory, John Dean channeling James Dave Barber and Richard Neustadt (via, who also points to this)
Bush has never understood what presidential scholar Richard Neustadt discovered many years ago: In a democracy, the only real power the presidency commands is the power to persuade. Presidents have their bully pulpit, and the full attention of the news media, 24/7. In addition, they are given the benefit of the doubt when they go to the American people to ask for their support. But as effective as this power can be, it can be equally devastating when it languishes unused - or when a president pretends not to need to use it, as Bush has done.

Apparently, Bush does not realize that to lead he must continually renew his approval with the public. He is not, as he thinks, the decider. The public is the decider.

Bush is following the classic mistaken pattern of active/negative presidents ["who actively pursued the job but had negative feelings about it"]: As Barber explained, they issue order after order, without public support, until they eventually dissipate the real powers they have -- until "nothing [is] left but the shell of the office." Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon all followed this pattern.

Active/negative presidents are risk-takers. (Consider the colossal risk Bush took with the Iraq invasion). And once they have taken a position, they lock on to failed courses of action and insist on rigidly holding steady, even when new facts indicate that flexibility is required.
Dean goes on to argue that the Administration has an "October Surprise" planned to redeem the mid-term elections for Republicans, which isn't terribly original (of them, or of him) but his thoughts on the matter are interesting.


The Chainik Hocker said...



Only a valid point if fewer than fifty percent of the American public thinks, or thought at any one time, that war with Iraq was a bad idea.

Still, a fascinating line of inquiry. I wonder what the American public thought of Roosevelt's obsession with going to war against Hitler pre Pearl Harbor?

Ahistoricality said...

You're mistaking a general syndrome for a historical analogy. And, given actual facts instead of "worst case scenarios" presented as facts, a lot more than half the population would have thought it a bad idea.

Roosevelt did a pretty good job of hiding his "obsession": there was pretty strong public support for lend-lease and for the embargoes on Japanese trade, though. Roosevelt was looking -- actively according to some historians -- for a good casus belli, but Pearl Harbor was actually kind of unexpected (not unforseen, honestly, but at the time not considered a highly likely first target).

Once Pearl Harbor happened, support for the war against both Germany and Japan was very strong.