One of the greatest myths in political history is that men actually shape it. As though some guy in a political office drives the great movements and moments, and without them it would all have not happened. To boil great movements and events like winning World Wars, American Civil Rights, women’s suffrage, or breaking demographic boundaries down to an individual and their unique talents is silly. Moments shape man, not the other way around.
This is not to dismiss individual talent. JFK was the right kind of candidate to break down the “Catholic barrier” to the Presidency, with his money, status, beautiful family, and war hero status- in the same way Al Smith wasn’t. He also ran at the right moment, in the dawn of the television age. Winston Churchill was as great of a leader as was needed for the United Kingdom and it’s allies to win World War II, but he is also the guy was never re-elected as Prime Minister. Bill Clinton’s policies and first budget played a huge role in the 1990’s economic boom, but it didn’t happen “because of him” alone. George H.W. Bush wasn’t really a great politician during his multiple failed Senate and Presidential runs, but he was the ideal person to lead America as communism fell. And yes, while I love Barack and Michelle Obama, and think their qualities helped them be the first African-American First Family, but do I think he would have won in just any time in our history? No, I don’t. In each of these examples, the talents and characteristics of those in question helped make their moments possible, but just as LBJ’s skills made Civil Rights legislation possible, so did his moment in time.
Political movements and moments are the products of social pressures, change within the citizenry, global forces and events, technological and scientific advances, and lots of other things. They’re also about luck and timing. The “booming 1990’s” were a product of a growing tech sector, tax and spending policies of two very different Presidents, Fed monetary policies, and timing. The Civil Rights movement needed an MLK to sell it to America, and an LBJ to push the laws, but it also needed the inaction of near immediate previous national leaders (FDR), and television to show America what was happening. You can go through almost every piece of our shared political history and see that our great leaders of yesterday were more reactive to reality than shaping it. Change is bigger than individuals.
Realizing this is hard, as it forces us to treat leaders as something less important to human history, as if they’re more accessories. They are in fact humans. It means accepting that leaders rarely deserve all of the credit for their successes, or all of the blame for their failures. Yes, their charisma, intellect, passion, and skill do matter. They can be perfect for the moment. The moment is still the most important thing though. There are no “great men” shaping history, just great men making history work.
This can be hard to accept. Perhaps if you don’t accept it though, consider the not great men and their places in history. There was almost certainly bound to be a backlash to the Obama era, and Donald Trump ended up being that response- even with little intellect or talent that he brought to the moment. George W. Bush will not be remembered as one of the great talents to lead the United States, but yet he was the man in the Oval Office leading the initial response to the 2008 economic meltdown, not to mention his leadership in the aftermath of 9/11. Many times, less talented and grand figures end up guiding the hand of history. Surely if greatness was required to “make history,” these folks couldn’t do it. And yet, change happens.
I know, it’s hard to give up hero worship. It’s hard to accept everyone is subject to their moment in time. This isn’t to dismiss talent and greatness though, it’s just to put it in it’s proper place. Great change is made by great societies.