Occupying the Oval Office: Neither Socialist, Nor Atheist, Nor Pacifist Be


Anybody can be President, the Constitution would have us believe – anybody, that is, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, class, intellect, heritage, or persuasion, who’s a natural-born citizen, at least 35 years of age, and a U.S. resident for at least 14 years. That’s the maximalist ideal and the enduring log cabin-to-White House myth. The minimalist reality, we know only too well, is that to be President, you pretty much have to be white, male, and protestant. The white male part can’t be denied; it’s about physiognomy. The religious (or ideological) part is about what you say and believe, so it’s subject to endless manipulation, interpretation, and projection.

Barack Obama showed us it’s now possible to be African-American and President. And Hillary Clinton may yet show us it’s possible, however belatedly, to be a woman and President. Both Obama and Clinton then will have penetrated the inner sanctum of the Oval Office on the basis of their demographic characteristics. Ideology, though, remains quite a different matter, and that’s why Bernie Sanders, a professed socialist as well as a Jew, has an especially tough row to hoe.

Ideology may not be an altogether insuperable barrier to the Oval Office, but it’s pretty close. Only John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, has broken through thus far – more than a half century ago. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, came close, but no cigar. It nonetheless doesn’t stretch the bounds of credulity, of course, to envision a Jew, a Buddhist, even a Muslim ascending to the White House throne. But that’s where the ideological line is drawn – on religious grounds, perhaps never otherwise to be crossed. To be sure, we have had Presidents given variously to racism, nativism, jingoism, and militarism, but these –isms are essentially embedded tastes reflecting underlying character, not overarching worldviews of a type that would confer identity, adumbrate policy preferences and practices, engender expectations, and feed deeply ingrained primal prejudices.

There are three such paradigmatic –isms that, the historical record suggests, are destined never to make their way into the Oval Office – socialism, atheism, and pacifism – though each represents a worldview that, if openly admitted and subscribed to by a presidential aspirant, could serve us, The People, and the country well. If Bernie Sanders were to succeed in penetrating the barrier of ideological exclusion that now exists, he more than those who have done so and would do so on demographic grounds, will have pulled off a feat of hearteningly groundbreaking proportions.

Let us be clear, the importance of knowing that a President would admittedly be any of these things – a socialist, an atheist, or a pacifist – lies in the knowing: the fact that an aspirant to the highest office in the land doesn’t just believe in such things, but openly admits to doing so. That alone would signify a degree of candor and courage totally uncharacteristic of the political class, whose near-total lack of candor and courage we consistently tolerate, condone, accept, and encourage – to our unqualified detriment.

A Socialist President?

A socialist as President, presumably rejecting the greed, exploitation, and inequality of capitalism’s dominant dark side, would expectably be committed to:

* Distributive justice – redistributing the economic and associated political goods of society from those who have, undeservedly, to those who don’t have, undeservedly.

* Equality – leveling the economic and political playing field; reducing, if not eliminating, the gap that separates the rich and powerful from the poor and weak.

* Altruism – recognizing the intrinsic value of, and according priority to, The Other over The Self, an orientation more fully consistent than at present with the diversity and pluralism we claim to prize as a society.

A socialist as President would represent the purest reaffirmation of America’s Declaration of Independence: that all men (all humans, that is) are created equal in their right to the universal, inalienable rights all human beings deserve to enjoy, simply because they are human, nothing more; and that the purpose of government, freely and knowingly consented to by the people the government presumes to represent and serve is to secure and preserve this constellation of natural rights, which include but aren’t limited to:

* Life – dignified existence and self-fulfillment.

* Liberty – freedom to make one’s own unconstrained, uncoerced choices; freedom to fulfill one’s aspirations and potential; freedom from deprivation, fear, and need born of circumstance beyond one’s control.

* The pursuit of happiness – the ability to seek, not shallow gratification, but the attainment of a good life, well-lived.

Why would we reject a President motivated by the desire to achieve the equalization of well-being for all, not just for the privileged and powerful, not just rhetorically, through such things as universal health care, universal education at all levels, and universal retirement security; socially responsible sustainable consumption and manufacturing practices; the elimination of Big Money from politics; and the like? Ideally, we would embrace rather than reject a President thus disposed. But we don’t and won’t, choosing instead to equate socialism pejoratively with the political tyranny of communism; obsessing over the misconception that the essence of socialism is centralized state ownership of property, social engineering, and soulless bureaucratization rather than shared commitment to the equalizing and equilibrating effects of redistribution; and ignoring the strategic benefits of mutual reciprocity, social cohesion, and national unity that would result from such equalization.

An Atheist President?

No less stigmatizing than socialism would be for an aspiring President would be a stated preference for atheism. To espouse atheism would be to go beyond mere secularism – the separation of church and state – and beyond the ambiguity and uncertainty of agnosticism to an explicit denial that there is some higher metaphysical power or authority with dominion over humanity. Just as socialism is inherently ethical in focusing on justice, atheism is inherently ethical in focusing on truth as the basis for justice – not revealed or received truth dictated by dogma to unquestioning true believers, but truth arrived at through active reason and rationality.

An atheist President would be guided by the presumption that this life is all there is; that we humans are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers; that we therefore bear total responsibility for the well-being of one another in the here and now; and that the premise underlying most religious orthodoxy – that if you believe, comport yourself in dutiful compliance with sanctioned beliefs, and defer to your divinely-anointed hermeneutic superiors on this earth, you will be rewarded in the next life, even if you must suffer in this one – is but the self-serving legerdemain of religious authorities. The atheist, accordingly, informed by his own powers of reasoned, rational judgment, would represent the ultimate in responsibility and accountability we expect of public officials, for he would be saying and demonstrating that he answers to no higher authority than the people themselves.

That we would reject an individual sworn to atheism speaks volumes about our own prejudicial intellectual shortcomings. To be an atheist, skeptics think, means to be immoral or amoral, to be self-absorbed and disproportionately self-interested, to be arrogantly and immodestly devoid of devotion to anything beyond the self, to thereby be guilty of human idolatry, and to therefore be unworthy of the moral standards expected of anyone aspiring to the presidency.

Atheism, because it evokes skepticism bordering on disdain from the masses and aversion bordering on fear from those in power, produces the most pronounced levels of hypocrisy from both – politicians pandering shamelessly to the faithful, and the faithful in turn granting politicians moral legitimacy by pretending to accept their claims to religiosity. Thus does the idea of an atheist President stretch the bounds of both plausibility and possibility.

A Pacifist President?

It is pacifism, though, that would be the ultimate discriminator in determining who is and isn’t presidential timber. So let us start with the rote negatives. A pacifist President would, skeptics believe, be a total contradiction in terms – a pacifist, by definition, being cowardly, weak, naïve, unpatriotic even, and thus totally ill-equipped to stand up to the dog-eat-dog, kill-or-be-killed, survival-of-the-fittest jungle that is the real world we inhabit, a world the President of the world’s self-proclaimed only superpower must deal with on its own terms if he is to fulfill his responsibility as commander-in-chief to protect and defend an entire society, its territory, and its values.

But where, we might ask, is the logic in such presuppositions? A pacifist, openly rejecting violence as a preferred, acceptable, appropriate, effective instrument for the resolution of disputes, would see the folly, the absurdity, the stupidity of war with its massive cost in lives and treasure, its counterproductive destructiveness, its inhumanity, its corruption of values and ideals, its unyielding self-perpetuation. He would expose the delusion that we can achieve peace through war, as well as the hypocrisy of preaching peace while practicing war, as those in power are wont to do. He would stand in opposition to the impetuosity of force-as-a-first-resort militarists, and he would rise above the realist rationalizations of force-as-a-last-resort Just War advocates. He would understand the true nature of peace as not merely the absence of violence as a preferred approach for resolving disputes, but also the presence of justice as a prevailing precondition for avoiding the precipitation of violence. He arguably would have a more sophisticated – more creative, more imaginative – conception of power and its application than those who simplistically equate power with military force; as such, he could be expected to turn the rhetoric of “soft power” and “smart power” into reality. And he would confront the saber rattlers who abjure pacifism in favor of chest-thumping militarism when they themselves have never served in uniform or heard a shot fired in anger.

Too bad, given America’s unthinking commitment to a permanent state of war, and to our inordinately destructive, lethal, expensive, characteristically American Way of War, that admitted pacifists don’t run for President; even worse, that if they did, they wouldn’t stand a chance.

A Parting Lament

It clearly isn’t true that anybody can be President. We all know that. We all knew that. But at a time when this country is in such dire need of strong, visionary presidential leadership – something we’ve been deprived of for a very long time – it is time we faced up to the realization that we have turned the principle of the consent of the governed into a failed precept. Representative democracy was seen by America’s Founders as a necessary alternative to unwieldy direct democracy, which would inevitably devolve, they thought, into mobocracy. So our republican form of government, posing as the best of us governing the rest of us, is predicated on the ability of the consenting governed class – us Little People – to exercise discerning judgment in selecting and judging the performance of those to whom we have ceded power and popular sovereignty. This fails altogether when consent is sabotaged by the fear of ideas.

Why is it that an avowed capitalist – even one who may have accumulated massive wealth at the expense of others, who may have supported depressing wages and driving jobs offshore, who may have sought to deny affordable healthcare or safe working conditions to the unempowered – can be elected President, but a socialist can’t? How is it that someone who poses as religious by invoking scripture and the almighty – even one who may have been married multiple times, had extramarital affairs, or preaches intolerance, hatred, and exclusion – can be elected President, but an atheist can’t? How is it that a flag-waving warmonger – even one who has never served in uniform, who advocates targeted assassination, carpet bombing, and torture – can be elected President, but a pacifist can’t? The insultingly inexplicable and indefensible answers to these questions lie in our irrational fear of ideas, our tolerance for those who propagate such fear, and our own seeming preference for relinquishing our powers of consent to those who tell us what we want to hear. The result is that we get the government and the presidents we deserve. How regrettable. How eternal.

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. The views he expresses are his own.