Posts Tagged ‘Roosevelt’


American political leadership today is more religiously diverse than ever before. This reflects a tectonic shift that has occurred in the last half-century, but received very little analysis. For all the evidence of stagnation, partisanship, and elitism in American politics, the top offices in the country have become more open to religious minorities than ever before. With Representative Paul Ryan’s selection as the Republican vice presidential candidate this year, the New York Times (8/14/12) observes “not one person in a group of top political jobs – the presidential and vice-presidential nominees of both parties, the Supreme Court justices, the speaker of the House or the Senate majority leader – is a white Protestant.” That’s correct: not a single white Protestant male in the presidential race, on the Supreme Court, or in the leadership of the House or the Senate!


This world was completely unimaginable for Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. They had each witnessed the deep anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism of mainstream American institutions, including universities, corporations, government offices, and social clubs. They had seen how national voters rejected one of the most skilled politicians of early twentieth century America, Governor Alfred Smith of New York, in part because of his Catholic beliefs.


In 1956 two of the most prominent writers in the United States, sociologist C. Wright Mills and journalist Richard Rovere, wrote scathing books attacking the narrow-mindedness of American leaders. They blamed the racism, inequality, and Cold War militarism of American society on what Rovere called an “Establishment” of like-thinking White male Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) who shared schools, churches, families, and ideas. Brothers of the “Establishment” promoted one another and a vision of the United States that benefited their kind disproportionately, Rovere alleged. In even more radical words, Mills diagnosed the “Power Elite” as a cabal to make democracy and capitalism serve the few, not the many.


One can disagree with the tone of Rovere and Mills, but they had evidence on their side. American political leaders looked nothing like they do today. They were, almost without exception, WASPs in the 1950s. The real question was whether one was Presbyterian (Dwight Eisenhower, George Kennan, and John Foster Dulles) or Episcopalian (Franklin Roosevelt and Dean Acheson). John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 as the first Catholic president was indeed a breakthrough, but he continued to surround himself with figures from the traditional Protestant backgrounds.


Why did this matter? Historians have analyzed that question in depth. Some of the best scholars on the subject (including William Inboden, Andrew Preston, David Hollinger, Seth Jacobs, and Robert Dean) have shown that mainline Protestantism encouraged a sense of national mission in the postwar struggle against atheistic communism. Historians have also analyzed how religious faith informed international networks of aid and support. It mattered enormously to mainline Protestants that the Chinese Nationalists were Christian and the Chinese Communists were not.


The social and political upheavals of the 1960s discredited the WASP near-monopoly on political power in the United States. A new generation of well-educated and ambitious non-Protestant Americans asserted a right to rule. A more international non-Protestant group of figures pushed their way into power by talent, money, and selective patronage. That is the story of Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Madeleine Albright, and Paul Wolfowitz – all of whom would have been excluded from political power in 1950s America. No one in Eisenhower’s America could have imagined a presidential contest between an African-American incumbent and a Mormon challenger, each of whom has Catholic running-mates.


The end of the WASP “Establishment” has meant a more open American political system. Many are still excluded and money often talks louder than talent. Nonetheless, we should take note of this tectonic opening, as well as the evidence of adaptability in the American political system, and think about ways to enhance these qualities for better policy-making in the future.


Can we imagine new ways to open the system for less-monied interests? Can we imagine new ways to incorporate other non-Protestant, non-Catholic, and non-Jewish perspectives that would enhance the effectiveness of American policies around the world? The United States is an evolving political experiment, and as James Madison predicted, the continual evolution of a pluralistic society is messy but necessary. All we can do is take inspiration from our recent past to push for more openness and change, not less. At their core, Americans are an “anti-Establishment” people.


This blog post originally appeared at


Leadership, like all historical phenomena, moves in cycles. Periods of boldness (think of the 1940s, the 1980s, and the early 2000s) are followed by years of very limited horizons (think of the 1950s, the 1970s, and the 1990s.) We are living today in a time of terrible self-constraint. Our leaders face difficult economic, political and military challenges, but they are no worse than what their predecessors confronted. Remember the Great Depression, the Second World War, even the oil shocks and Vietnam War of the early 1970s? The problem today is that our leaders remain stuck in the low cycle of self-limitation. They just cannot manage to think big and turn our crises into opportunities.

What does this mean? If the history of the last century proves anything, it is that careful management of crises and political “muddling through” can only get you so far. The great leaders who made serious contributions to human betterment took calculated, bold risks in exactly the kinds of circumstances we face today. Franklin Roosevelt did not try to “manage” the Great Depression as Herbert Hoover had done; he took risks to transform the American (and world) economy. Winston Churchill did not try to “manage” British decline in the face of German Fascism; he rallied his people to rebuild their military and their empire. Ronald Reagan did not try to “manage” the Cold War; to the consternation of his advisors, he imagined and pursued a new form for superpower relations. Great challenges require grand visions, with a tolerance for some risk-taking.

Our global problems have become worse in the last year because our leaders at all levels of all societies lack vision, imagination, and the courage for calculated risk-taking. Republicans and Democrats in the United States cannot transcend their tired, counterproductive rhetoric about tax-cutting and entitlement protection. European Union leaders cannot escape the band-aid efforts to patch together a failing currency that must be re-made with more effective institutions. United Nations diplomats, especially those from Russia and China, continue to defend Iranian sovereignty as they watch that country pursue what everyone recognizes as a nuclear weapons program that will produce a regional war if it is not stopped soon.

We do not need to focus on politics alone. Take our “great” universities. Has anyone met a bold educational leader recently. The sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University, following recent scandals at the University of Miami and Ohio State, shows that the presidents of the world’s wealthiest and most distinguished institutions of higher education are asleep at the wheel. Universities are hemorrhaging money from academics, but they continue to pour resources into glitzy athletic programs that overpay coaches, under-educate students, and frequently break the law. Boosters at the University of Miami hired prostitutes for players. A coach at Penn State abused young boys. The story continues but university leaders do nothing systematic. They meekly apologize and move on with more of the same.

It is not too late for bold leaders to emerge. It is not too late for new directions. It is not too late to proclaim that the evident failures in our inherited institutions and policies mean that we must try something serious and something new. That is the discussion Americans should have in the 2012 presidential election. That is the discussion Europeans should have as they contend with new national governments and a failing currency. That is the discussion the international community should have about nuclear non-proliferation, inequality, and education for a new century.

I am a historian so I remain confident that the wheel of time will turn again, producing bold (probably young) new leaders. That is why I like the “Occupy” movement, which is now spreading from urban downtowns to college campuses. The students in sleeping bags and tents do not have the answers, but they are asking the right questions. Why should we accept limited horizons? Why should we support failed institutions and unimaginative leaders? Can’t we do better?

I hope our most ambitious and talented citizens our listening. Now is their time. Now is their opportunity. A time of bold change is upon us.


This blog post originally appeared at

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.