The German notion of Zeitgeist or “spirit of the times” was first promulgated as an alternative to the theory that great men and women are the ones who shape our history. There are difficulties with both theories, of course.
On the one hand, influential figures can make a dramatic difference. Witness, for example, the sweeping impact of people like Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, or Eleanor Roosevelt. It is also true, however, that talented people are themselves a product of their times. World War II decisively shaped Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, for example, and it is difficult to imagine a biography of Roosevelt without the crucible of that war.
The debate over whether history is shaped by Zeitgeist or great women and men is, then, really a false alternative. Individuals do have a decisive impact on history. No individual makes choices that are not conditioned by the “spirit of the times,” and no one exercises freedom in a vacuum. But there are also times when our leaders and the spirit of the times are all but indistinguishable in their temperament or soul, leaving us to wonder whether the climate in which we live has shaped our leaders or our leaders have shaped the times.
We are living in one of those moments, in part perhaps, because we now live in such instant connection with one another that neither our culture, nor our leaders possess enough distance from the other to recognize both the influence of our times, or the contingent nature of the choices that individuals make. Things could be different, but we don’t seem to possess the will to make them different.
The result is a presidential election in which narrative is more important than fact, in which falsehood and distortions are a regular feature of both candidates’ campaigns, in which a discussion of issues has taken a backseat to a conversation about the personalities of the candidates, in which the language of division has supplanted language about shared goals, and in which the issue of looking presidential has taken precedence over the question of being presidential.
Similarly, although reporting on the election has occasionally touched on the issues, a far greater amount of time has been spent measuring public opinion. Reporters give very little attention to the nature of the challenges that we face, the complexities involved, the facts that are available, the policies we might pursue, and the intended, as well as unintended consequences of the choices we might make.Sadly, however, we can hardly blame the candidates and the press alone. Check the comments section on any article, follow your Facebook feed, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, or any of the social media and it is clear that the conversation among those of us who are mere voters is much the same.
From the vantage point of the question, “What drives history?” our leaders and the tenor of American discourse seem to be on the same page: The candidates do not offer an alternative to the spirit of the times. The media does not press for something different, and we as voters do not insist that our leaders function differently. It is tempting to conclude that it is not just the spirit of the times, but the soul of American discourse that is in peril.
There are things we can do to save that soul:
- We can insist on integrity and take the candidates to task for lying and for behavior that disqualifies them.
- We can insist that they discuss the issues.
- We can drill down and examine the intended and unintended consequences of the policies that they recommend.
- We can abandon an exclusive commitment to the special interests of the tribes to which we belong and pay attention to the greater good of all Americans.
- We can remind the candidates (and their parties) that we are electing a leader for the entire nation and not just the voters that they believe they will need to be elected to office.
- But if any of those remedies are to take hold, we will also need to be even handed in our insistence that both candidates, not just one of them conform to those expectations.
Sadly, at this stage in the election it is difficult, if not possible to imagine this happening.
I expect the debates to be lacking in substance. As election day approaches I will be surprised if the rhetoric is not filled with more vitriol than ever, and — no matter who is elected — the next four years are likely to be dominated by ugly division and little substantive progress of any kind. The only bright spot on the horizon is that neither candidate is likely to be president for more than four years, given their ages.
Many of my thoughtful friends have shrugged off the antics of this cycle as a dynamic that is simply typical of presidential elections, and there are certainly grounds for that argument. But there are also good — if not urgent reasons — to save the soul of American discourse. If we do, we might find that groups of people can both change the spirit of the age and nurture a new kind of leader. If not, whatever the truth might be about the nature of history, we will have failed ourselves.