Thursday, September 08, 2005

The "CEO" Presidency

Kevin Drum has a post up today about how the main problm with our "CEO President" is that he is a very bad CEO. A reasonable point. But it's also worth unpacking the conceptual underpinnings of the idea of the President as the CEO of the nation.

The idea of Bush as a "CEO president" was used mainly in Rove's 2000 campaign messaging. It not only helped sell Bush to the Republican business establishment, but also depicted Bush (the governor of Texas, son of a President, and grandson of a Senator) as somehow an outsider to politics, a man who had earned his chops in the real world -- in contrast to the ill-disciplined Clinton White House, and to the "Washington insider" Al Gore, who had chosen to spend his twenties fighting in Vietnam and running for Congress, instead of drinking himself half to death in Texas honkytonks. The fact that Bush was a lousy businessman did not sully the idea among its proponents. As pure propaganda, in short, the idea of Bush as "CEO President" was a pretty brilliant idea.

But leave aside Bush's particular merits as a CEO, and instead give a moment's thought to the metaphor itself. Isn't there something sinister about the very idea of equating the Presidency with a CEO? As Peter Drucker has pointed out for decades, corporate management is by nature an authoritarian, anti-democratic, dubiously legitimate institution; neither the employees nor the customers actually get to vote for a CEO, nor even the shareholders, but only the board, which as we all know is (usually by design) a very imperfect proxy for the shareholders.

Now, the authoritarian nature of corporate management may be acceptable when running a business, but surely it should raise eyebrows as a model for democratic politics. Running a profitable company requires getting maximum effort from your employees, excluding the competition from your markets, and extracting maximum value from the customers. How exactly do these ideas map to democratic concepts of citizenship and participation? Are the "citizens" the equivalent of customers? Or are the citizens more like employees? How about the "competition"? Is that the other political party? Or is it a foreign enemy? A quick glance at the way Bush has governed suggests that these questions are more than a little pertinent, and are not without disturbing implications for us, the employee/consumers.

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