This is a guest post from Guy Burton and Ted Goertzel about their new book, Presidential Leadership in the Americas since Independence, available to buy here.
What makes a president ‘great’ and which have been the ‘great’ ones in the Americas? These were the main questions we sought to answer in our book, Presidential Leadership in the Americas since Independence (Lexington Books, 2016). We sought to extend the work of the US presidential scholar, Stephen Skowronek, who developed the concept of ‘political time’. For Skowronek (1993, 2011), the US political system appears stable on the surface, supported as it is by an unchanging constitution, clear separation of powers and a two-party system. But that doesn’t mean that turbulence has been absent. Since the republic’s foundation in 1789, the US political system has faced periodic periods of upheaval with those presidents best placed to tackle them regarded as the most outstanding.
Skowronek’s institutionalist account of presidential leadership combines both structure (including its opportunities and constraints) and human agency and distinguishes between four types of presidential actor: transformative individuals were those who adeptly exploited a crisis by setting down a new political order that might last generations. Those that succeeded them would be one of two types: either those who supported and consolidated that order (i.e. articulative) or challenged it – but find it too strong to break down (pre-emptive). Over time though, the parameters of the political order and its support base might erode, making it more susceptible to change. In such cases, those who tried to maintain and reconstitute it, but failed to do so were disjunctive; those who succeeded in replacing it with a new order were transformative.
As Latin Americanists, we were curious how ‘political time’ might be applied to our more visibly tumultuous region – and through it to identify those presidents who were transformational, or ‘great’. To identify ‘greatness’ we made use of two approaches. One was to conduct a survey of outstanding leaders in the US and Latin America. We calculated the average number of mentions for political leaders across North and South America based on an analysis of their mentions in a number of commonly used textbooks for the history and politics of the two regions (Skidmore, Smith and Green 2014, Williamson 2009, Eakin 2007, Keen and Hayes 2004, Jenkins 2012, Remini 2009, Sinclair 1999, Schweikart and Allen 2004, Zinn 2005). We were encouraged that our findings for the US case tallied closely with previous efforts to rank US presidents; we were therefore confident that our Latin American findings were similarly accurate although no other surveys have been done.
The other was to extract from the historical literature a description of the cycles of political regime change in each country. Many scholars have observed cyclical changes in the political climate in United States and European history. We extended this analysis to Latin America. We noted that transformational/great leaders tended to emerge at a time of crisis in the political climate. This uncertainty enabled them to innovate by creating a new economic and social order underpinned by a broad political consensus. But importantly, the new order needed to be lasting, surviving beyond the political (and perhaps biological) lifetime of a given president.
Like Skowronek we wanted to be broad in our historical approach. But we also recognized that it was important to compare leaders with others who confronted comparable historical challenges. : The scale and scope of George Washington’s eighteenth century presidency is not exactly comparable with that of George Bush’s twenty-first century version, for example. We found that there were four historical eras in the political development of the Americas which presented leaders with similar social and economic frameworks that constrained their actions.
The first historical era, independence and its aftermath, required establishing a new political order. The second was the era of national consolidation, in which the new political order was dominated by the influence of landed and agrarian elites. Their position came under challenge towards the end of the nineteenth century when industrialists became more prominent – and eventually aligned themselves with key agents in national bureaucracies and military forces to institute an era of state-led development. From the 1930s to the 1970s this alliance held sway until economic dislocation and inefficiency coupled with social disconnection prompted a re-evaluation by intellectuals and politicians: the contemporary era of neoliberal globalization. The political systems that operated were constrained by these historical conditions, but success in confronting them was not guaranteed. Few are the presidents or political leaders who did not seek to leave their mark, but not all were successful. To consider a transformational president successful, we insisted that innovations he brought about be long lasting. Several instituted important changes, but the changes did not last after them. This includes the Diaz and Rosas dictatorships in Mexico and Argentina respectively.
Having established the framework, we then examined the successes and failures of specific presidents as they struggled to introduce lasting political innovations in the eight American republics: : the US, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. Using histories at a regional and country level, we identified 20 presidents, over four historical eras, who succeeded in being ‘transformational’:
- In the independence era we concluded there was only one: George Washington (US).
- In the era of national consolidation we identified Ramón Castilla (Peru), Benito Juárez (Mexico), Pedro II (Brazil), Diego Portales (Chile), Rafael Reyes (Colombia) and Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln (both US).
- In the era of state development we concluded that Lázaro Cárdenas (Mexico), Fidel Castro (Cuba), Juan Gómez (Venezuela), Raúl Haya de la Torre (Peru), Juan Perón (Argentina), Getúlio Vargas (Brazil) and Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt (both US) were transformational.
- In the neoliberal era and after we suggested Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Augusto Pinochet (Chile) and Ronald Reagan (US).
Ours is the first effort to compile a list of transformational presidents of the America. We hope it will be the beginning of a dialogue that could make use of other methodological approaches in the study of presidentialism. One such would be to apply a quantitative approach to the experience of individual presidents, thereby echoing a trend we have observed in the study of US presidentialism in recent decades (Mayer 2009, Moe 2009, Wood 2009).
Eakin, Marshall. 2007. The History of Latin America: Collision of Cultures. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Jenkins, Philip. 2012. A History of the United States. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Keen, Benjamin and Keith Hayes. 2004. A History of Latin America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Ninth edition.
Mayer, Kenneth. 2009. Thoughts on the ‘Revolution’ in Presidential Studies. Presidential Studies Quarterly 39(4): 781-785.
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Skidmore, Thomas, Peter Smith and James Green. 2014. Modern Latin America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Skowronek, Stephen. 1993. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush. Boston: Belknapp Press.
Skowronek, Stephen. 2011. Presidential Leadership in Political Time: Reprise and Reappraisal. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. Second edition.
Williamson, Edwin. 2009. The Penguin History of Latin America. London: Penguin.
Wood, B. Dan. 2009. Pontificating about Moe’s Pontifications. Presidential Studies Quarterly 39(4): 805-818.
Zinn, Howard. 2005. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial.
Guy Burton (@guyjsburton) is assistant professor at the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government in Dubai. He received his PhD in 2009 from the London School of Economics. His research interests in relation to Latin America are comparative politics and political sociology, as well as the politics of the left and right.
Ted Goertzel (email@example.com) is professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He has published biographies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula da Silva and is also known for research on homicide rates, conspiracy theories, social movements and on the misuse of regression analysis in social science research.