10/09/2012 12:26 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

The Cult of Presidential Personality

The American constitutional experiment separated executive from legislative power, creating a president who was elected separately from Congress.

The idea was to reduce the power of both, but that seems to have backfired. Over time, the scale of the presidential election itself has given the office a kind of larger-than-life quality that was not the original intention.

Richard Neustadt first explored this issue in his book Presidential Power, showing how a series of national crises, such as the Great Depression and World War II amplified the power of the president, based in large measure on his reputation in the Washington community and his prestige outside. The impact of television on the 1960 campaign debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy laid the groundwork for the public's expectations that their president would be a compelling, charismatic figure -- "The Most Powerful Man in the World."

So the presidential debates become a smackdown between two alpha males, and the campaign an exercise in "personality-pitching."

In the English parliamentary system from which the American constitutional experiment proceeds -- and departs -- the head of government is the leader of the political party that wins the most seats in the legislature (the prime minister). His power doesn't come from charisma. It comes from organization.

There are debates, but they happen every week that Parliament is in session, in full public view. They do not consist of two charismatic (or not so charismatic) individuals making promises about what they will or will not do once elected. Instead, the debates are public reviews and critiques of what the government is actually doing. They are conducted in common sense, accessible language, not buried in arcane regulations that only professionals read. In contrast, our own members of Congress give speeches to empty galleries and their pronouncements are rarely heard, much less challenged.

The English head of state is a ceremonial figure, presently the Queen. She and her family are to embody the ideals and values of their country.

Our president, on the other hand, is both head of state and head of government. Our president is supposed to lead the country in governance yet also embody the nation's ideals and values. The only problem is, the American community today is very loosely woven, even at the local level. So it's hard to determine who we are, much less what ideals and values we actually hold in common.

As you draw the circle larger, our national "community" gets even more diffuse. So diffuse that our only common experiences are what we see on television. That means whoever has the money to get out a TV message has the power to exercise a great deal of influence over what a lot of us think. Not a good formula for selecting a tribal leader.

Too bad the founding fathers nixed Jefferson's Citizen's Assembly idea. With such a vehicle, we might teach ourselves to carry on calm and grounded conversations with our neighbors, which in turn might yield a grounded and reasonable conversation on the national level. The Swedes manage to do this with their system of study circles. They carried on a national conversation in small groups on the question of whether they should enter the European common market, for example.

I'm not saying we should switch to the British parliamentary system of government. But a national system of non-governmental citizens' assemblies, built from the ground up, could provide a venue in which people could discuss our country's next steps on their own.

It would be outstanding if instead of watching the Geek and the Bully duke it out with accompanying media hype and commercials, we could have this debate ourselves, maybe with Kettering-style issue booklets as a guide. Such conversations might produce a presidential job description the candidates would have to address, and which we could use to hold them accountable once the elections are over.