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OPINION: ‘I Like Ike’: We need to find our next Eisenhower

Updated: Jan 30

By: Luke Montalbano


Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of the last bipartisan leaders in the United States of America with an ability to unite factions unseen since, perhaps, Franklin Pierce. Image credit: Creative Commons.

Politics in North America are in an existential crisis. Political parties on the left and right are sowing fear, anger, and hatred, drawing battle lines that pit neighbours against one another. For Americans, the level of polarisation has become most certainly unbearable while with Canadians it is evident that it is beginning to seep through the cracks of our political fabric. As a result, leadership has weakened; there is a noticeable absence of political prudence; statesmanship appears a relic of a bygone era. By now, we know how we got to this point. I need not explain it anymore than I have in my other works. But I wish to pose a question: have we not been in this situation before? Both Canadians and Americans who have studied the early Cold War histories of their countries will come to appreciate the fact that the polarisation we see today is not a novel concept. 

In spite of the deep divisions caused by hardline politicians–namely Senator Joe McCarthy and Robert A. Taft–there was a particular figure in the U.S. that most Americans irrespective of their parties could agree on: Dwight D. Eisenhower. When we speak of Eisenhower’s unique appeal to those on the left and the right, it is no better illustrated than by the fact that there was a serious consideration for him to be nominated for both the Democratic and Republican tickets. The ‘Draft Eisenhower’ movement pervaded party lines and was only opposed only by hardline Democrats and Republicans who often held a minority voice in their parties at the time. What is so striking about Eisenhower is that he was able to effectively dismantle even the most partisan of forces at the upper echelons of government in a time where it seemed as if polarisation would continue its upward trend. 

 



The 1952 Presidential Election saw Dwight D. Eisenhower won 442 electoral votes and 55% of the popular vote to Adlai Stevenson’s 89 electoral votes and 44% of the popular vote. Image provided by author.

Where is our Eisenhower figure? In both Canada and the United States, there is not one serious individual who could unite the majority of the country in the fashion that Eisenhower united the U.S. in his time. This is what I fear about the coming years. I do not wish to sound alarmist–we must all recognise that polarisation arrives in waves–but in many cases the waves subside because an individual is able to shock the system enough to quell the brewing anger. With the advent of social media, which is empirically shown to have bolstered polarisation amongst the population, downsizing the wave that is currently crashing down upon us poses a challenge that is becoming seemingly insurmountable. 

I pose that this situation can be left in the past but will require a significant shock to the system. It will not happen in the next election cycle in the U.S. or Canada but it very well could happen after that. The only problem is that a figure must be found who can unite the country. The last person in the U.S. who seemed even remotely likely to do so was General Colin Powell in the 1990s- before his engagement in the Bush Jr. administration. In Canada, it is difficult to pinpoint one person who is capable of doing so (particularly because of our strong regional divisions) but perhaps if he was to live beyond 2015, former NDP leader Jack Layton could have proven to be this elusive Eisenhower figure.

We all fear polarisation as if it were the death knell of democracy but I do not believe this to be so. Rather, it is becoming more and more evident that efforts must be made to identify and draft an individual of such great appeal that the force of polarisation will be quenched. I cannot identify that person today, but I have great hope that in the coming years, such a person can be found. Let us not fall into the trap of total ideological conflict more than we already have. 


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