Interview: John Burtka IV on Statesmanship and Institution Building

“Republicans fail to understand the true nature of the federal government.”

John A. Burtka IV is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which has recently relaunched Modern Age — its new daily publication, and the author of Gateway to Statesmanship. This interview was edited for clarity and conciseness.

You wrote Gateway to Statesmanship. Why and how should we analyze our leaders through the lens of statesmanship?

Historically speaking, as I've read classic texts offering counsel to statesmen, the advice most reiterated is that to become a great statesman, you imitate other great statesmen — those from your own era (if you can find them, you should spend as much time with them as possible) or throughout history.

Statesmanship is the study of the great deeds of both heroes and villains, and how they have shaped the political order. Reading biographies of great statesmen reforms your imagination to start contemplating political possibilities you may never have considered, and to avoid the mistakes and imitate the virtues of other great leaders. To think outside the bubble of your current political prism, you have to immerse your brain in this ecosystem of great deeds of great men and women who came before you.

In America, we think a lot about systems: constitutions and laws. And there's good reason for that. John Adams said, “We're a nation of laws, not of men.” So the focus has been, especially in conservatism, on the institutions necessary to sustain a free society. But not enough attention has been paid to great individuals and the role they play.

From my understanding, Trump is not a voracious reader or a student of history, but he has been praised for his strong political instincts. How do we reconcile figures like him, who might be the complete opposite of what you just described as the model for statesmen?

That's a really good question. Political instinct like Trump’s can pave the way. In elite policy circles, Trump recognized certain fundamental deficiencies in America that almost no one was willing to acknowledge. He instinctually understood that immigration was messed up, foreign policy was messed up, trade was messed up, and a whole host of issues were messed up. Much of what he identified is almost common sense now — unlike in 2015 when he came down the escalator.

So, you can make headway on instinct in politics, but it's difficult to truly achieve greatness if you're not a disciplined student of history. Other leaders like Teddy Roosevelt combined Trump’s instincts and popular touch with deep learning. Roosevelt stayed up all night and, somehow, read a 500-word book every night.

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What element of statesmanship is missing from our current political leaders?

This goes back to Cicero. A great statesman has a vision for flourishing the whole regime, not just a narrow partisan or class interest.

This is not to say that politics shouldn't be partisan; it would be naive to think we can escape the partisan nature of politics, especially at a point where we are so divided, where people have described our situation as a cold civil war. Right now, we are gridlocked, and it's nearly impossible to see how it can be overcome.

To have a president fundamentally realign the political system and bring about a new paradigm in governing that lasts for a generation, there must first be an attempt to transcend the narrower political categories. Historically, political figures who built new paradigms and started new epochs in politics created a new style of governing coalition that lasted for several decades. A new coalition must be bigger and more holistic than those we have now.

You have to build a majority — that's 60-70 percent of the population — in support of the agenda. If you garner only 49 percent of the vote but win the Electoral College, then trying to fundamentally restructure and reimagine the American political system is onerous because you're an outsider saying, “We're going after the administrative state, the deep state, the media, Wall Street, and academia.”

Suddenly, you're arraying yourself against every power center in the country. It's possible to convert some power centers to a new program and destroy some as well, but you need the support of a vast majority of folks. It's hard to accomplish with a minority or a plurality.

In terms of the societal governing structures you examine in your book, how does one form of government foster a specific type of statesman over another? For example, DeSantis was widely lauded for his effectiveness but stood no chance against Trump’s charisma. Is that a flaw in Democracy?

The regime type doesn't matter much for political leadership. The same fundamental qualities of great leaders apply, whether in a monarchy or democracy. Human nature is the same, and what people want from their leaders is very similar. But obviously, there are elemental differences.

For example, in a hereditary monarchy in the West, the king's or queen's personality isn’t relevant. They're institutional figures. In the latest Netflix series on Queen Elizabeth, her point is, ‘It's not about me as Queen Elizabeth; it's about the office I'm holding and the trust I have to maintain to pass on to the next generation.’

That scenario is very different than Byzantium or the Roman Empire, where there wasn't necessarily a clear leader. Sometimes the son succeeded the father, but that wasn't guaranteed. In Byzantium, the wit — or whoever became the emperor — was the legitimate emperor. In the Machiavellian sense, your actions were judged, so the people’s acclaim determined legitimacy.

In that context, you might need to be a conqueror with military support. It's about whipping coalitions to support your bed. Real politics plays into it.

When the founders set up our regime, they hoped the focus would be more institution-based and less about the president’s personality. They hoped presidents would be reluctantly drawn into office — rather than campaigning or advertising for the position — as a sense of duty. Even then, service would be very limited for a short period of time, before a return to private life.

In America’s transition from something like a republic to something like Jacksonian Democracy to something more populist in nature, and — entering the 20th century — in dispensing with the indirect election of Senators, individual personality does matter more than policy does.

In today's digital age, you can’t win without being a cult of personality, especially as an outsider challenging the establishment. Trump has that, and DeSantis doesn't.

Comparing a governor to a president is reaching. But DeSantis’s list of policy accomplishments was probably longer than the list of policy accomplishments the Trump administration tallied. The list doesn't matter if you're up against a personality as dynamic as Trump.

Was the founders’ focus on institutions a signal that they were bearish on the future of leadership?

I think so, perhaps at the risk of lumping the founders together, because different factions had different tendencies. But they designed the Constitution so that if America didn't have great statesmen, the machinery of government could lumber on and the liberties of the people would probably be preserved, even if you elected a bad leader or several consecutive bad leaders. I think they were intentional in considering the institutions that could sustain this.

In one sense it worked very well, given that America went from being a small, relatively backward colony on the outskirts of the world to a powerful nation united under Lincoln after a very bloody civil war, to an empire on the world stage — arguably the greatest world power: the global hegemon we achieved shortly after the end of World War Two. Then it was a bipolar world in our competition with the Soviet Union, but again we emerged from conflict as the paramount power.

So, the founders were very successful in building infrastructure; it survived the significant changes we've endured under the progressive movement, the New Deal, various expansions of federal power, and the centralization in Washington. They started with nothing and ended up with one of the most powerful regimes in the history of the world.

Obviously, our current political regime has certain deficiencies, and you can debate whether those also have roots in the system the founders established.

That makes me think about FDR. His influence is everywhere because the institutions he created still shape our modern government — and politics. Trump and Republicans want to destroy these institutions, whereas Democrats and Biden want to strengthen and enlarge them. Is the Democrat inclination more reflective of the founder's vision of statesmanship and power — and is the Republican strategy a less effective one?

Republicans tend to imagine that it's 1789. They think about how government is supposed to work based on how the Constitution is structured and how it was originally written. Their imagination fails to understand the true nature of federal government today and what might be possible in light of both our written constitution and our federal government's actual constitution.

If you’re always trying to yank the wheel back to 1789 but ignoring power structures that exist today — without considering how you can capture those, reform them, or destroy them — you're never going back to 1789.

The Democrats don't care that much about existing structure or about the ideal that the founders framed. They're focused on facts as they are today: how do we entrench our power and grow and maximize what we have now to serve our interests long term?

Republicans are too idealistic. That said, if you look at foreign policy, Republicans in Congress just abdicated their constitutional war-making power to the President — to the executive branch — and are terrified of exercising any legitimate oversight regarding American involvement in foreign conflicts.

Instead, they rubber stamp more and more money for the executive to spend. Republicans today are totally compromised, and they're part of the apparatus of our current system; they don't care about restoring it to the founders’ vision.

What are you optimistic about?

The worse things become — and I think we have deteriorated over the last four years — the better the odds that the American people are waking up in a way that wasn't even imaginable a few years ago. People are hungry for some change. If you scroll down a list of issues, like immigration, the majority position is that we need a secure southern border and an immigration system overhaul. It's common sense, even beyond partisan. I think it’s acknowledged.

People see the shortcomings of DEI and identity politics. The majority see that we overcorrected in 2020 on policing and crime; common sense says this is out of control. Scrolling further down the list: in academia, people understand that it's not just woke. It's a waste of money, and it's not preparing students for successful careers and jobs. It's undermining the American way of life. People have woken up to a whole host of issues.

Our fundamental problems are so acute that it isn’t hard to figure out what’s needed to bring about a paradigm shift in leadership. When problems become so severe, you must stop the bleeding to fix them.

A political leader could secure the border, fix crime, restructure higher education, end the craziness, effect a new apprenticeship model (maybe it's more vocational schools), stop endless funding of the Ukraine war, and focus on rebuilding America.

It seems that as these problems worsen, they’re simpler to solve — not by devising the most complex white paper to overhaul them, but by restoring a basic sense of order and civilization. If you can accomplish that, you can probably build a pretty powerful majority for a generation.

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