“President Eisenhower’s role as a King Utopus”

•Essay 2 response for PS 1000, Wayne State, Winter 2013.
•Example of teaching/learning mechanism: compare your essay to mine.
•Niche audience: American political development / thought / culture.

ARTICLE: Philip Abbott. 2002. Eisenhower, King Utopus, and the Fifties Decade in America. Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 7-29.

If we compare any given historical regime to political culture, when might one faction see the regime as utopia? On the other hand, why might other people claim that the same regime promotes dystopia? Philip Abbott tackles this question by (1) defining utopia and dystopia, (2) exploring the regime of President Eisenhower (Ike), and (3) looking at 1950’s America. The analysis illuminates cultural complexity in light of presidential leadership.

Utopia is complex. It’s about “how we would live and what kind of world we would live in if we could do just that (Levitas 1990, 1)” (8). Society is the moral response for people congruent with the regime. All problems have been solved and life is freedom. Utopias all have a founder(s), someone who made utopia paramount. Eisenhower and King Utopus (i.e. Moore) were military leaders. Founders may be philosophers, scientists, religious figures, explorers, etc. Hence, the founder distributes special knowledge to the citizenry which cures them of their ills and allows them to live well. The founder(s) exhibit independence, secrecy, and heroic vision, all of which are designed to protect the happiness of future generations (8-10). The citizen is happy to reward a virtuous leader and to be member to the polity.

Dystopia is equally complex. It’s a “time when scoundrels ruled and the peace was maintained by demands for silence and conformity” (8). Critics, conversely, felt nothing but drift under Ike. Tranquililty is peaceful because the United States has stopped Progress. Was Eisenhower mostly concerned with corporate welfare, and not the median voter? How can a utopia function if the average Joe isn’t happy?

Indeed, under Ike, the nation’s problems were not ideological; rather, technical and administrative (12). To be sure, this administrative apparatus imposes tranquility through conformity and diffuse anxiety (13). Critics further: How can a person accept utopia in capitalism, whereas the worker, “who sells things he or she does not make and provides services to an organization in which he or she has little or no form of expression” (Mills) (13). Utopia, nay! Dystopia whence “the victory or tyranny of the idea” of another rules over you and your friends. Ike’s utopia to this citizen is the definition of dystopia.

For Ike, the regime was more and more promoting the public good—tranquility—even if he disagreed with Brown (1954). Since Ike was independent of ideology and partisanship, he could secretly create the downfall of radicals, like McCarthy (i.e. Leonard Hall’s confrontation w/ McCarthy) (18). Ike had the leadership to enable the discipline between labor and capital—that both would benefit. To some degree, the Republican President is improving the economy–the life–of the median voter!

Today, some Republicans, beginning with Newt Gingrich, have recalled Ike’s 1950s utopia. Eisenhower, for example, said that the technology produced has outpaced growth in virtue within society. Indeed, Ike did start the White House Prayer Breakfast, established a national day of prayer, supported the “Under God” in the pledge of allegiance and “In God We Trust” as an official motto (Holloway 1994) (21). Ike “didn’t care” what people’s faith was, so long as they understood that they were part of His hand. There is no America without God (22). Ike was the leader, par excellence, to grow the economy and domestic tranquility in light of global chaos. Ike was rational and cautious about a paternalistic government which would “decline the number of spheres where people could do things for themselves” (Harris 1997) (23). For Gingrich, Democrats espouse the values of the sixties’ counterculture, which produces social decay and thus exacerbates dystopia.

Hence the stalemate. A member of party Dem says that Rep’s platform induces dystopia, and a member of party Rep says that Dem’s platform induces dystopia. Either way, compromise means decay. Only a founder of a new way can unite the parties and increase economic growth, societal virtue, and a better tomorrow for all Americans. Abbott concludes (27):

For the more sympathetic, the fifties are proof of another way of life. For skeptics, the fifties are proof of the enormous cost of stability. Hence comes the fifties as utopia/dystopia. No other society could valorize this decade in these terms, because no other society has so consistently rejected stability as a value. That we speak of the fifties as a lived alternative continues to encase the decade in this utopian/dystopian framework and will continue to raise questions about President Eisenhower’s role as a King Utopus.


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