James Buchanan is widely regarded as the worst president of all time. Yet he was among the most qualified of presidents, having served as secretary of state under President Polk, as the Minister to Russia under President Jackson, as the minister to Great Britain under Pierce, besides being a longtime member of the Senate and before that the House of Representatives. Buchanan had served in the public eye as a politician and statesman for decades, despite being dogged by rumors about his sexuality because he never married and kept house for decades in Washington DC with an effeminate Southerner named Rufas King, and had been elected in one of the most lackluster campaigns ever as the only national candidate in a three-way competition against the totally unqualified Republican Fremont and the milquetoast former president Millard Fillmore. His presidency was a total disaster, with the president supporting the fraudulent Lecompton constitution and trying unsuccessfully to bury Stephen Douglas while making secession all but inevitable by his open favoring of the South in the rising sectional tension after Dred Scot .
It is hard not to feel like it’s the 1850s when looking at the mess of our current political system. We have the Supreme Court being asked to vote on major social decisions where no matter what they decide their credibility is harmed because the prestige of the court is wasted on partisan political matters. We have deep social divides that, ominously, have a strong regional color to them, with a shrinking middle and a growing dislike towards the politics of compromise and moderation in the face of extremists on multiple sides. We have a growing feeling that our political system is broken, and like the 1850s we have a miserable set of leaders who all argue that they are above the partisan fray and all end up disappointing everyone because they are not partisan enough for the core and too partisan for their opponents. Does anyone feel inspired by the current crop of presidential candidates? I am not in the least–Donald Trump sounds like an adventurer in the order of Fremont, and Clinton is definitely the lesser political figure to her mediocre husband. These are two candidates who could only win when pitted against each other, and it is not like there is a viable third option either that is any more qualified or inspiring than the other two. No, what we have is what we have, and we can expect to limp along at best regardless of who is elected, without the election having solved anything.
It would perhaps be better for us if we did not expect so much of our elected leaders or elections or courts in solving our problems. Even where the right solution is chosen in these areas, the result is often failure because it results from coercion and leads to hard feelings and resentment on the other side. It is that feeling of hostility and division that is the enemy of good relations, and resolving that requires difficult work on all sides, especially since when we feel a great divide within our institutions our last response is to be friendly to others and to step over the lines in the sand that we have drawn and sworn to defend. I speak personally in this matter–for I too have known plenty of fierce conflicts where I found it difficult to see people on the other side as having legitimate concerns that were worthy of respect even where I disagreed with their positions. Even in cases where I am in conflict with people I know are people like myself, whose concerns and well-being I care a great deal for, I find it difficult on a personal level to overcome the awkwardness of conflict and build peaceful relationships and successful communication, so perhaps I should not feel so bad that I find that my neighbors and fellow countrymen are so miserable at the task as well. It is perhaps well that we are so miserable together in the same sort of failure across all levels and aspects and institutions in society.
And so our society, and many others, waits for a visionary leader to overcome the divisions and the corruption that we find within our countries. And for the most part we wait in vain. There are few heroes to be found in our world, where those leaders who try to stand up for the common people are tossed out, where people mouth populist platitudes to get elected then show themselves to be corrupt plutocrats once ensconced in office. We both want and fear people of ability and decent moral conduct–we want it because we are upset at the current corruption and division that we face, and we fear it because we are corrupt enough as a people that we cannot trust virtue because we do not believe it to be real. If we want better leaders, we have to be better people, yet no leader in our society can be elected if they point the fingers at the masses and tell them about their failings. After all, we wish to outsource the solution to our seemingly intractable social problems to political institutions like the courts and Congress and our gladiatorial electoral campaigns, but we do not outsource our outrage and dissatisfaction over the inevitably partial and incomplete nature of whatever victories we find there. We have no one to blame but ourselves, but we refuse to blame ourselves or to become better people, with less hatred and rancor towards others. And so we have the leaders we deserve.
 See, for example: