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The Powell History Person of the Year (2008)

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By Scott Powell from Powell History Recommends,cross-posted by MetaBlog

Does getting yourself elected the president of the most important country in the world during a wave of world-wide economic upheavals and in an era of myriad international political crises make you the “Person of the Year”–considering in addition that you are the first black president in that same country, which has an otherwise incomparably glorious history of individual rights, but whose story is nonetheless stained by black slavery and racism–and considering that you promote a conciliatory policy with fundamentalist Islamic leaders whose essential philosophy is wholly antithetical to everything America stands for–and that you are a dedicated socialist who will take the freest country in the world and push it further towards being just one more “people’s state”–and finally, that your election signals that modern-day Americans believe that all the above is change they can believe in?

Yes. It does.

Barack Obama is Powell History’s “Person of the Year” for 2008.

If you object to this choice on moral or political grounds, I refer you to my series on the 2007 Person of the Year.

History is what matters, not how what matters makes you feel. ‘Nuff said.

Well…just one more thing…I do not wish for any of my readers to interpret this brief dismissive post as a sign that I would have preferred America to choose John McCain for President.  For the record, I had no preference whatsoever in the matter.  If you would like to know why, I refer you to Leonard Peikoff’s podcast comments here.

The fact that America has declined from the republic it once was to a democracy faced with the McBama non-alternative is the most depressing thing I can think of.  I bid goodbye and good riddance to 2008.

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Cross-posted from Metablog

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Does getting yourself elected the president of the most important country in the world during a wave of world-wide economic upheavals and in an era of myriad international political crises make you the “Person of the Year”–considering in addition that you are the first black president in that same country, which has an otherwise incomparably glorious history of individual rights, but whose story is nonetheless stained by black slavery and racism

America is not "stained by black slavery and racism". America ended slavery that existed before America came into existence. Rights are built into its very founding ideals and America came through. As to racism, well that still exists in America and the world, but America at foundation is about the individual, not any race.

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America is not "stained by black slavery and racism". America ended slavery that existed before America came into existence. Rights are built into its very founding ideals and America came through. As to racism, well that still exists in America and the world, but America at foundation is about the individual, not any race.

When, in your estimation, did America come into existence?

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When, in your estimation, did America come into existence?

July 4th, 1776 is clearly the answer. Prior it was an English colony.

There are three points here to make:

1> Slavery was omnipresent before America came into existence. A very small percentage of slaves from Africa came to America. Many more went to S. America and even more to the Arab world. In fact, in many ways the peasants of the Dark Ages in Europe were slaves. If anything, slavery was a stain on the world, but even then it might have been more a case of ignorance than anything.

2> The notion that slavery was morally wrong was not obvious. The idea had to be defended on rational and moral grounds. America was a big part of that new fight.

3> America was established based on the idea that men have inalienable rights and the intellectuals of the time definitely included in that the belief that nobody should be enslaved. America started out without any stain, rather it planted the seeds of freedom that made possible the vanquishing of slavery. Ayn Rand called it the most moral country in history and I believe she is right.

If I have the belief that men are omniscient and that things change causelessly and instantly, then I'd grant the idea that America was terrible, but it's not the way things are. America is great in a world where men are not omniscience and where the law of causality is in effect.

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The treatment of black slaves in America was a world apart from the treatment of your average enfranchised citizen. At the time there were plenty of people with the knowledge that this type of treatment was unspeakably immoral. Powell was not leveling charges against the current moral state of the US. He was making an accurate observation about America's history.

Edited by FeatherFall
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The treatment of black slaves in America was a world apart from the treatment of your average enfranchised citizen.

Which citizens? I'm also not sure how this addresses my points.

Serfs in the Dark Ages were treated very badly and slaves in South America were treated worse, as a rule, than slaves in North America according to Thomas Sowell.

But, again, this is not the point. The point is that America came into existence in a world replete with slavery and with the mission of upholding and spreading freedom, which included ending slavery. This is why America stands out. This is the way in which America stands out.

At the time there were plenty of people with the knowledge that this type of treatment was unspeakably immoral.

There were many who didn't believe it and so that battle had to be waged. In America the battle was waged.

Powell was not leveling charges against the current moral state of the US. He was making an accurate observation about America's history.

He is judging America from a Platonistic standard. I've seen some very good things from Powell, but he is completely wrong on this one.

Here is the point, if you are going to say it's a "stain on America", then you have to say it was a stain on much of the world, but it is not a stain. Slavery was not understood to be wrong for most of mankind's history. It was often defended. People had to come to the conclusion it was wrong and only then could they fight it morally. Epistemologically, if you don’t know, you don’t know, and magic won’t give you the answer. If you want to appreciate what a great achievement the concept of rights was, then you need to realize it wasn't obvious. In fact, it took a great mind to come up with the concept and lots of courage and intellect to defend it.

I'm saying the exact opposite of Powell. America deserves credit for spreading freedom and vanquishing slavery. This is America's original virtue. It took time, but, historically speaking, not that much time.

We today know that slavery is evil and would not defend it (unless we are socialists :dough: ), but we stand on the shoulders of giants. This is why we know this “obvious” point.

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But, again, this is not the point. The point is that America came into existence in a world replete with slavery and with the mission of upholding and spreading freedom, which included ending slavery. This is why America stands out. This is the way in which America stands out.

This is true, and I don't think that Powell would disagree. However, the abolishment of slavery came years after the founding of America (which is why I asked when you thought it came about, because your statement that slavery ended before America came into existence doesn't make any sense).

He is judging America from a Platonistic standard. I've seen some very good things from Powell, but he is completely wrong on this one

How is he judging America from a Platonistic standard? I agree with Featherfall on the point that Powell is making an accurate observation about American history, which sticks out (and is repeatedly used as criticism against the Founders in that many personally owned slaves), particularly because it was the first nation to be based on the idea of individual rights.

Here is the point, if you are going to say it's a "stain on America", then you have to say it was a stain on much of the world, but it is not a stain. Slavery was not understood to be wrong for most of mankind's history. It was often defended. People had to come to the conclusion it was wrong and only then could they fight it morally. Epistemologically, if you don’t know, you don’t know, and magic won’t give you the answer. If you want to appreciate what a great achievement the concept of rights was, then you need to realize it wasn't obvious. In fact, it took a great mind to come up with the concept and lots of courage and intellect to defend it.

I don't think Powell or anyone else here would disagree with this, especially considering Powell's prior statement about the incomparably glorious history of individual rights. However, It is a stain because slavery persisted for so long. An error is an error and should be identified as such. I would think it would be Platonic to consider America as the ideal conception of individual rights. Objectively, it was the most moral and the most profoundly radical country in terms of the ideas it was based upon, which includes taking into consideration the errors and compromises that mark its history (commerce clause, slavery, etc.).

I'm saying the exact opposite of Powell. America deserves credit for spreading freedom and vanquishing slavery. This is America's original virtue. It took time, but, historically speaking, not that much time.

I think you are misunderstanding the purpose of Powell's post. I have never seen Powell say anything that suggests America doesn't deserve this (in fact, he repeatedly refers to America as the "most important, most free country with a glorious history of individual rights in just this post. Elsewhere in his blog he's not even this modest.). Powell's point is that Obama represents a tremendous shift in the ideas held in the culture, on a number of levels. Politically, he's the antithesis of the constitutional republic that the Founders pushed for. Secondarily, he's black, which marks another historically significant event due to the views about race having changed as well. As Featherfall also noted, Powell was not attempting to denigrate the historical/moral status of the US.

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We are in 2009. If Barack Obama were to die tomorrow (from natural causes), he would have no place in history. He did nothing of any consequence whatsoever in 2008. (unless you consider beating two other nobody's, Hillary Clinton and McCain, as important, which I don't)

I can list dozens of people who, solely for what they did in 2008 (good or bad), will have a place in history if the same were to happen to them today.

So how is Barack Obama 2008's Person of the Year? Why not pick Miss America, by standards just as irrelevant as this guy's skin color?

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We are in 2009. If Barack Obama were to die tomorrow (from natural causes), he would have no place in history.

The full impact of a person sometimes isn't realized until after they win such awards. While Hitler had been chancelor for several years prior to '38 (when he received Time's man of the year award), his full impact on history wasn't realized until '39 or '43. But I can see where you are coming from, and I'd be interested to hear your opinion on the real person of the year.

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The full impact of a person sometimes isn't realized until after they win such awards. While Hitler had been chancelor for several years prior to '38 (when he received Time's man of the year award), his full impact on history wasn't realized until '39 or '43. But I can see where you are coming from, and I'd be interested to hear your opinion on the real person of the year.

There are a couple of candidates: Putin practically established martial law in Russia, and proved himself an expansionist dictator with the war in Georgia. That, coupled with the weak response from the West, could prove the most important development of 2008.

Then there's chairman Bush, who's economic measures, while we can't fully predict the consequences, are done. Unlike what we might theorize Obama would do, Bush's actions have been done in 2008, and the consequences are impossible to prevent from this point on. This year may very well end up to be the turning point in history, the year in which America started its decline.

However, I don't think we can predict which particular act/decision of the past year will end up being the most important one. All we can do is exclude the possibility that some of Obama's actions will prove to that one earth-shattering event, since he hasn't done anything, nor has he promised to do anything specific, nor has he expressed any principles that would allow us to know what he intends to do, with any measure of certainty. All we know is that he intends to swim with the tide. Whether that tide will cause him to do something horribly destructive or not remains to be seen. I actually have a large bet riding on my expectation that nothing horribly bad will happen.

The things people are focusing on (his personality, race, or the fact that he is a liberal) are of very little consequence:

As far as his personality goes, he's not the next Churchill(or Hitler:)), he's just a pleasant guy who can read a pre-written speech.

His race is far less relevant than people make it out to be, it will most certainly not change the mentality of those black Americans who are lead by so-called "leaders of their community", nor will it change the attitude of many liberals toward black people. Since those two categories of people are the main problem, the effects of a first black American president will be minimal.

Then there's the fact that he's supposed to be a liberal. While I'm sure his superficial political views are liberal, his guiding principles are clearly those of a pragmatist, with a touch of survival instinct. For the most part, in my opinion, he'll do what other democrats, and even McCain would've done.

For all those reasons, I don't consider his electoral victory a defining moment in history.

Edited by Jake_Ellison
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This is true, and I don't think that Powell would disagree. However, the abolishment of slavery came years after the founding of America (which is why I asked when you thought it came about, because your statement that slavery ended before America came into existence doesn't make any sense).

But he did not say that, West:

America ended slavery that existed before America came into existence

He clearly indicates that slavery "existed before America came into existence" (which I took to mean, it existed in the orginal colonies) and that the United States, having inherited the institution, ultimately abolished it. Which is certainly true within the borders of the United States

I should point out that in the grand scheme of things the United Kingdom's efforts against slavery began earlier than ours (early 1800s) and that they went after the slave trade on the high seas. The UK probably did more to end slavery than the US did, though our efforts certainly *cost* us a lot more since we had to fight a bloody civil war over it (as well as a bunch of more peripheral issues).

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This is true, and I don't think that Powell would disagree. However, the abolishment of slavery came years after the founding of America (which is why I asked when you thought it came about, because your statement that slavery ended before America came into existence doesn't make any sense).

I didn't say that. Listen, I think you should read what I write. What I said was that slavery existed before America came into existence and America's ideas were set up to spread freedom and, therefore, destroy slavery. I also said, historically speaking, that it didn't take that long for the American ideals to end slavery.

I mean, these are like the charges against capitalism. People look back at the start of the industrial revolution, and all of the problems, and blame them on capitalism, when capitalism was pulling men out of poverty.

How is he judging America from a Platonistic standard?

He's expecting it to work by magic. The law of causality is in effect at all times. Civilization is like a giant ship and it has a great deal of inertia. In order to change the direction of the ship you need to apply force in a different direction. America's founders, and others who came later, did just that, and they reversed the ship, something that took real intellect and courage and effort, tons of effort.

I agree with Featherfall on the point that Powell is making an accurate observation about American history, which sticks out (and is repeatedly used as criticism against the Founders in that many personally owned slaves), particularly because it was the first nation to be based on the idea of individual rights.

So, you don't give the Founders credit for fighting for freedom and against slavery and setting up the first and only country based on rights. Rather, you vilify them for being born into a system where there was slavery, and where there was slavery world wide.

I mean, the whole world is stained, then.

America is a great country, with a great foundation that spread freedom and ended slavery. This is America's legacy and this is what makes it unique. It is because of the courage of the founders, and the ideas of men like John Locke, that we today enjoy freedom. They fought the good fight for our liberties and it was not we who ended slavery. Jefferson, Madison, and up to Lincoln, they ended slavery.

Also note, Jefferson did try to end it right away in 1776, and was rebuffed by certain southern senators, so it was a tough battle. They weren't able to snap their fingers and end it, and I think it's ridiculous to hold them to such a standard.

These founders, the ones who were spearheading the movement toward liberty and rights, were great men. They were heroic men. Just to personalize it, so that you can concretize it better, could you be as heroic?

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There you go again misquoting Powell. What he actually wrote is substantially different than what you are making it out to be.

I reject the "again", and while it may not have been word for word, I see nothing inaccurate about it. Anyway, I addressed your points in my prior posting, and I think more than answered them.

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He clearly indicates that slavery "existed before America came into existence" (which I took to mean, it existed in the orginal colonies) and that the United States, having inherited the institution, ultimately abolished it. Which is certainly true within the borders of the United States

Yes, and it also has to be realize that slavery was the norm. It was Western enlightenment ideas that caused people to realize it was wrong.

I should point out that in the grand scheme of things the United Kingdom's efforts against slavery began earlier than ours (early 1800s) and that they went after the slave trade on the high seas. The UK probably did more to end slavery than the US did, though our efforts certainly *cost* us a lot more since we had to fight a bloody civil war over it (as well as a bunch of more peripheral issues).

Well, ours actually began in earnest on July 4, 1776. But, Great Britain was, in many respects, part of America, because it was part of the same intellectual movement towards individual rights.

America took on the job of defending the rights of man and it resulted in the ending of slavery. How awesome is that?

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Yes, and it also has to be realize that slavery was the norm. It was Western enlightenment ideas that caused people to realize it was wrong.

Well, ours actually began in earnest on July 4, 1776. But, Great Britain was, in many respects, part of America, because it was part of the same intellectual movement towards individual rights.

America took on the job of defending the rights of man and it resulted in the ending of slavery. How awesome is that?

Hear, hear!

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What I said was that slavery existed before America came into existence and America's ideas were set up to spread freedom and, therefore, destroy slavery. I also said, historically speaking, that it didn't take that long for the American ideals to end slavery.

I agree completely with the first sentence, but am not quite with you on the second one. If you use 1776 as your starting point, it is still almost 90 years before slavery is officially done away with. Worse, it is another hundred years before MLK comes along and finally rids the culture of slavery's remnants. That slavery existed is one thing, that during my lifetime there existed segregation and 'whites only' water fountains is embarrassing, and could probably rightly be called a stain. But like Lincoln before him, King's references to the principles of the founders is what ultimately prevailed.

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Certainly the enlightenment is the reason that slavery has almost been eradicated (it still exists (surprise-NOT!) in some parts of Africa and the Middle East).

All I was trying to point out was that 1) West misinterpreted Thales' statement and 2) worldwide, the UK probably did more--and earlier--to eliminate slavery than we did--their navy began attacking the slave trade, world wide, in the early 19th century (about the same time we forbade the importation of slaves into this country).

This does NOT in any take away from what we *did* do, but I must take issue with statements like "The US ended slavery" that imply that the US and the US alone did it. It was the UK alone at first, then later joined by the US once we got our own house in order, a process that took 80+ years.

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Oops, you're both absolutely right about my misinterpretation. After reading it again, I'm clearly in error.

So, you don't give the Founders credit for fighting for freedom and against slavery and setting up the first and only country based on rights. Rather, you vilify them for being born into a system where there was slavery, and where there was slavery world wide.

I mean, the whole world is stained, then.

America is a great country, with a great foundation that spread freedom and ended slavery. This is America's legacy and this is what makes it unique. It is because of the courage of the founders, and the ideas of men like John Locke, that we today enjoy freedom. They fought the good fight for our liberties and it was not we who ended slavery. Jefferson, Madison, and up to Lincoln, they ended slavery.

Also note, Jefferson did try to end it right away in 1776, and was rebuffed by certain southern senators, so it was a tough battle. They weren't able to snap their fingers and end it, and I think it's ridiculous to hold them to such a standard.

This is ridiculous. Of course I give them credit for all of their accomplishments. However, I also acknowledge their errors while studying their actions/ideas in order to form my overall judgment of them. My conclusion is no different than yours. To draw a parallel, consider the status of Hank Rearden through most of Atlas Shrugged. Hank is a moral giant, in addition to being the most productive genius within the entire work. One could say that like the Founders, Rearden "inherited" many of the ideas from the culture that surrounded him, including his dichotomous acceptance of the looter's standard of morality (which he later corrects, mind you). Stating that this was clearly an error is not an attempt to destroy his image as the productive genius that he is. If anything, it shows how much of an accomplishment his overcoming it was (just as the abolishment of slavery was such an accomplishment), due to the prevalence and popularity of the ideas he rejects. I'm in complete agreement with your judgment of the Founders and the status of America as a country, I just don't think that mentioning a fact such as Powell did represents a complete repudiation of all that they ultimately stand for.

Just to personalize it, so that you can concretize it better, could you be as heroic?

In principle, absolutely. In terms of concretes, if there is to be a Second Renaissance during my lifetime, I will have contributed to it. To be just, I have benefited from the ideas and actions of Locke and the Founders, but there's one thing that we have that they didn't: Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism.

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We are in 2009. If Barack Obama were to die tomorrow (from natural causes), he would have no place in history. He did nothing of any consequence whatsoever in 2008. (unless you consider beating two other nobody's, Hillary Clinton and McCain, as important, which I don't)

I can list dozens of people who, solely for what they did in 2008 (good or bad), will have a place in history if the same were to happen to them today.

So how is Barack Obama 2008's Person of the Year? Why not pick Miss America, by standards just as irrelevant as this guy's skin color?

Jake, by these standards you couldn't pick the person of the year until fifty years from now.

It's not that Obama did anything particularly significant, but that the events *attached to him and his election* (and the ones that will result from that) are historically significant--or at least, much more so than anything else I can think of that happened this year.

Well . . . maybe Barney Frank and his Mortgage Crisis. That might be a sensible contender.

But Putin? Bush? The long-term effects of Putin's actions will be dictated by the response of the freer countries in the world, not by anything Putin does or doesn't do, and Bush has already relegated himself into historical insignificance, just like Jimmy Carter.

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We are in 2009. If Barack Obama were to die tomorrow (from natural causes), he would have no place in history. He did nothing of any consequence whatsoever in 2008. (unless you consider beating two other nobody's, Hillary Clinton and McCain, as important, which I don't)

You make it sound as if winning the nomination of a major US party and winning the presidential election is nothing. Or as if all Obama did was gain the nomination for the Green Party or some other such fringe outfit.

So how is Barack Obama 2008's Person of the Year? Why not pick Miss America, by standards just as irrelevant as this guy's skin color?

If nothing else Obama's election gives lie to the notion that America is a racist country where black people are oppressed because of their skin color. Besides, winning a presidential election is a big deal.

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The treatment of black slaves in America was a world apart from the treatment of your average enfranchised citizen. At the time there were plenty of people with the knowledge that this type of treatment was unspeakably immoral. Powell was not leveling charges against the current moral state of the US. He was making an accurate observation about America's history.

I don't disagree, but I think it's time to stop making that particualr observation about america, as though it were uniquely American.

All New World colonies made use of slaves in some way. The Dutch colonies, the Spanish colonies, the Portuguese colonies, and of course the English colonies. In some cases, such as Brazil, slavery persisted well past the 1860s.

Racism was also endemic in the countries were large numbers of black slaves were imported into. Which also brings up a question, can you name a prominent black Brazillian or Cuban politician? And haven't Brazil and Cuba been ruled by white male sof European descent for centuries?

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You make it sound as if winning the nomination of a major US party and winning the presidential election is nothing. Or as if all Obama did was gain the nomination for the Green Party or some other such fringe outfit.

It may or may not be nothing. If, during the course of his Presidency, he will do exactly what any of his opponents would have done, then as far as history is concerned, the decision of US voters to elect him, instead of the other contenders who had a chance, ammounts to exactly nothing. I do have good reason to believe that is the case, that he in fact doesn't differ in a significant manner from his former opponents.

That of course doesn't mean that there is no free will: however, the free will exercised in 2008 (whether by US voters, who chose him over others, or by Barack Obama, who decided whether to commit publicly and definitely or not to a course of action-he mostly did not) does not ammount to all that much.

But arguing is what we do here, so go ahead: list the significant decisions he (or the voters) made in 2008, and of course the known or presumed consequenses which make those decisions important, and we can compare them to the ones I listed (made by Putin and Bush).

If nothing else Obama's election gives lie to the notion that America is a racist country where black people are oppressed because of their skin color. Besides, winning a presidential election is a big deal.

The only thing Obama's election proves is that most Americans aren't racist enough to vote based on their hatred. (in fact it doesn't even prove that: black Americans could very well still be racist, as well as all those races who didn't have a horse in the race.)

So, in the end, what his election proves is that about 40 %(don't hold me to that figure) of white people aren't racist enough to vote against their favorite platform or party.

I believe everybody who makes rational judgments knew that already ( I am convinced that for instance you knew, right?), they didn't really need further proof of it, so...

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Well, maybe Obama is the guy of the year.

Has the political and media process gone so far away from reality that it is logical and reasonable now to elect one with few qualifications?

Yeah, not many people in the field that are extremely valuable. But does his election further show that government is becoming irrelevant to the people? Government for the existance of government in the US? Too much thought about "common good" from those that should not be forwarding such ideology.

So, based on the poor choice of a US President, maybe that makes Barry Obama a man of history.

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Well, maybe Obama is the guy of the year.

Has the political and media process gone so far away from reality that it is logical and reasonable now to elect one with few qualifications?

Yeah, not many people in the field that are extremely valuable. But does his election further show that government is becoming irrelevant to the people? Government for the existance of government in the US? Too much thought about "common good" from those that should not be forwarding such ideology.

So, based on the poor choice of a US President, maybe that makes Barry Obama a man of history.

I don't think this election shows that government is becoming irrelevant to the people. I think it shows that a certain number of people think that the government is that much more important, according to their standard of what the proper role of government should be. I think 'the people' are less concerned with qualifications qua qualifications, and more concerned with the policies of the elected president, and whether it furthers the goals of their supposed interests.

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