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Comics As Part Of Political Science? The Green Lantern Theory Of The Presidency


I saw this article on and decided this was something to share. No, DC hasn't announced that Barrack Obama is going to be John Stewart in the Batman v Superman movie. What Ezra Klein of Vox (latin for 'voice') is talking about is the Green Lantern Theory Of The Presidency. Put forth by Dartmouth's political scientist Brendan Nyhan basically says that some people believe that the President should be able to accomplish any task through shear will power and imagination… like a Green Lantern is able to create his constructs.  Or in more detail:

The Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency is "the belief that the president can achieve any political or policy objective if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tactics." In other words, the American president is functionally all-powerful, and whenever he can't get something done, it's because he's not trying hard enough, or not trying smart enough.

Nyhan further separates it into two variants: "the Reagan version of the Green Lantern Theory and the LBJ version of the Green Lantern Theory." The Reagan version, he says, holds that "if you only communicate well enough the public will rally to your side." The LBJ version says that "if the president only tried harder to win over congress they would vote through his legislative agenda." In both cases, Nyhan argues, "we've been sold a false bill of goods."

The flaw here of course is that the Green Lantern ring is only limited by the wielders strength of will and imagination (and it's charge). The U.S. Presidency has a built in series of check and balances that prevents any branch of government from basically becoming a dictatorship… and in some cases prevents any branch of government from getting anything done. That would be like if every construct had to be approved by the Guardians before being used and then could be nullified by Kilwogg for it being a 'pozer idea'.

So why do people believe the theory? Klein puts forth this possiblity:

One reason is that even as the US executive is structurally weak he's perceptually strong. "The heroic narrative of the presidency dominates media coverage," Nyhan says. It also dominates culture. Fictional representations of Washington like the West Wing tend to feature powerful presidents and weak, corrupt congressmen. They also tend to emphasize the power of stirring speeches, as stirring speeches work great on television. Both in fiction and in reporting American politics is a drama that is told through the character of the president and so it's natural that people tend to see American politics as a function of the president's action.

Another problem with the theory is that it casts congress in the roll of the submissive and needing to be controlled by the President. This is not how the Founding Fathers set the government up.

I do find it interesting how easily it would be to align certain political parties with the different lantern corps based on it being a Democratic president making them the Green Lanterns. Republicans are accused of fear mongering so they would be the Yellow Lanterns. Tea Party would be the Red Lanterns symbolized by rage. Lobbyists would of course by the Orange Lanterns. Green Peace would be the Blue Lanterns as they bring hope but very little power of their own. The Star Sapphires would be the far left of the Democrats who haven't gotten a collective name or maybe the 99%ers. And the Indigo Tribe is all the undecided, independent voters who look at the whole political mess and wonder if they are even speaking the same language. I wonder if Geoff Johns was a political science major?

The article is a very interesting piece and well worth reading in it's entirety. Which you should do.

It also mentions that this is not the first time that the Green Lantern has been brought up as a political theory. There is also the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics, coined by Vox executive editor Matthew Yglesias in 2006 responding to an argument for bombing Iran.

A lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.

One of the things I found most interesting comes from Klein trying to explain how Green Lantern even got into these theories. He gives a literal answer first, but his second one is more fascinating.

The more philosophical answer is that comics, primarily out of the Marvel and DC universes, increasingly serve as a kind of shared American mythology and so writers turn to them as vehicles for communicating abstract ideas.

The important thing to take away from this is that perception of might may not be the reality of power… and that political scientist seem to like comic books.


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Dan WicklineAbout Dan Wickline

Has quietly been working at Bleeding Cool for over three years. He has written comics for Image, Top Cow, Shadowline, Avatar, IDW, Dynamite, Moonstone, Humanoids and Zenescope. He is the author of the Lucius Fogg series of novels and a published photographer.
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