The “Green Lantern Theory” is how political scientists describe the belief that presidents could do more if they just tried a bit harder.
The term refers to the DC Comics superhero whose power is limited only by his willpower.
Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who coined the term, explained that the Green Lantern theory is “the belief that the president can achieve any political or policy objective if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tactics.”
The assumption is that the president is all-powerful, and when he can’t get something done, it’s because he’s not trying hard enough.
Nyhan further separates the theory into two variants:
- The Reagan version 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.”
However, both cases are wrong because there are so many things a president cannot control.
Pollster Dan Cassino put it this way: “Americans want someone to fix things. The president is someone, so they want him to fix things. The problem is that there just isn’t a lot that any president can actually do about most of these issues.”
As Dan Pfeiffer, communications director to President Barack Obama, explained:
The major problem with the “Green Lantern Theory” is that it confuses structural impediments with strategic miscalculations. Because the U.S. President is the head of state and the head of government, they loom large over American culture. A combination of King/Queen and Prime Minister.
Presidents are the main character in the American national narrative for their time in office. Pop culture and historical renderings of our past presidents imbue them with near-magical political powers and tremendous heroism. Therefore, we often assume presidents have more power and influence than they possess.
Of course, presidents themselves — along with their staffs and supporters — do quite a bit help perpetuate the Green Lantern theory.
Use of “Green Lantern theory” in a sentence:
- Supporters of the Green Lantern theory argue that strong leadership and unwavering willpower alone can overcome entrenched political divisions and bring about transformative change, disregarding the realities of complex governance systems and the need for compromise.
- Critics of the Green Lantern theory dismiss it as a naïve and simplistic perspective, highlighting the importance of institutional checks and balances, public opinion, and the limitations of individual leadership in shaping political outcomes.
- The Green Lantern theory was invoked by some politicians who believed that by sheer force of will, they could push through their policy agenda despite opposition, only to face the harsh reality of political constraints and the need for broad-based support.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.