The Ebola Czar and American Czars in General (Open Thread)

So the NY Times is proclaiming that Obama is thinking about creating an ‘Ebola Czar‘.  One of the oddities of the modern American world, indeed, is a love of the idea of a “czar”: almost any time a major public issue arises (war, drugs, health care, urban policy, Katrina, Ferguson) there are calls, often completely unironic and bi-partisan in nature, to create a ‘czar’ to govern that issue.

Why does a putatively democratic, constitutional, secular order–which generally celebrates itself as the republican Rechtsstaat incarnate–feel the need to constantly call for the invention of a figure who by definition rises above all representative institutions and laws, and does so by “God’s grace”?  I have always found this odd but insistent echo of Russian history in U.S. life to be baffling.

How do Americans understand the concept “czar”?  Does it match what we, as historians, think about the meaning of the concept? (And here I recognize that not everyone may agree with what I just said about tsars, to use the more standard scholarly spelling.)  What explains the particular hold the image of “the czar” has on the modern American political imaginary?

I thought I would open a thread here on this question.  Any thoughts and discussion?

About John Randolph

John Randolph is Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois.
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5 Responses to The Ebola Czar and American Czars in General (Open Thread)

  1. John Randolph says:

    My colleague Robert Morrissey has pointed me to a long Wikipedia article, showing just how deep this concept goes in US life (to the Roosevelt administration). I haven’t found secondary literature on this institution, but it’s a lot more deeply rooted and widely practiced than I realized:

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._executive_branch_czars

  2. David Greenstein says:

    I had seen the term as far back as the Wilson administration to refer to the leader of the War Industries Board, but this article has it going all the way back to Andrew Jackson:
    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_good_word/2008/12/czar_wars.html

  3. Janet Ellingson says:

    When the President appoints a “czar,” I imagine that person has sufficient authority to cut through all the bureaucracy and actually get done what needs to be done. We hope a czar is all powerful in a narrow scope of things. I understand that it is a temporary position to deal with a particular crisis and not a new level of bureaucracy. In fact, I think our American czars are rather useless. Not at all like a Russian czar.

  4. Pat_H says:

    Very interesting post.

    I’ve always found the use of this term to be unintentionally amusing. I know that it’s meant to convey an image of central authority (I guess we lack the concept of a weak czar), but none the less, it’s not a cultural concept that travels well. Indeed, when it comes up, I always imagine the new “czar” giving license to the dispatch of cossacks to raid in his service. So, if we have a “Drug Czar”, mounted DEA Cossacks ride forth against the declared enemy. . .

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