In Chinese history natural disasters have often been taken as signs that God no longer recognizes the legitimacy of a dynasty. In 1976 an earthquake in Tangshan province killed 300,000 people. Shortly thereafter, Mao Tsetung .
died, the Communist dynasty ended, and China started down a capitalist road.
Usually, the kinds of disasters that show God's disapproval of a regime are catastrophic earthquakes or floods or even storms.
Does the Gulf oil spill qualify? Here it depends in part on what you call it. Have you noticed that the terms most commonly used, spill and leak, do not do justice to the magnitude of what is happening at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico? When you watch the pictures of oil gushing from pipe on the floor of the Gulf what words do you think of. Perhaps a word like gusher or a word like hemorrhage.
An uncontrollable gusher or hemorrhage would certainly count as enough of a natural disaster to express God's disapproval with a regime.
So, I am willing to question whether we Westerners, with out tradition that says that our leaders rule with the consent of the governed, still believe, somewhere and somehow, that our leaders must have the Mandate of Heaven?
Look at it this way. Before Hurricane Katrina the nation was seriously disquieted about the presidency of George W. Bush. The war in Iraq was not going well at all. The nightly news was filled with images of violence and carnage from Iraq.
But it was the president's response to Hurricane Katrina that crystallized the image of presidential ineptitude and insouciance.
In a way the facts did not matter as much as the image and the way the image played with other suspicions about why things were going so well in Iraq.
Not to belabor the point, but if the Bush administration had aggressively moved in to New Orleans after Katrina and given the world the impression that it was fully in charge of the situation, then people would probably have assumed that they could maintain their confidence in George Bush to resolve the problem in Iraq.
After Katrina, it did not matter what George Bush did. He turned the Iraq war around and no one seemed to care. As I see it, that is what it means to lose the Mandate of Heaven.
When people ask whether the current Gulf catastrophe is Obama's Katrina, they are asking whether it will mark the moment when he lost the Mandate of Heaven.
A majority of the population already disapproves of the Obama administration for a variety of reasons. And yet, the question still remains: Is Obama doing a good job given the situation he inherited, or have his policies made things worse.
If the Gulf catastrophe marks the moment when people come to see that Obama has made things worse, he will have lost the Mandate of Heaven.
Keep in mind that the Mandate of Heaven is not the same thing as what Westerners call the divine right of kings. The Mandate of Heaven refers to the ethical conduct of political leaders.
Presumably, when a dynasty begins its rulers show great concern for the good of the people. After a while, later generations of dynastic rulers become less concerned about the people, less concerned about behaving in a responsible and upright fashion, and more worried about their own good.
In Western terms they become narcissistic and decadent. When catastrophe befalls the people they manifest disinterest and unconcern.
The issue is not so much whether the leaders can immediately mitigate the catastrophe or can rescue its victims with their own hands, but whether they are present and accounted for or whether they are off playing golf.
When a catastrophic earthquake killed tens of thousands of Chinese in 2008 the Premier of China, Wen Jiaobao flew to the site within 90 minutes to personally direct the relief operations. The government threw just about everything it had-- from troops to equipment-- at the problem, without delay. Thus it survived an earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people.
A leader's place is with his people in time of trouble. If he is not, then the people will normally and rationally assume that he simply does not care about them.
Given that the Mandate of Heaven derives from Chinese thought it refers largely to the ceremonial aspect of leadership. No one imagines that Obama should have flown to New Orleans, jumped in a submarine, and plugged the hole. But everyone has a right to expect that he would have been there, often, to show his concern, to be briefed and to oversee the relief efforts. Everyone has a right to expect that all of the resources of the government would have been mobilized, not just to stop the hemorrhage, but to ensure that a minimal amount reached shore.
Keep in mind that President Obama has so little regard for ceremonial leadership that he is planning to skip out on Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery.
Yesterday President Obama held a press conference where he pretended to take responsibility for the calamity. As one might expect it did not take him very long to mitigate his responsibility by blaming BP and the Bush administration. To the minds of most, his greatest concern is containing the political damage that he has been suffering because of the disaster.
A couple of days ago everyone was impressed when mild-mannered Democratic consultant James Carville let rip at Obama for not being there for the people of New Orleans in their time of trouble. Many people were surprised to see Carville attack a Democratic president openly and publicly, but no one thought that his emotion was anything but an appropriate reply to to a major presidential failure.
If you are a Democratic president and you have lost James Carville, then you have lost the Mandate of Heaven.