What makes history happen?

The first of Fortune's three-part series on the nature of power.

By Matt Miller, Fortune columnist

(Fortune Magazine) -- A ridiculous amount of time and energy has already gone into picking the next President, which would lead you to suppose the matter is of some consequence. Of course the person who serves as leader of the Free World matters (ask anyone in Baghdad), but over the long sweep of history it counts for less than we may think.

Anyone who's spent time among the mighty - and the wannabes - from the White House to the corridors of the Fortune 500 knows that larger forces than mere Presidents shape the fate of nations. Even the shrewdest political leaders and seemingly omniscient CEOs are the playthings of external factors, though it's not always clear which factor has the most stroke. Three big questions offer the beginning of wisdom here and also serve as a handy Rorschach test. What's your take on power? Let's find out.

Force of nature: Winston Churchill

1. Which has greater power to shape the human condition: technology or public policy?

Inventors and entrepreneurs have made possible the progression from steam engine to automobile to spaceship. But then, it's policy inventions like the systems of property and patent law that make capitalism itself possible. Both forces start with the power of ideas. But how you answer determines whether you think ideas pursued by pols or geeks matter most. My verdict: The politicians may write (and thus get top billing in) the history books, but entrepreneurial techies do more to move the world. Sorry, Hillary: It's more consequential to be Bill Gates than Bill Clinton.

2. Culture or politics?

"The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society," said Daniel Patrick Moynihan. "The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself." Okay, but which force is more powerful? For instance, does deep-rooted racism keep African Americans down decades after legal equality has been achieved? Or did the civil rights movement bend the arc of history toward justice in ways that haven't fully played out? Do things like slavery and discrimination against gays persist because humans are programmed to be awful - or are these scourges doomed to history's dustbin because human attitudes can finally be changed? It's a close metaphysical call, but my answer is the latter. Which means: If liberals don't seem to be winning yet, just give them a little time.

3. "Great men" or historical forces?

Would there have been a Russian Revolution if Lenin had become, say, a pharmacist? Would glasnost have come without Gorbachev? Or is there instead, as Shakespeare suggested, "a tide in the affairs of men"? There are business analogs to this question: As Warren Buffett puts it, "I'd rather buy a good business with mediocre management than a bad business with great management." Likewise, any money manager with half a brain looks pretty good during bull markets. Still, my own view is that while impersonal forces frame an era's context, it is men and women who seize the moment and serve as history's hinge. Churchill, in other words, mattered. And so too, in their smaller way, did Jack Welch and Sandy Weill. That's not to say such forces as demography and climate are not sometimes destiny. You heard it here first: Medicare will be overhauled in the next decade - not because a "great leader" calls us to the cause, but because fiscal math will compel whoever is in power to act.

Even if you think all of the above are false choices, one's view of them can be revealing. People don't break down along consistent lines. Take me. I'm a romantic when it comes to the power of the individual in history and a liberal optimist on the culture vs. politics axis. But while I'm as policy-obsessed as the next wonk, it seems obvious that technology has done more through the ages to better the human condition. I know a committed cultural conservative who's a historical forces determinist, yet this guy is also sure that public policies like property law are necessary conditions of (and thus more powerful than) the innovation through which modern economies work their magic.

Whatever your own views on power, one thing is clear: Whoever next enters the Oval Office will have only a fraction of the power they'll have promised to wield - and actually need.

Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of The 2% Solution: Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love. He can be reached at mattino@att.net.  Top of page