A genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus -Martin Luther King, Jr.
Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other – John F. Kennedy
To add value to others one must first value others- John Maxwell
The price of greatness is responsibility-Winston Churchill
For as long as I can remember political engagement has been regularly scorned by a significant portion of the population. Such disdain is understandable to some degree, but to the extent that it results in complete despair, our political process risks either abandonment or a complete sacrifice to the evils of charlatanism. For one thing it tarnishes the attraction of civil service for bright, honest and sincere aspirants. Inevitably then, the field opens up to those more focused on the opportunity to treat our public institutions like private investments. Over time there is not enough incense to overwhelm the unpleasant odors exuding from the halls of power. Yet, in the final analysis we the people are ultimately responsible for election and as well we the people, through the consistent mantra of total distrust and disregard for what we vapidly and vaguely refer to as “the system” contribute to the toxification of the very process we criticize. There is a swamp, it is toxic and too often the people vowing to drain it are instead stockpiling it with beasts of their own choosing. Our own collective apathy guides their hands.
The exercise of our power to make change through voting is often minimal in its earnestness. We ranked 10th among developed democracies in voter turnout. The last time voter turnout for a presidential election hit 60% was 1968 and it has settled quite comfortably into the mid-fifties ever since, falling as low as a meager 49% in 1996. In 2016 it was 55.7%. Midterm election turn out is, unsurprisingly, even more meager. In 2018, when the nation was angst driven enough to turn over control of the US House of Representatives, 49.3% was the best we could do. Meanwhile, Belgium turns out 87.2 % of its citizens for elections. 82.6% of Swedes practice their democracy. Denmark, South Korea, Israel, France, Spain, the UK and Canada all participated to a much greater degree than Americans in the practice of their democratic institutions.
When we do vote, too often we are guided by comfortable propaganda extorting our fears and validating our prejudices rather than definable and verifiable facts. Sure, we go and pull the lever or fill in the boxes, but too often it seems we give more consideration to which toppings we want on our pizzas.
So, we get what we get and then we complain. The cycle starts all over again and we are no better for it. I believe we have forgotten, in the haze of this nihilism that we are supposed to be electing leaders but more importantly, we have lost track of what leadership means and why it is so important.
As a nation in perilous times we are receiving no discernible leadership from our central government and the result is the loss of life beyond the unavoidable. We have seen our economy wrecked, and our health system strained to its limits. Millions of Americans will be stuck with a bill far too large to ever be paid. The people we rely on for essential services are getting sicker and sicker and as this happens the available world is increasingly at risk.
Fortunately, examples of solid leadership from governors and community leaders have resulted in goods, services, and information making some inroads. More importantly, in these times they have reminded us of what good leadership looks like and how important it is when the sky is falling.
We don’t require our leaders to fix everything. Most of us understand their limitations. What we do expect is that they will work hard, that they will educate and inform us, that they will accept responsibility for their own mistakes, and that they will surround themselves with the best people while setting aside their own egos to engage in careful and informed assessment of strategies to activate. What we no longer seem to expect from leaders, but which we nonetheless deserve, is honesty and a basic sense of empathy. For people suited to the job this is not a big ask. For the charlatans and the quacks, so far removed from such capabilities as they are, it is near impossible. We don’t need snake oil and false promises in such times, but rather injections of pragmatism and hope, a prescription they lack the credentials for delivering.
Nationally at the moment, the consequences of poor leadership have left us reeling. For reasons bordering either on the purely political or the mind numbingly dumb, sections of the country remain utterly unprepared and unwilling to face the possibilities of a harsh and still developing reality. Some leaders of the cloth, by encouraging their congregants to continue to congregate, are leading their lambs to slaughter as they become predictably infected at alarming rates. This practice crosses numerous denominations and faiths but it seems to be happening most frequently in areas where there is little in the way of local leadership and where the whims of the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has more resonance than the scientific community.
So, the swamp must be drained but maybe we shouldn’t entrust that job anymore to the swamp creatures. It is ultimately up to us to convert the swamp into the arena of ideas it was always meant to be. We should once again hang the “help wanted” signs out and return to interviewing candidates. We should make this arena a place that the best and the brightest will once again aspire to and of which, upon pain of prosecution the swamp creatures will find completely undesirable. Our day to day response to this crisis has for the most part illustrated that we have the capability to make necessary change. Now we need to exercise the same determination to vaccinate our democracy against the duplicitous and corrupt machinations of it’s exploiters. The Roosevelts, Lincolns, Churchills, Ghandis and Kings of today are out there, somewhere. We need to identify them and sell them on the idea that together as engaged and willing partners we may mightily scrub clean the halls of power. The old-World War II poster of Rosie the Riveter shouted to the world We Can Do It! And we will. We must.