In a Democracy, We Deserve the Leaders We Elect

Perhaps we should stop complaining about the lack of inspiring leaders, and instead take a long look in the mirror.

President Obama, the quintessential self-made man, preaches the importance of government assistance and community to help overcome adversity. Governor Romney, the quintessential patrician, preaches self-reliance, that government is never the answer, and individuals must take responsibility for their own success or failure.

Whatever you think of President Obama’s politics, admire his life’s story. A bi-racial child (born at a time when many American states considered his parents’ relationship a criminal offense) whose father abandoned the family, Obama grew up in various step-homes, and ultimately was raised by his grandparents.

It took a huge amount of work, discipline and tough choices for President Obama to make the leap from that background to the presidency. As we look at the least fortunate third of American society, we see a group that, in many cases, lacks discipline and has made bad choices.

As Charles Murray documented in Coming Apart, the bottom 30 percent of American society is literally falling apart — because of issues around industriousness, lack of responsibility for child-rearing, and many other dysfunctional cultural norms. We need better government programs, but to succeed — there must be a partnership where the people being helped make better choices (Hint: Dropping out of school at age 15 to have a child isn’t a good choice).

The presidency is, in Teddy Roosevelt’s famous words, a bully pulpit. President Obama is in a unique position to use that pulpit to tell the bottom 30 percent: I made this journey, and so can you, but that journey from the bottom to the top involves hard work, sacrifice and won’t provide instant gratification. It’s a speech President Obama rarely makes, but it’s one America needs to hear — government programs alone aren’t the answer.

Governor Romney (again, regardless of what you think about his politics) represents an equally honorable American tradition — the man of wealth who devotes himself to community and public service. Romney left a highly lucrative career in financial services to devote himself to the community. He certainly owes his successful career to hard work, intelligence and discipline, but he had the advantages of a stable, secure, supportive and very prominent family, all of which eased his road in life.

Governor Romney preaches self-reliance and rewards for hard work, but glosses over the fact that not every American has equal opportunities (or is equally-rewarded for their hard work). He’s in a unique position to say to the upper 1/3rd of Americans: Let’s reward success and hard work, but people born in disadvantaged circumstances need to be helped.

Romney could discuss how advantages he received — his father as role model, the stability and opportunities provided by his influential family — helped shape his commitment to public service. He could remind ‘the 1 percent’ that he (and they) have an obligation to give back to society, in return for all that society has given them. He could emphasize that, as a community, we must strive to provide equal opportunity for all Americans. Romney could recall for ‘the 1% percent’ the words of Luke 12:48: “For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required.”

But our candidates couldn’t give these speeches, even if they were inclined to do so. If President Obama ever gave his “inconvenient facts” speech, it would infuriate his base. A speech by Governor Romney about “inconvenient facts” would equally alienate his base.

About 50 years ago (in what seems like a different country), President Kennedy said, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

In the last 15 years, the United States has seen: The deadliest attack by a foreign power on the mainland United States in our history (9/11); Two difficult wars (Afghanistan, Iraq), among the longest in our history; The 2008 financial crisis, second only to the Great Depression in severity; A sharp rise in income inequality; Stagnation of American Middle Class real income, and much else. Yet, I’m hard-pressed to think of one national political leader from either party, who successfully called for shared effort and shared sacrifice from all Americans.

The distance between President Kennedy’s world and our own is a function of the disillusionment from Watergate and Vietnam; the transition from the Depression/WW II generation to the aging Baby Boomers; and structural factors that encourage political polarization (see “Six Reasons American Political Polarization Will Only Get Worse“).

But, perhaps most importantly, we should stop complaining about the lack of inspiring leaders, and look in the mirror, or as Mahatma Gandhi put it, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

A sobering thought as we come to the end of a long and painful election season.

Please remember to vote.

This piece is cross-posted from the Huffington Post with permission.

3 Responses to "In a Democracy, We Deserve the Leaders We Elect"

  1. Burk   November 5, 2012 at 5:41 pm

    What kills me about many of these platitudes is that are zero-sum. Yes, it would be great if all Americans were above average. Then we could all work for esoteric blog publications and internet startups.

    The fact is that the poor will always be with us, and we need to decide whether kicking them to the (religious, private enterprise, etc.) curb, Republican style, is the right approach, or whether giving them money and other enabling no-strings assistance is the right way, in the Democratic style. Or whether we collectively set up something more effective, which will necessarily be very meddling and non-libertarian.

  2. EEB   November 6, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    What an insipid article! Obummer became POTUS due to a confluence of circumstances, the probability of occurrence which must be somewhere south of the probability of winning the lottery. Of course, SOMEBODY has to be POTUS! As for the Mutt, he is a megalomaniac and actually believes that he is ENTITLED to every red sou of his fabulous (and largely untold) income and wealth. The Mutt worships inequality; indeed, his secret goal, if should win, is to increase all relevant GINI coefficients, all converging on 1.000. So, the Mutt could not even conceive of making such an appeal- it would be against his religion! On the other hand, the Obummer is too smart to preach the opposite because he knows that peoples' "choices" are not made in a vacuum (unlike the author of this screed).

    • Mitt   November 7, 2012 at 11:20 pm

      it truely is a shame to see how polarized our country is