Leadership is a slippery concept. While methods vary, leaders create paths for people to work together toward common goals. In politics, we expect our leaders to fight for our interests while investigating options and creating opportunities. More than anything, however, we expect our leaders to lead.
It’s not a pretty time to be a politician. The rancor over budget discussions, health care and immigration reform have brought out the worst in all of us, whether at town hall meetings or on social media. I respect politicians for the time and sacrifices they make in the attempt to reach consensus, but our country is currently experiencing a leadership void.
We deserve better than the leadership we have, this collection of political barnacles bemoaning the problems their predecessors left them. News flash: That’s how you got elected in the first place! It’s not as if they didn’t know they were heading into stormy seas. As former Syrian slave Publilius Syrus once wrote in 43 BC, “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” (Unless you’re a slave, I guess — maybe he didn’t think that one through.)
Part of the leadership void has been the result of our country’s strict adherence to the two-party system. I’ve come to believe that party politics doesn’t benefit the average citizen. Labeling someone a Republican or Democrat has become a lazy way to compartmentalize people without having to take the time to understand their positions. Worse, it’s become a lazy politician’s way to create a platform regardless of their true ideology.
Party politics mostly favors politicians. It provides instant connection to donors and long coattails on which to ride. It also ensures that entrenched positions become the norm. Rather than the flexible thinking of individual representatives, party politics encourages a kind of group-think where voting for one’s constituency can be considered a vote against the party’s best interest.
I’m also the product of generations of American apathy: I don’t like the system, but I can’t muster any enthusiasm for actually voting for a “fringe” candidate. I’m still upset that Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy cost Al Gore the 2000 election. (I’m even more upset that I’ve now come to realize how good Al Gore would have been as president in comparison to those who got elected.) If Ross Perot is the most viable third-party candidate of the last century, we obviously have a long way to go to break this two-party stranglehold.
What we require are leaders who put ideology before party, especially when facing some of the monumentally difficult decisions before us. Both parties have noble aspirations in their platforms, but much gets lost when they close themselves off to compromise. Without a willingness to negotiate, meaningful progress is impossible. As former First Lady Rosalynn Carter once said, “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” Of course, we have to take that with a grain of salt — her husband was a one-termer.
In this period of uncertainty, here’s hoping that real leaders emerge from the din of party allegiances. The party has long been over; it’s time to get to work.