When I first started what has unexpectedly become a series, I thought it’d be one and done. It turns out that there was much more to say, and there still is. But tomorrow’s election day where citizens ban together to express the community’s collective will. Or at least that’s the theory.
I believe that in this election, in this nation, at this time, we have no collective will. I believe that we will be as divided the day after the election as we are today. In short, tomorrow will resolve nothing.
My goal in writing this series was to at least recalibrate how we viewed our roles as citizens and some attributes that we should look for when determining for whom to vote. I have tried to make the case that we can ill afford searching for heroes, in large measure because we will always be disappointed. This seemingly obsessive search for heroes has blinded us to attributes of true leadership.
Leadership is always organic, arising from us. Leaders are one with the community, they extol and advance its values, they honor the community’s history while advancing its aspirations.
Leaders are inclusive, never exclusive. Leaders, true leaders, never pit one group against another merely to gain power. Not only is that approach antithetical to the basic tenants of democracy, but the demonization of one group or another as the cause for whatever problems faced by the community is the first step down a slippery slope to fascism.
Leaders say what needs to be said, and do what needs to be done. Leaders are servants to those they lead. In a democracy, our leaders must take into account the will of all those they serve. Sometimes, what leaders do and how they do it may not always appear, at first blush, to serve the best interests of the community. Compromise has become a dirty word, an epithet to diminish the decisions of a rival. In a democracy, politics is not dainty or for the faint of heart. As Finley Peter Dunne’s favorite fictional bartender once said, “Politics ain’t beanbag.”
Tomorrow, November 8, each of us has the duty to exercise our basic duty as citizens – vote. But instead of voting and then celebrating your winner, voting is just the first duty of citizenship. It is incumbent on each of us to remain engaged on November 9 and each day thereafter. As I said above, leadership is organic; it springs from the community, it extols and protects our values, and it attempts to further our aspirations for ourselves and our families.
We cannot possibly have an effective democracy if the day after the election we ignore who we elected, wait until motivated to engage in pursuit of narrow self-interests, and then recede in frustration and rage when our lone foray into the process is unsuccessful. In a democracy, citizenship at least at a minimal level is required, even if that minimal level is being informed of daily events.
In the last analysis, leaders are not heroes, they are one of us. We elevate those to higher positions of leadership, but there’s at minimum an implied contract in this process: the leader agrees to safeguard the values and aspirations of the community while protecting its residents, and the led agree to follow so long as the leader keeps her end of the bargain. If the anointed leader fails, then in a democracy we are empowered to replace that person and continue anew. And what separates our nation from most others is our long history of a peaceful and orderly transition of power. That is an essential value of our democracy.
If leaders are one of us, then by implication, to some degree we are all leaders so long as we engage in the affairs of our communities. Each of us has the power and ability to prevail on those we’ve elevated to act on behalf on our issues and concerns; mindful that we compete against others for scarce resources to advance other issues and concerns.
The process of choosing one issue over another, or compromising elements of two issues to in some way satisfy both, is not sinister or corrupt. It is a nod to the two realities that resources are not finite and that in a pluralistic democracy, each legitimate claimant receiving at least some share of those resources is in the community’s interest.
Sitting back and allowing those we elect to serve without our continued engagement in the daily process of governing is a fool’s errand. As many elected officials will admit, they often don’t know what problems exist in the community or what the community wants addressed. They often become aware when community members make them aware by letters, meetings, emails, and even Twitter.
Some of us, while not elected and have no interest in being elected to any office, still have to stand for values and issues in our community. We need to point out the errors of those officeholders we’ve elected, and motivate them to act on behalf of all of us, especially those who are underserved in our communities. The theologian and political commentator Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1929:
“It may be well for the statesman to know that statesmanship easily degenerates into opportunism and that opportunism cannot be sharply distinguished from dishonesty. But the prophet ought to realize that this higher perspective and uncompromising nature of his judgments always have a note of irresponsibility in it. Francis of Assisi may have been a better Christian than Pope Innocent III. But it may be questioned whether his moral superiority over the latter was as absolute as it seemed. Nor is there any reason to believe that Abraham Lincoln, the statesman and opportunist, was morally inferior to William Lloyd Garrison, the prophet. The moral achievement of the statesman must be judged in terms which take account of the limitations of human society which the statesman must, and the prophet need not consider.”
My take away from this quote is that we are all flawed; we advance our own agendas; that those agendas need not be exclusive of all others’; and that in order for the statesman to avoid a degeneration into dishonesty, she must be moved by those in the communities they serve. Both statesman and prophet must recognize that resources are limited, if not scarce. We must accept that, however painful, compromise is essential to the working of our communities; zero sum games, on the other hand, are nearly always death to our communities.
November 8 is not the end of an election but, rather, is a new chapter in the life of our communities and nation. We have a choice: we can either go on, behaving as we have over the past three or more decades, or we can choose another approach, one that celebrates our values, virtues, and engages with our neighbors not as enemies to be conquered but as friends with the same goals, the same concerns, the same aspirations all in the recognition that in so many ways we live in a pluralistic society. Our values, virtues, aspirations, and engagement with those with whom we disagree, the celebration of our pluralism, and our willingness to compromise are not weaknesses but instead are strengths, the strengths on which our country was built and continues to be built.
When all is said and done, we can change and embrace who we are, or we can continue this tribal political take-no-prisoners warfare that has brought this country down low. I have made my choice. My hope is that after this election, when it’s clear which direction our politics goes, we are not reminded of the what the Walt Kelly cartoon character, Pogo, said in 1971, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”