Whether you are a fan of Grover Norquist and his libertarian gospel of anti-taxation or a believer in the Rev. Al Sharpton’s rhetoric of government oppression, one thing is clear to me, their ideologies contribute significantly to our political culture’s inability to resolve the endemic public policy challenges of our time. From entitlement reform and balancing our federal budget to immigration reform and our country’s relationship with Mexico, these archetypical leaders of this time contrast significantly with the lineage of American leaders who got us here.
Today’s New York Times has a column by David Brooks which points out the inherent paradox of today’s “question authority” culture and how it does nothing to distinguish between just and unjust authority.
In Arizona’s own political culture, we see a tremendous amount of criticism leveled at a few extremist bills in the legislature, almost none of which became law. However we see very little focus on how incredibly tough decisions were made to right the State’s fiscal ship, which was in serious jeopardy of sinking in 2009. Governor Brewer assumed control and with the help of both Republicans and Democrats, they cut a billion dollars in spending, financed a billion dollars in debt and passed, with voter approval, a billion dollars in temporary tax revenues.
So, as Brooks notes in his excerpted column below, maybe we need to relearn the art of following (not on twitter, but in life) those leaders who are exemplifying the type of leadership which created our country in the first place. Perhaps when we disagree with them from time to time, we should discipline our own rhetoric and just listen to what is actually being said, rather than reacting to what we think they are saying. If all we do is react, we will certainly be a victim to someone else’s ideology.
So here are some things that we, as the Arizona electorate, should take to heart, start listening for the candidate who doesn’t pretend to know all the answers, but listens to the voters. We ought to start looking for the candidate of character who may say things we don’t want to hear but that need to be said, start listening for the voice of a leader who wants to listen, learn, and work with Arizonan’s to solve problems. When we begin to elect leaders like that we will begin to solve some of our most vexing problems.
In a word, we should start listening for the sound of humility, not hubris. It sounds a lot more like Arizona.
Excerpt from Brooks’ Column 6/12/12:
Why can’t today’s memorial designers think straight about just authority?
Some of the reasons are well-known. We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power. Most of the stories we tell ourselves are about victims who have endured oppression, racism and cruelty.
Then there is our fervent devotion to equality, to the notion that all people are equal and deserve equal recognition and respect. It’s hard in this frame of mind to define and celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves.
But the main problem is our inability to think properly about how power should be used to bind and build. Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are about how to navigate those paradoxes.
These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those “Question Authority” bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.
The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism. The common assumption is that elites are always hiding something. Public servants are in it for themselves. Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.
You end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether. They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don’t believe in the concepts. The whole world should be like the Internet, a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.
Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following. Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.
I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.
In his memoir, “At Ease” Eisenhower delivered the following advice: “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.” Ike slowly mastered the art of leadership by becoming a superb apprentice.
To have good leaders you have to have good followers, able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it. Those skills are required for good monument building, too.