Thursday, November 04, 2004

Democracy and Leadership

I read once about a paradox the ancients discovered with regards to political leadership. It began like this:

The good leader possesses certain virtues. I suppose today we would say that he is honest, intelligent, kind, inspiring, understanding, and so on. And in many cases, although not in all, it is because of these virtues that this leader has risen to his position of leadership in the first place. The honest, intelligent, kind, inspiring, and understanding person is someone to whom we all quite naturally turn for advice, for support, for ideas-- well, for leadership. What makes him a great leader is what made into him a leader in the first place.

But then he becomes a leader. And as a leader, to accomplish anything, he must do what he can to preserve his place. Preserving his place in turn depends ultimately on the consent of others governed by him, maybe the people, or a circle of advisors, or the nobles, or the generals, or the priests. Because he depends on these others to preserve his place, however, he becomes beholden to them. He must listen to their needs, desires, wants, and plans, and he must accede.

The paradox is this: this leader becomes beholden to those people he was suited to lead.

I am reminded of this paradox today because of the talk in the Democratic party about what went wrong. Conventional Wisdom is, John Kerry was wrong in his off-hand remark that he could just as well concede the South. He couldn't. In any case, he certainly couldn't concede the Midwest and the Mideast, by which I mean the states between Ohio and Minnesota, south to Missiouri.

Exit polling in these states shows that the majority of those who voted for Bush did so because of "moral values." (I will come to just what those are in a later post.) So CW says, now, that the Democrats are paying, particularly in the Senate, for having allied with the east coast elites and not the folks in the Midwest and the South. To ally with them, the Democrats will have to adjust their "moral values," in particular, they will have to be more vocal about the role of religious faith in their lives and in their governing.

Here is where the paradox comes in. If it turns out, as some desperate commentators have suggested, that the country is really right-wing in its morality, then will the party have to become center-right? That may be required to avoid becoming the "opposition party." But drift to the right enough, and the Democrats will begin to resemble the Democrats less and less. (I am reminded of Paul Wellstone's old quip: "I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.")

The Democrats are beholden to the electorate; if the electorate changes, then so must they in order to remain a coherent national political force. (As opposed to, say, the Greens.)

But how can the Democrats provide leadership if they must follow the electorate? What about, for instance, the center-left causes that are worth fighting for? Are we to give these up in the face of the glacial momentum of the Midwest and the South?

Some will say, "But that's the whole idea of democracy! The people hold the power. They govern the country as they see fit!" Which I immediately concede, with the quiet observation that we are a representative democracy, not a direct democracy.

But what I think the paradox shows us is a difficulty with which democracy must constantly struggle. For no one, not the strongest advocate of democracy, is, I take it, under the humble impression that "the people" are never in error, even en masse. The people are often in error, and often in error en masse. The social democrats who elected Hitler and supported him we in error, en masse. Those who opposed the franchise for women or the freeing of the slaves were in error, en masse.

To whom, then, can we turn to provide us with moral leadership, if we dare not elect leaders with "moral values" other than our own?

But how could we elect leaders with morals other than our own? Why expect people to ignore their most closely held beliefs in the polling booth? Thus the paradox.

How can the Democrats lead us? Instruction can be had from observing the Republicans, but not too much. For what everyone acknowledges the party to be skilled at is election strategy. Whether they are better at political leadership than the Democrats is much less clear.

What is clear is that if the Democrats drift too far right, they will at some indefinable point cease to be themselves. But if they refuse to drift-- say by nominating Hilary Clinton in the 2008 primaries-- they may cease to be a coherent political force on a national scale.

Leadership is required. And as always, leadership begins with a leader. Hilary certainly possesses some qualities native to great leaders like the ones with which I began. But whether she can lead the people of the Midwest and the South away from the intolerance that brought them to the polls Tuesday seems doubtful.

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