In this election cycle, a lot of things live in the wrong buckets. Running a campaign around ideology or policy is wrong. Assessing leadership is the electorate’s main task. The Presidential Campaign is being fueled by a lot of terrible governing assumptions. Unfortunately, there seems to be no focus on leadership.
A lot of bad manners have taken hold on the campaign trail. But at least everyone can see those for themselves. The real worry is at another level: namely, the assumptions set up as criteria for picking a leader in 2016. The most notorious of them is the frenetic need to judge presidential fitness on the twin poles of ideology and policy (or process).
We need to be true to principles, but ideology is not one. Since so many politicians are chameleons in saying what they want people to hear, candidates often benefit from trying to stand for something. Still, over time preferences and issues, once part of a core, change. Underlying principles don’t. Candidates often mix up the two.
With policy, which is a summation of a process, which by nature is itself unthinking, our doting on it amounts to freezing out true leadership. This strangles our ability to make free choices as a people. We live in a heritage of our increasingly bureaucratic state where the role of true leadership has gradually dwindled.
Over the last 50 years, our bureaucratic state has spawned mostly very talented public servants in key policy positions. They naturally cluster and coalesce as they deal across agencies they lead. Inevitably, a synchronization of authority evolves. And the web connecting this part of our officialdom has made government mostly today a universe of policy. Elected leaders, who once shaped the national government to leadership ends, now mostly thread this deadened maze, at some level undoubtedly, in doing their work.
The Public Square asks if we have carried this governing syndrome too far. While, policy needs to be grasped and understood, policy is not leadership. Policy supports leadership. If elevated as leadership, it inevitably comes to substitute for leadership in many cases, and in others virtually chokes it over time. Since policy makers are very educated, and sometimes isolated inside their single domain, the combination will often assume a role of presumptive power. Translated, we know better than you do.
Over and over in the present campaign, from commentators, journalists, and even, now, other Presidential politicians on both sides, there are regular demands to spell out sufficiently “all the policy details.” Far more than “gotcha” questions choking a candidate on stage, the insidious bearing down on policy detail chokes our public understanding. It fails the citizenry on the leadership equation it tunes in to decide.
A policy question, posed to illumine the public, is often no more than a controlling way to satisfy the thirst for enough information to rip someone apart. It’s the chicken bone of politics.
The very question causes the dialog to descend, when the public really wants to attain a clearer understanding of where a candidate will lead the country.
We have a long tradition in our nation of five word utterances saying more than 12-point policy papers. Position papers are founded on consensus. That usually means comfortable agreement, though at a single point in time only. So position papers, created with fanfare, quickly lose force. They please reader more than command focus. Any big point is typically the lost, and pure process only is extolled. Position papers by nature are false marks of leadership. They are actually a poor test for it.
The Presidency is not a policy post. The Presidents who come from the policy world have been among our most lackluster and insignificant. Think of Hoover, Johnson, and Carter. Those scoping policy well, but staying persistently above it, often gave us more panoramic levels of leadership. Think Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan.
The greatest leaders in our nation’s past have had authority, grip, and vision. George Washington might never have asked us to refrain from “entangling alliances” if he had become entangled in the partisan policy differences of Hamilton and Jefferson. Lincoln had to think about Union and “our better angels” to rise above the messy fault lines of Sectionalism. Teddy Roosevelt forged our 20th National Parks landscape and Great White Fleet for the oceans by not staying inside the battles for humane work rules as we forged a new Industrial Order.
The Public Square believes there is a resonance missing in this election cycle. The passions for ideology, policy, and process are not the chief credentials for pulling a lever. Ideology narrows. Policy files the mind down. Process numbs a listener. They lack leadership authenticity – and its breadth, lift, energy.
We need a real leader, who summarizes and informs the spirit of our times, whose instincts are authentic, who reaches beyond prevailing norms, who gives us a stout sense of American responsibility for tomorrow across our land. We need a leader who is more than a safely informed voice accommodating the conventional wisdom of a passive and defending political order and culture.
The Public Square holds none of our citizens are highly educated, and none are less educated, at such an hour in our democracy. As with those in the Middle Ages who spoke through the common ballad, the public knows its hearts and senses its needs best every four years. They are asking the America political vision to rise to the times. Our country needs to honor the deeper instincts the public is forcing the nation to confront.