We once produced national leaders who deeply cared about the fate of our nation and its people, but not now. No longer can we depend on the leadership class being on our side. Surely no one much approves of how today’s American leadership elite does things, and for good reason.
The political class has become a privileged estate, in a nation born by throwing one out. An empty vessel of leadership, they are out of ideas. Like Great Britain then, they show disdain for the population. They lack a clear idea of our national identity. They have no fiscal anchor. Rather than watch over the dollar, they use it to starve the country. Our leaders appear to be living on borrowed time, which the public understands and they, as yet, may not.
While it’s fashionable to condemn our political elite, however, we do so at great cost. For it’s possible were we in their shoes, we could act as they do – “But for the Grace of God, go I,” right? A better approach might be to ask what made them turn out as they have, and condemn those things instead.
Made up of elements of Washington, Wall Street, and Big Media, much of the top is structurally conditioned by four elements. First, it is captive of ideology and its cobwebs of power. Ideology, or the deliberate aggregation of viewpoint, is partially blind by nature. The long ascent of the modern bureaucratic state as the specific engineer of our national life foresees no end to its perfectibility. Ironically, however, the purpose of the state has been lost in its vast growth. And the more intrusion it tries, the more complicated it seems to get anything about it right.
Second, the modern leadership class also is trapped by a treasury built around a public tax dollar to fund decision-maker dreams. Why wouldn’t many decision-makers want to tap into a gush of treasury notes to push program ambitions? They know every dollar going to the government gives it relatively more power, and the people less. By feeding the flow of power, the nation’s Treasury is a vein, which only deepens the growing separation between our leadership elite and the American people.
Third, our leaders are, of course, among our most educated Americans today. Their trappings of degrees and seats of hierarchy have spawned a tight alignment of information and authority. Beyond ideology and money, then, the tools of information have emerged as an exclusive property of the bureaucratic cost state. The result is not good. These tools breed control, and control breeds power, and power, in turn, breeds arrogance.
Creating a society where authority is carved from expertise, and fed by ideological purpose, overwhelms common senses too often. As public sentiment is pushed more and more to the margins of national debate, the self-aspirations of government steadily unify and enlarge themselves. This is why many Americans feel government has come to cohere around a giant Speech Code – and not much more.
Finally, the state has become a huge moat. Yet in its dispossession of the public, the strengthening of the bonds of the political class does in fact, strangely enough, intervene. The power of the hurt ego flies everywhere. Our politicians, agency heads, and media allies continually scheme among peers in and out of government to protect or favor pet programs, enable their funding over competing ones, or retain informational swagger. The strategies of turf rarely centralize around any public good. They actually drain the energy of our public sector.
These inhibiting burdens – ideology, money, information, and ego – eat the seed core of public service. Acting in concert, they fracture leadership. They splinter personal character, rather than build it. They divide the public domain itself. So leadership collapses right on our desks of power. And, public courage withers. Indeed today’s elite are warped, often against their will, by the system they run.
Fortunately our government in its founding elevated the individual by limiting wanton aggregations of public thought and power. The Founders knew men are not wholly responsible for the station they occupy. So the rule of law bound us from the beginning to a common citizenship heritage. It enabled our leaders to govern from duty rather than personal arrangement.
Through cultivation of exemplary individual character, responsibility, and virtue, leaders folded into a higher norm of public service. For us all, a citizen ethic was born. The ethic once carried great force; it gave, in fact, belief to law. Our complexity today is not cause, as argued, for dissolving this ethic; but for high leadership expectations again to return – and prevail.
We may be looking at the wrong problem. We shouldn’t condemn our leadership for what it can’t provide. Rather, turning our gaze, The Public Square sees our citizenship as our true national spine, and the essence of the American Dream. Holding we must look beyond the political class, the Public Square sees the citizenship ethic of our public as the future model for charting a new course for the country.
But how are we doing? While America sees brilliant pockets of citizen leadership in action every day – from our military, to first responders, to model athletes, to small business leaders – our citizen bread as a whole may need more baking first. In coming columns, The Public Square will look at America’s citizenship model. We will look at the way it defines and graces us now. And then, we will explore new layers of freedom and responsibility that one day, again, may be the chief bulwark of our defense.
During the Revolution, we fought privilege and rank. At the time, others lamented the loss of dignified obedience and false order. Today our version of a smug order has taken their place. Now this order is running its course. An ocean, however, no longer divides us. Thought, alone, does. But as Gladstone once reassuringly stated, “The resources of civilization are not yet exhausted.” We must take heart.