Is real political leadership still possible?
The days of Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Kennedy appear to be over
Donald Trump is perhaps the most widely condemned public figure to hit the spotlight in years and years. He has been indicted as unfit, unstable, crazy, immoral, narcissistic, greedy, cruel, racist or dangerous by all the best people — the president, ex-presidents, Republicans, politicians, generals, intellectuals, billionaires and the Pope.
Yet Trump’s campaign to be president enjoys the support of something like 40 percent of all voters, according to the polls. One wonders what level or volume of public vilification it would take to bring Trump’s support down.
There is a flip side.
From 1993 to 2015, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the most admired woman in America, except for three of those years. Hillary Clinton has topped the Gallup “Most Admired Woman” lists more times than even Eleanor Roosevelt, the runner-up.
Yet throughout the campaign, Hillary has been unpopular – more voters report an unfavorable view of her than favorable; right now, the average of polls is roughly 43 percent favorable, 53 percent unfavorable.
President Barack Obama has topped the Gallup lists every year since 2008. Yet he his approval ratings have been net negative for most of his two terms. Obama is at the high point of his second term right now, with a 51.2 approval rating and a 45.4 negative rating, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls.
These oddities of attitudes raise interesting questions about leadership and authority in early 21st century America.
First, is leadership in politics and public life even possible today, leadership of the kind we know from history and, for some, from memories – of Franklin Roosevelt and the generals of World War II or of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and even Ronald Reagan?
Second, is the American public square so polluted, so scarred by cynical graffiti, that no voice can speak with credibility and moral authority across our pluralistic fences?
I can’t feign the optimism necessary to give a gloomy column a surprisingly optimistic twist at the end. I think “no” is the answer to both questions.
Case Study #1: Obama. Obama is the most admired man in America, the first black president and a two-term president. But he has been unpopular throughout his terms and, among many demographic pods, despised. He is blamed for not meeting the great expectations the country had when he was elected, which is infantile; Obama didn’t create those expectations any more than any candidate ever has; the expectations were ours – our hopes, our aspirations.
I have often argued that Obama is the most successful two-term president since Dwight Eisenhower and we would be well served as a political community to acknowledge that. Whether you think Obamacare is smart, or disagree with what Obama has done in Syria or on immigration, it is obvious that his administration has been remarkably free of major scandal, that he has maintained the dignity and sobriety of his high office, that he is respected abroad and that he confronted with discipline and pragmatism powerful obstacles such as the Great Recession, Republican hyper-partisanship and enduring American racial prejudice.
To me, this begs the question of how any future president could be more popular or garner more moral authority than Barack Obama. The extreme polarization of Congress and the political elite, combined with the Lilliputian spell modern Omnimedia casts on all public figures, has essentially castrated leadership. That will probably change eventually, but I can’t imagine when or how.
Case Study #2: Trump. An array of Americans who would appear to possess our highest confidence and esteem has condemned Trump at a volume unheard of in modern politics. Many leaders and elders from his own party have warned the country about Trump, while others have maintained damning silence. And, yes, many top Republicans also have given Trump their qualified, backhanded, spineless support, too. Virtually no one publicly and with a straight face argues that Trump’s rhetoric, vocabulary and positions are on the spectrum of what is prudent, respectful, safe and humane in modern statesmanship.
Yet something like 40 percent of American voters back the guy and many seem like they’d rather fight than switch.
So, you ask, who might be able to speak to these ardent Trumpists with a modicum of credibility and authority? The combined Bush family? I doubt it. Billy Graham, if he had his powers back? No, white, male evangelicals worship the sinner of Trump Towers. The Duck people, Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Vladimir Putin? Maybe, but probably not.
My conclusion is not complicated: The public, political virtue we call leadership is endangered in America and perhaps in all large, industrial democracies. The macro-causes probably stem from the decline of traditional belief systems (religion, secular ethical codes), the decline of physical and spiritual communities, radically changed and expanded media and increased ethnic and racial diversity within the country.Leadership will not itself create new leadership.
But here’s the optimistic pundit twist at the end: More often than not in history, charismatic leadership has been used by demogogues and tyrants for evil, not for good. If it is charismatic leadership that Trump is peddling, we don’t want it.
American democracy can probably get by without the heroic leadership of earlier eras. We will always wish for it, but we should be satisfied with competent, intelligent stewardship of our brilliantly designed constitutional system. Especially this year.