This piece is part of a leadership roundtable with Post columnist Steven Pearlstein and five expert contributors — Governor Mitch Daniels, former Senate leader Tom Daschle, Harvard professor John P. Kotter, former Congressman Slade Gorton and Wharton professor Stuart Diamond — about the leadership issues at the core of the U.S. debt debacle.
Pundits and pollsters pay close attention these days to the American people’s level of faith in their government and its leaders. Yet an even more critical factor for the nation’s future will be the reverse: the degree of faith our leaders have in the American people. We’ll see this play out in 2012, arguably the most pivotal election of modern times, and we’re seeing it play out even now with our political stalemate over the debt ceiling.
Mitch Daniels is the governor of Indiana and author of the forthcoming book “Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans”.
On one side of our national debate are leaders who have never had confidence in the average American’s ability to cope with the complexities of modern life or to choose policies that are just and humane. Leadership, as this group sees it, consists of “Benevolent Betters” making wise choices for the rest of us, lest we be victimized by predatory private interests, or just our own gullibility or incompetence. Absent their Betters’ tender ministrations, ordinary citizens are too prone to choose the wrong mortgage, the wrong health insurance, the wrong credit card, the wrong school for their child or even the wrong light bulb.
On the other side of the political divide, where I generally reside, are far too many leaders who lament the degraded character of their fellow citizens and despair of their civic ignorance, widespread dependence on public assistance, collapsing commitment to family and so on. These doubters seem convinced that the average American is either too selfish or too dense to resist plundering future generations with the most obviously unaffordable government borrowing and spending.
And yet for all their fundamental disagreements, these disputing camps share an implicit, dangerous pessimism about Americans at large: a low regard for their capacity to make sound decisions, either personal or collective. Neither side seems to recognize how demeaning their outlook is toward fellow citizens, nor how fatal the implications are for our democracy if their negative assessments are accurate. If either side is correct, then Americans are no longer fit for self-governance, and national success – maybe even survival – will depend on authoritarians of one kind or another dictating public choices to the rest of us.
Leadership in any realm begins with honesty; honesty about the challenges facing the common enterprise, and about the real – underline real – options for surmounting them. In today’s setting such honesty would include, as a partial list, leveling with Americans about the gravity and sources of our debt problem, the reality (at least prospectively) of income stagnation and inequality, the cost of mindlessly absolutist regulation, and the limits to central government’s ability to “manage” the economy.