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.
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.
Consider just one example of how flagrantly the duty of honesty has been violated. In what literature has called “the noble lie”, Americans have been willfully misled about not just the unsustainability but also the very nature of the Social Security and Medicare systems. “There’s plenty of money in the trust funds.” “You’re just getting back what you put in.” These are not matters of opinion or philosophy, they are arithmetic falsehoods. Repeating them constitutes willful misrepresentation of the sort that would send a leader of a public company to jail. But, more dispiriting, it assumes an impregnable incapacity of Americans to see through the fraud and figure out the math for themselves – or it assumes they have a capacity to grasp it but an incapacity to put their own interests ahead of the nation’s, and their own children’s.
The worst facet of the “noble lie” is the insistence that safety-net programs must forever cover every American, even the richest billionaire, because otherwise the necessary political support will disappear. Stop and think how cynical this view is, and how contemptuous of our fellow Americans. The idea that, if there’s “nothing in it for them”, Americans will abandon revered programs that protect their neighbors against destitution is an unwarranted insult to the most provably generous population on the planet.
True leadership incorporates a degree of selflessness. But in this stunningly affluent society – even post-recession, the poorest 5 percent of Americans are wealthier than two-thirds of the world’s population – selfless leadership will be less about accepting financial sacrifice and more about accepting psychic sacrifice. It will be require our political leaders to value results and action over philosophical purity and power.
Leadership typically requires courage. But in our debt situation, really, how much and of what kind? This isn’t Philadelphia in 1776 or London in 1940. No one is risking life, liberty or sacred honor, let alone all three. The worst that could happen is one loses an election.
It was said of Churchill that, by so relentlessly viewing his fellow Englishmen as heroic, “he transformed cowards into brave men, and so fulfilled the purpose of shining armour.” If our leaders wish to draw out the best in us, they will have to start by assuming the best about us.
Expressing and acting on this faith is, of course, an act of faith in itself. Maybe today’s Americans really will reject even trivial “sacrifice” and refuse to authorize the necessary changes to keep us from drifting over our Niagara Falls of debt. If so, we might as well find out now. If it turns out the cynics were right after all, then school’s out on our self-governance anyway.
But much more likely is that, not for the first time, Americans will surprise on the positive side of the ledger. Warren Buffett has said that it never makes sense to bet against America. I would concur, and add “or the American people.”