Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Searching for a leader, not just a general

By Robert C. Bordone & Sara del Nido
Faculty & Staff - Robert Bordone Headshot

Prof. Robert C. Bordone

Listening to the language that most Presidential candidates have regularly been using in their speeches, it’s hard not to have a bunker mentality: battles, wars, and fights seem to be all around us.

From Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump, nearly all the current candidates have engaged in the rhetoric of war to describe their campaigns. Senator Ted Cruz provided an archetypal example of the mindset by asserting during the most recent Republican debate, “We need to stop surrendering and start standing for our principles.” Many media outlets are no better, framing such debates as fights and linking combativeness with perceived strength. The emphasis on “fighting,” “winning,” and “battles” calls to mind a combat mission or boxing match, not an election.

Everywhere we turn, it seems that our politicians are fighting for every possible cause. But against whom? And why?

Sara del Nido Budish

Sara del Nido Budish

Truth be told, it’s likely that nearly all of the Presidential candidates aspire to similar fundamental goals – economic and national security, quality education, freedom of expression – albeit with different strategies on how to achieve them. But what gets lost when these differences are persistently framed as zero-sum battles that the President must fight?

One thing surely lost is the chance to show the world all of the qualities that an American leader must embody. Militarizing political speech suggests that politicians’ only job is to wage war against their enemies – that is, those who disagree with their views. But leading a great nation requires more than battle skills. It is almost unthinkable today to imagine a presidential candidate calling for, say, more humility in Washington, as President Obama did at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. By contrast, elevating political leaders into sungod heroes – those who, through their uncompromising zeal, will defend the American people against (we are told) darker political forces – ultimately constrains politicians’ behavior and puts in peril much of our country’s potential. If our leaders approached diplomacy with our international allies and adversaries the same way as they seem to approach an election, effective negotiation would be nearly impossible.

To be clear, war talk does have a foundation in the American psyche. A President surely needs to possess the instinct to stand up for his or her own beliefs. But all too often, the battle-cry-gone-wild is a base appeal to the cynical side of a competitive streak that, when harnessed to nobler ends, could make us the envy of the world. The real leader finds a way to tap into our best selves, especially during precarious moments, so that we join in the task of achieving shared values. Mere hours after Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy spoke to a stricken crowd: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another…”

Indeed, the most memorable Presidential speeches throughout history have called on us to be generous towards one another. Consider Abraham Lincoln as he encouraged the country to heal its wounds “with malice towards none, with charity for all,” and John F. Kennedy when he urged us to, “Let us not seek the Republican or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

By stark contrast, when we hear ubiquitous talk from our candidates about readiness for battle – even at this early stage in the campaign – we can’t help but wonder if the candidates see the President’s role as anything beyond Commander-in-Chief.

To be sure, not every statement that we hear from our political leaders consists of fighting words. But regrettably, these are anomalies, rather than the norm, and calls for civility such as Jeb Bush’s on the inaugural “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” are drowned out by more vituperative language from others. Imagine a candidate framing her campaign this way:

I am running for President in order to promote the greatest values of American society. I want to listen to American families to learn about where this country is thriving and where it still needs to grow; I want to give voice to those interests that we all share; and I want to bring people together so that we can capitalize on our greatest collective strengths, and jointly solve the problems we all face.

Most politicians no doubt enter their profession because they believe in doing right by their constituencies. Unfortunately, the very words that many politicians and members of the media use reflect how far our political system has strayed from that aspiration. During the next year of campaigning before the 2016 election, let’s hold our politicians accountable for their rhetoric, their stance towards others, and their embodiment of all the qualities that an effective President needs. Encouraging the language of moving forward together, rather than battling one another, would be a good first step.