One of the factors that unites a nation is its shared values — a universal understanding about such things as what is right or wrong, legal or illegal, good or bad. These commonalities were referred to by Philip Rieff, an author of the 1960s, as “a system of moralizing demands.” According to Rieff, those leaders who live up to the moralizing demands of leadership, always a minority, are accorded the title of “statesman,” and that high honor is an accolade greatly desired. Such leaders keep the culture from disintegrating by embodying those qualities admired by the public and effectively articulating and restating those values necessary for society to be regenerated and renewed for contemporary times.
In the absence of statesmanship, society crumbles as crucial values cease to be reflected in leaders’ behavior or in governmental and institutional processes; inevitably, then, those values are also absent from the public square and are not embodied in peoples’ everyday interactions.
Sadly, statesmen are increasingly rare today, and the weakening of society’s fabric reflects the loss.
Time was, politicians were expected to rise above mere party loyalties on questions of universal import for society and especially in circumstances affecting national well-being. Obviously, a pluralistic community will always have conflicting values and differing positions on issues. Such conflicts are, at once, the price of democracy as well as a source of vitality and strength. But when division and discord reach a “tipping point,” when those qualities that produce consensus disappear, the whole of society suffers from the disintegration.
The question of the day is whether in President-elect Barack Obama we have a leader who can rise above the perpetual campaign that has characterized the presidency and plagued the nation in recent decades in order to become the statesman that America needs in these days of terrorist threats, domestic instability and financial crisis.
In the recent election campaign, the level of political discourse disintegrated shamefully as winning at all costs triumphed with increasing frequency over principled stances. We saw politicians screaming, ranting, attacking America’s foreign policies, and criticizing military decisions in the midst of a war. In the recent election campaign, we heard lies and distortions cloaked as “political spin.” Political rhetoric often disintegrated into demagoguery. Personal attacks and character assassination became routine.