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.
With such rhetoric, demagoguery and personal vilification being accepted as merely “politics as usual,” is it any wonder that trust — a fundamental requirement for democracy to function effectively — is diminishing? Is it any wonder that such “leaders” fail in a basic leadership quality, that of being a symbol to the people, the personification of noble character?
Is it any wonder that such actions by the nation’s leaders fail to provide what James MacGregor Burns called “transformational leadership”?
The eyes of the world look on through 24-hour cable television coverage, and people develop an image of America and democracy from the words and actions that they observe in our political leaders. Given the politics of personal destruction that have come to characterize our political debates arcing lower and lower since the dishonest and despicable “Borking” of a distinguished American jurist merely because his opponents wanted to preserve the heinous “un-natural” right of a women to murder her infant in her womb, it is little wonder if the world and we ourselves have little respect for what is seen and heard from our so-called national leaders.
It is often said that the voters get the leaders and government they deserve. Have we become so childish, so selfish and self-absorbed as a people, that we will haplessly — no, make that joyfully — embrace politicians who are equally as selfish and self-absorbed? Are we as a people so morally bankrupt that we casually accept the Machiavellian dictum that to be a leader “you must be a great liar and a hypocrite”?
As in the days of the American Revolution and the Civil War, America has never needed real statesmen more — committed, determined, courageous souls who will embody and reinforce the universal “system of moralizing demands” that constitute a civil and thriving society. Will Americans be like the highly-educated Germans who accepted Hitler’s and Goebbels’ lies? Will we, like them, blindly embrace the lie of the “merciful death” as a means of ridding ourselves of the burden of caring for unwanted infants, the ill, the weak and the dependent, all the while hypocritically demanding that government dole out benefits to lessen our own perceived hardships?
Having sipped from the insidious cup of deceit and calling it “truth” simply because its proponents speak loudly, fervently and passionately, will we now drown all moral messages with its bitter dregs?
Let us hope — and pray — that the fires of the national crises we face will purge the soul of our new leader until he turns from telling the people what appears expedient for his political future and instead begins leading our nation according to truths spoken by the founding fathers and in so doing becomes the great statesman that the times demand.